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The Personal Essay by Goshen College

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The following material was taken from the Goshen College website ( and was created 4/29/1998 by Beth Martin Birky ( and accessed 1/15/2007:

Expository Writing

Personal Essay Assignment

A personal essay reveals something about you or your understanding of (or questions about) life in a significant moment. You may want to share an emotion or insight with the reader, or you may want to provoke the reader to think more carefully about an issue which does not have any easy answers. You need to refer to your own personal experience(s) but should move beyond your own frame of reference to consider how your experience might relate to your audience. Avoid preaching at the reader but let your actions, the narrative, or your questions push the reader to some sort of insight. Personal essays rarely have a thesis statement although many have a sentence somewhere in the essay that clarifies what you learned, or the question that you ask, or some tentative conclusions you offer.

Criteria to Consider

The personal essay generally contains some or all of the following elements: a personal experience; self revelation; a specific anecdote or story presented through narration (conflict, point of view, plot, suspense, resolution, characterization, dialogue); vivid description; context or background information; an indirect "thesis" or central purpose/focus.

As a form of narration, the personal essay requires a degree of fictionalizing the experience in order to convey meaning rather than recount events. We all enjoy the storyteller who creates an experience for us rather than the person who rambles indiscriminately over every last detail. To narrate is to lend structure to lived or imagined experience; a narrator, therefore, imposes order and meaning according to subjective point of view, motive, and context, etc. Be selective about the details to include and contemplate the best point at which to begin your essay to engage audience interest. Consider presenting background information through flashback. Whenever possible show rather than tell what is significant.

Topics to Consider (with my personal ideas in parenthesis)

  1. An event that caused you to rethink a major belief or attitude (My adolescent concern for whether my non-Christian friends will go to hell).
  2. Any "first," such as when you first realized that you had a special skill, ambition, or problem; when you first felt needed or rejected (Older friend patiently taught me to water ski).
  3. Any memorably difficult situation: when you had to make a tough choice, when someone you admired let you down (or you let someone else down), when you struggled to learn or understand something, when things did not turn out as expected (for good or bad). (Talk with professor at University of Chicago after not being accepted).
  4. Any humorous event, one you still laugh about, perhaps one that seemed awkward or embarrassing at the time ("Buying" a T.V. on our honeymoon).
  5. Your experience with a social convention which everyone accepts but never discusses or questions (Going to the prom).
  6. Your personal relationship to a natural, historical, or technological event (Sixth-grade mock election between Nixon and McGovern).

Preliminary Work

Before you begin writing, READ. Read through the essays in The Norton Sampler, Exposition 18, and other personal essays handed out in class. The personal essay genre has inspired many marvelous essayists (Scott Russell Sanders, Annie Dillard, etc.). Then, REFLECT. Consider for yourself what it means for you to write. Explore your significant experiences or questions through conversations and journaling. Brainstorm. Free write. Try out several ideas before choosing one. If you need further help, work through any of the activities below that seem useful.

  1. Assess your Topic:
    • Can you recall specific details about the action, scene, and people?
    • Will you be able to tell what happened from beginning to end?
    • As a fragment of your life story, does this event reveal anything important about you?
    • Will you feel comfortable writing about it?
    • Will the topic arouse readers' curiosity and interest?
  2. Collect Information
    • Begin to recall sensory details: the specific sights, sounds, and smells of the story you want to tell. Imagine the event as a videotape and use the invention techniques of listing and free-writing to recall as many details as possible.
    • Next, list the people that were involved, their appearance, actions and words. Spend about five minutes writing about each person involved.
    • Try to recreate conversations. These obviously will not be word-for-word recollections, but try to make the dialogue as authentic as possible, reflecting the personality of the persons speaking.
    • Try to remember your feelings during the event and immediately thereafter. Spend about ten minutes jotting down notes about your response, using these questions to stimulate your memory: What was my first response to the event? What did I think, feel, do? How did I show my feelings? What did I want those present to think of me, and why? What did I think of myself at the time?
    • To help define the event's significance, think about your present perspective on the event. Write for ten minutes on your current feelings and thoughts.
  3. Consider Structure
    • Outline events in chronological order. Indicate which events are most important.
    • Consider your readers, the beginning, climax, and ending of your essay before you begin writing. The opening should immediately capture your readers' interest. The story can be told chronologically or in flashback form and should build up tension to the climax of the event. The ending can continue the story, be reflective, refer to the beginning, or jolt the reader.

From Goshen College


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