When you're learning how to write a personal essay, it's normal to feel overwhelmed. Here, we'll break down everything you need to know about essay writing.
If you're worried about writing a personal essay, you're not alone. Many people have a hard time writing in essay format, especially regarding a topic that elicits an emotional response.
A good personal essay may share a deeper truth, describe a profound life experience, tell a striking personal story, or describe relationships with family members in a relatable way.
Whether you're a seasoned essayist or in high school and writing an essay thesis statement for the first time, following a few simple steps can help you grab your reader's attention. With practice, you can hammer home your main points, and share a personal experience in an enjoyable way for readers.
1. Choose Your Essay Topic
A personal essay is a type of creative nonfiction writing that shares a personal, profound life experience. Often told in first-person style, a personal essay relays a sequence of events with deep meaning.
Before beginning your personal essay, you'll need to brainstorm a list of personal essay topics. Think about parts of your life that had a large impact on your current view of the world. Events that seemed small at the moment may have largely informed your life view. As your brainstorm, try not to judge yourself — freely jotting down all of your ideas will help you begin to craft your real-life piece of writing.
Narrow down your subject matter options and choose a topic from your list. Hang onto your list for another time — you may want to return to it later in life when it's time to write a college admissions essay (check out these fantastic college admissions essays).
Learn more about what is a personal essay
2. Create A Personal Essay Outline
Your narrative essay outline will guide your writing, making it easier for you to create a well-organized piece of writing that makes sense for your target audience. A good personal essay outline should contain several sections, including an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction must draw the reader into a story. The first sentence should grab your reader's attention and give them a reason to continue reading, even if they disagree with you.
This example from a Cornell applicant does a great job at making the reader want to learn more:
My face brightened as morning commuters passed by and took flyers from my hand. As they turned the corner, they carelessly tossed the flyers away. My brows furrowed. Is this what I woke up at seven in the morning for? To hand out flyers to indifferent strangers who won’t give the time of day, nevertheless a second glance? I was just a background character, a boy handing out flyers in the scene of a lively street. I was a mannequin, easily passed by unnoticed.
Throughout the rest of the introduction, work to breadcrumb your story (drop hints about exciting points to come). Try to hit on one point in each body paragraph. Longer isn't necessarily better—try to eliminate fluff from your essay. Your goal is to keep your reader engaged in your story from start to finish.
Need help? Check out this list of essay writing tips
3. Write Your First Draft
After you've completed your outline, it's time to start fleshing out your work with a first draft. Try not to worry too much about writing in active voice versus passive voice, or about perfecting the mechanics of your grammar.
Your first draft is all about getting your thoughts on the paper, and you'll have plenty of time to proofread and revise later.
As you write your first draft, you may find that you need to adjust your outline—and that's ok. Writing a college essay or other personal narrative isn't usually linear. During the initial writing phases, share your experiences or point of view honestly. If you're struggling, start small. Write the first sentence of each paragraph and fill in your first draft from there.
For your conclusion, be sure to tie your story together and hammer home your main point. Take a look at this personal essay conclusion from an essayist exploring her feelings about her cultural heritage:
I can now appreciate the value of my unique culture and background, and of living with less. This perspective offers room for progress, community integration, and a future worth fighting for. My time with Assemblyman Sepulveda’s office taught me that I can be a change agent in enabling this progression. Far from being ashamed of my community, I want to someday return to local politics in the Bronx to continue helping others access the American Dream. I hope to help my community appreciate the opportunity to make progress together. By embracing reality, I learned to live it. Along the way, I discovered one thing: life is good, but we can make it better.
Check out our guide to writing a first draft.
4. Revie and Revise Your Essay Draft
If time permits, take a day or two away from writing before you begin the process of editing and proofreading your first draft. Taking a step back will allow you to gain some distance from your piece of writing, and can allow you to see what you've written with fresh eyes.
First, read over your draft and pay attention to how your personal narrative essay flows from one point to the next. Don't worry about formatting or voice yet—simply make sure your introductory paragraph flows easily into your body paragraphs and that your final body paragraph flows easily into your essay's conclusion.
Read our guide to the best essay checkers
5. Format Your Essay
Once you have your story straight, it's time to ensure that your essay is reader-friendly. Be sure you're meeting any specified formatting requirements (for example, if you're writing a college essay, you may need to use certain margins or spacing). You'll also want to take some time to go over the mechanics of your essay, working to write in active voice over passive voice, as well as working to eliminate any grammatical errors.
In short, read or ask for the style guide for wherever you're submitting the essay in question. Common style guides include APA, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Havard style guide.
Check out our guide to style guide templates.
6. Seek Feedback
It's tough sharing personal writing with someone else, but doing so can help you dramatically improve the quality of an essay. So, ask a trusted friend or family member to take a look at your essay and give you honest feedback on how you can make it even better. Ask them to provide critical feedback and suggest areas for improvement. Alternative, why not find a beta reader?
The Final Word On How To Write a Personal Essay
The process of writing a personal essay can feel daunting, but breaking it down into steps can make it a little bit easier. Take your time, and remember, if you're sharing your personal story and deep truths, you're doing it right. Once you've written a personal essay, publish it online, submit it to a competition or a journal. Don't let it sit in your drawer.
If still need help writing an essay, in this interview, Pam Munter explains the art of personal essay writing.
FAQs on How To Write a Personal Essay
What topics are acceptable for a personal essay?
For a personal essay, any topic that examines an important life experience or a learned deep truth is an excellent jumping-off point.
How long should a personal essay outline be?
An outline can be anything from a few words to a few sentences. If it gives you an idea of where your essay is headed and helps to guide your first draft, you're on the right track
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