The Personal Essay

Illustration of Picasso sitting in a chair
Illustration, "Picasso," by Deanna Santo, Danville High School, YWP archive

Nina Lam, a former YWP intern, had this to say about personal essays:

"Personal essays seem pretty cool in theory – you get to write informally about yourself and why you're special or about the cool experiences you've had. Seems like something we should all love, doesn't it? Seems like it should be easy, right? But the reality is that sitting down and trying to come up with something interesting to say about yourself can be very hard."

Here are some tips and brainstorming ideas:

What is the personal essay? A piece of writing that focuses on an insight, realization or belief about life that is significant to the writer. It should include narrative, that is a story about a significant event – this is what draws the reader in – and it can include memoir, that is discussion of a significant relationship between the writer and an object, person or place.

A personal essay should tell the reader something about you – who you are, what you believe and what some of your attributes are. It should show your voice, personality and attitude. And it should entertain, meaning, that the reader actually wants to finish it. And it should have a basic structure: Introduction > Main Body > Conclusion. And, while there are different schools of thought, YWP recommends that the personal essay reflects your individual voice, your less formal, more conversational style of writing. Although more informal, your writing should still be tight, well-edited, and well-paced, respecting rules of grammar and avoiding slang and cliches. And remember: It is important that there is a point to what you say.

Some basic characteristics of a personal essay:

  • Communicates the significance of a central idea or insight that has a deep personal meaning to you
  • The purpose is more reflective, although the tone may sound persuasive
  • The piece is based upon the writer’s personal experiences or anecdotes
  • Written in first person; more conversational or entertaining in style
  • It's subjective in tone
  • It rarely has documentation though often an anecdote establishes proof or change
  • More informal in tone, language, and subject matter

Some hints:

  • Use specific, sensory detail to bring your narrative alive
  • Avoid being preachy
  • Cut out what is not necessary – be firm in your edits and revision by asking, "Do I really need that, or can the reader figure that out?"
  • Read your draft aloud and fix what doesn't sound like you or which ties your tongue in knots
  • Minimize adjectives
  • Be excited about your idea and point; if you aren't, you can't expect your reader to be.
  • Keep to your point; make sure any tangential idea, story adds to the point
  • Write short and tight
  • Make the first sentence, paragraph captivating
  • Try to write your final draft in one sitting; don't be afraid to re-write from the beginning
  • Seek out some feedback

Idea development:

Get an idea you can get excited about. Think of an audience for your work. Who might be interested in your story? (For those applying for college or a scholarship, you know you have an audience. But what about writing a personal essay about something that happened to you or something that you care about for the local media? Or a community website?) Here are some challenges designed to generate ideas. Do as many as it takes before you find an idea that excites you. Remember, your point is to focus on something that changed you, something that gave you insight and purpose.

Quick brainstorming challenges:

 (Try giving yourself just three minutes for each challenge – a minute to think and two to write.)

  • Memorable moments: List every memorable moment that you can think of – accidents, joys, sports victories, recitals, surprises, humiliations. Pick one and write a story about it, starting at the most dramatic moment (start later than you think you should) and ending sooner than you think you should. 
  • Your roles: List every role you have in your life – brother or sister, son or daughter, friend, poet, student, actor, soccer player, worker, video game player. Write about the role that most feels like you. 
  • Objects: List the objects that are most important in your life. Pick one and write about it. Why is it important? How does it define you? How did you get it?
  • Promises: All of us have been in a situation where we were unable to keep a promise we made. Write about it. Or write about when you were disappointed because someone broke a promise to you. How did you overcome it?
  • Judging: Have you ever judged someone or something too quickly –maybe by their clothes or looks – only to discover that the person was much better than you thought or the event/task was much more rewarding than you thought? Write about it.
  • Practicing: The writer Kurt Vonnegut gave this advice: Practice becoming. What skills are you trying most to develop? Why? What do you want to become? Why?
  • Challenges: What challenge or problem have you faced and overcome? Everyone has problems or challenges to overcome.
  • Mistakes: When did you forgive someone because they made a mistake that may have had an impact on you? Tell the story. When did someone forgive you for your mistake? What did you learn?

From the YWP resource archive by Geoff Gevalt, YWP founder