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Writing a Personal Essay

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Writing a Personal Essay by Andrea Chu - Getty Images

Writing a Personal Essay

Andrea Chu - Getty Images
Don't be surprised if writing a personal essay is one of the first assignments you get upon returning to school. You know, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." Be prepared. Personal essays are actually one of the easiest assignments, but like all other kinds of writing, there are specific aspects of the essay form your teacher will be looking for. Like not ending a sentence in a preposition. The personal essay is helpful to teachers because it gives them a snapshot right up front of your grasp of language, composition, and voice.

Be sure to check out: How to Write an Essay in 5 Steps

Difficulty: Average
Time Required: Depends on the length of the essay and the research involved.

Here's How:

  1. Language. Adults have told me that one of the things that stresses them out the most about going back to school is worrying about their grammar. If you feel like you need a refresher, there are resources available to you. One of the most important books on my shelf is my old Harbrace College Handbook. The pages are yellow, stained with coffee, and well read. If it’s been a long while since you opened a grammar book, get one. And then use it.

  2. Language is more than grammar. Your teacher will be looking for use of the active voice, specific descriptions, and consistent tense. The active voice tells your reader exactly who is doing what. Compare the difference:

    Passive: An essay was assigned.

    Active: Ms. Meyer assigned a personal essay the first day.

    5 English Grammar Tips

  3. Be specific with your descriptions. Personal essays are your unique view of the topic. Use your senses. Compare the difference:

    Boring: My first assignment made me nervous.

    Descriptive: As soon as Ms. Meyer assigned our first essay, my stomach fluttered, my hands starting sweating, and everything in the room around me seemed to stop.

  4. Use the same tense and the same point of view. Personal essays are written in the first person because they’re, well, personal. When you write in the first person, you are speaking for yourself only. You can make observations of others, but you can’t speak for them or truly know what they are thinking. Most personal essays are also written in the past tense. You are relating something that happened to you or the way you feel about something by giving examples.

  5. Remember that positive language is always more effective than negative. This is true of life in general, not just writing. Your brain does not hear negatives. If you say, “Don’t forget to write a good thesis statement,” your brain hears, “Forget the thesis statement.” Remember to write one. Remember your umbrella. Remember that you can master going back to school.

  6. Composition. The simplest structure of a composition has three parts: an introduction, a body of information, and a conclusion.

    Introduction. Start your personal essay with an interesting sentence that hooks your readers. You want them to be interested in reading more. You have already thought of a compelling topic. Now decide on the main idea you want to communicate about that topic and introduce it with a bang.

    Example: Don’t be surprised if writing a personal essay is one of the first assignments you get upon returning to school. Be prepared.

  7. The next part of your introduction is your thesis statement (the main idea you want to communicate), and a hint about what your essay will cover.

    Example: The personal essay is helpful to teachers because it gives them a snapshot right up front of your grasp on language, composition, and voice.

  8. Body. The body of your essay consists of several paragraphs that inform your readers about the points you mentioned in your introduction. In this essay, the body is telling you about the importance of language, composition, and voice. A paragraph or two about each point is all you need.

    An outline can be helpful before you begin if you're the kind of person who likes working from outlines. I prefer to make a simple list of the points I want to make, rearrange them in the most logical order, and then fill in the relevant information.

  9. A word about paragraphs: paragraphs often have the same structure as the entire essay. They begin with a sentence that introduces the point and draws the reader in. The middle sentences of the paragraph provide information about the point, and a concluding sentence drives home your view and leads to the next point.

    Each new idea is a signal to start a new paragraph. Each paragraph should be a logical progression from the previous idea and lead to the next idea or the conclusion.

    Keep your paragraphs relatively short. Ten lines is a good rule. If you write concisely, you can say a lot in ten lines.

  10. Conclusion. Close your essay with a final paragraph that summarizes the points you have made and states your final opinion. This is where you offer insights or lessons learned, or share how you were, or will be, changed because of your approach to the topic. The best conclusions are tied to the opening paragraph.

    Example: With a little preparation and thought, the personal essay can be a fun, easy way to show your teachers exactly how much you know about language, composition, and voice. Jump in and give it your best shot. You’re in school to learn after all, and your essay will help your teacher help you.

  11. Voice. Personal essays are casual and full of feeling. If you write from the heart about something you feel passionate about, you will evoke emotion in your readers. When you show readers exactly how you feel about something, they can usually relate, and that’s when you’ve made an impact, whether it’s on a teacher or anybody else. Be firm about your opinion, your feelings, your views. Avoid weak words such as should, would, and could.

    Use the voice that comes most naturally to you. Use your own vocabulary. When you honor your own voice, your writing comes off as authentic, and it doesn’t get any better than that.

  12. No matter what you write, one of the most important parts of the writing process is editing. Let your essay sit for a day, at the very least for several hours, and then read it with your readers in mind. Is your point clear? Is your grammar correct? Is the structure of your composition logical? Is your voice natural? Are there unnecessary words you can eliminate?

  13. With a little preparation and thought, the personal essay can be a fun, easy way to show your teachers exactly how much you know about language, composition, and voice. Jump in and give it your best shot. You’re in school to learn after all, and your essay will help your teacher help you.

Tips:

  1. Get a good grammar book. Here are two possibilities:

    The Harbrace College Handbook (now out of print but available used) Compare Prices

    The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation Compare Prices

  2. If you have trouble with writer's block, try writing stream of consciousness. Open a blank document or get a fresh piece of paper. Write whatever comes into your mind, without stopping, until you've got three pages. Remember not to stop, even if you have to write that you don't know what to say next.

    Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist's Way calls this technique Morning Pages and suggests you practice it every morning upon waking.

    What happens is that you get out of your own way and let your subconscious mind express itself. You will amazed by what comes out of you. Try it. You'll like it.

    The Artist's Way Compare Prices

  3. Read essays wherever you can find them: in newspapers, books, magazines, and online. Notice the structure. Pay attention to how the end ties back to the beginning. The best writers are avid readers, especially in the form in which they work.
  4. Hire an essay editing service. Choose carefully. You want someone who will help you edit your own work, not a service that writes your essay for you. Essay Edge is a good choice. EssayEdge.com
  5. Relax. It's just an essay. The personal essay, especially, is an expression of you and your feelings and opinions. You're unique without even trying. Speak from your heart and you'll do just fine.

What You Need

  • A topic. Choose something you're passionate about.
  • A thesis statement. Decide what it is about your topic you want to communicate.
  • A grammar book? If you need one, get one. You'll use it again and again.
  • A first reader to be your proofreader. Ask someone you trust to read your essay.

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