6 Steps to Writing the Perfect Personal Essay

Personal essays are easy once you know how!

It is the first day of a new school year and your teacher has just assigned a personal essay. They have good reasons for this assignment—personal or narrative essays allow teachers to assess your grasp of language, composition, and creativity.

If you don't know where to start or feel overwhelmed by the open-ended prompt, this list is here to help you navigate the process from beginning to end. Writing about yourself is easy to do when you keep the key ingredients of a great essay in mind.

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Find Inspiration and Ideas

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You can't begin a personal essay without a topic. If you are stuck on what to write about, look to some of these sources of inspiration:

  • Consult lists of ideas to get your brain thinking about the possibilities of your essay. Remember that a personal essay is autobiographical, so do not write about anything untrue.
  • Try writing a stream of consciousness. To do this, start writing whatever is on your mind and don't stop or leave anything out. Even if ideas aren't connected to each other whatsoever, a stream of consciousness gets everything in your brain on paper and often contains many ideas.
  • Do a little research. Browsing through whatever interests you can really get the creative juices flowing and lead to small self-reflections. Grab onto any of these that you think you might want to write about.

Don't be afraid to ask your teacher what they are looking for. If you still aren't sure what to write about, go to your teacher for suggestions or a more specific prompt.

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Understand the Composition of an Essay

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Before you start writing, remind yourself of basic essay composition. Almost all essays are made up of three parts: an introduction, a body of information, and a conclusion. The five-paragraph essay is a common iteration of this and it contains an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph. Use an outline, or general essay plan, to jot down your ideas before writing.

Introduction: Start your personal essay with a hook, or an interesting sentence that grabs your readers' attention and makes them want to read more. Select a topic that you know you can write an interesting essay about. Once you have a compelling topic, decide on the main idea you want to communicate and use it to capture your readers' interest in the first sentence.

After the hook, use the introductory paragraph to briefly outline the subject of your essay. Your readers should have a clear understanding of the direction of the rest of your piece from the introduction.

Body: The body of your essay is made up of one or more paragraphs that inform your readers about your topic, each paragraph accomplishing this in a unique way.

The structure of a paragraph resembles the structure of an essay. A paragraph contains an attention-grabbing topic sentence, several sentences elaborating on the point of the paragraph, and a conclusion sentence or two that summarizes the main idea. The conclusion sentence of a paragraph should also be used to transition into the next paragraph by smoothly introducing the next topic without going into too much detail.

Each paragraph should have its own idea that is closely related to the topic of the whole essay but elaborates on the main idea in a new way. It is important that topics flow logically from one to the next so that your essay is easy to follow. If your paragraphs are not related to each other or the main idea, your essay may be choppy and incoherent. Keeping your sentences concise also helps with clarity. Feel free to break a large paragraph up into two separate paragraphs if the topic changes or goes on for too long.

Conclusion: Close your essay with a final paragraph that summarizes the points you have made and states the takeaways. When writing personal essays, conclusion paragraphs are where you talk about the lessons you learned, ways that you changed as a result of your subject, or any other insights that were gained from your experience. In short: restate the ideas from the introduction in a new way and wrap up your essay.

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Use Appropriate Voice for Essay and Verbs

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In English grammar, there are many elements of writing that determine the quality of your work and voice is one of the most important. There are two types of voice: the author's voice and the voice of verbs.

Author's Voice

One of the things your teacher will be looking for when reading your personal essay is the use of voice in your essay, which is your own personal style of telling a story. They will be looking for features of your writing that make it unique, analyze the pacing of your essay, and determine how you establish your authority.

Because personal essays are works of nonfiction, your voice must be reliable. Other than that, you are free to play around with the delivery of your essay. Decide how formal or casual you want to be, how you want to keep the attention of your readers, how you would like your readers to feel when reading your essay, and how you would like your story to come across as a whole.

Voice of Verbs

Don't be confused—verbs have their own voice that is entirely separate from the author's voice. The active voice occurs when the subject of your sentence is performing the action or verb and the passive voice occurs when the subject is receiving the action.

The subject is italicized in the following examples.

Passive: An essay was assigned by Ms. Peterson.

Active: Ms. Peterson assigned a personal essay about summer vacation.

Generally, the active voice is most appropriate for personal essays as it is more effective at progressing a story forward. Using verbs in the active voice also tends to come across as more authoritative.

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Be Consistent With Point of View and Tense

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Personal essays are about yourself, so it is important that your point of view and tense be consistent with this. Personal essays are almost always written in first person tense, using the pronouns I, we, and us to tell what happened. Readers need to know what something was like from your perspective.

Remember that you can only speak to your own thoughts and feelings in first person tense unless you know for sure what another person was thinking or feeling and can quote them.

Personal essays are also written in the past tense because they describe something that happened to you, not something that is happening or will happen. You cannot speak confidently about experiences that have not happened or are still happening because you have not yet learned from them. Teachers will probably want you to write a personal essay to reflect on a real experience that taught you something.

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Use Your Own Vocabulary

Just as you shouldn't lie when writing personal essays, you also shouldn't waver. Your choice of vocabulary can help you establish and maintain themes throughout your essay. Every word matters.

Your goal when writing a personal essay should be authenticity and you need to choose your vocabulary accordingly. Use the words that naturally come to mind when you are writing and don't try to be something that you are not. Your language should fit the topic and guide readers to interpret your writing in a certain way.

Here are some examples of how to choose the right words.

  • When you are making a statement of opinion or fact, use powerful words that make your ideas clear. For example, say, "I ran like my life depended on it," rather than, "I ran pretty fast."
  • If you are trying to communicate uncertainty that you felt during an experience, use words that convey these feelings. "I questioned whether or not it was a good idea," rather than, "I didn't know what would happen."
  • Use positive language. Write about what did happen or what is rather than what did not happen or what is not. "I left room for dessert after dinner," instead of, "I hated dinner and couldn't even finish it."

Always be as descriptive as possible and incorporate all of your senses into your writing. Write about how something looked, sounded, felt, smelled, or tasted to help your readers imagine the experience for themselves. Use adjectives that support what you have described but do not use them to do the work of describing for you.

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Edit, Edit, Edit

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English grammar is tough even for native English speakers. Brush up on grammar rules before writing and revisit your work when you are finished to ensure that you have written an essay that you can be proud of.

No matter what you write, one of the most important parts of the writing process is editing. It is good practice to give yourself some space from your essay just after finishing it before you dive into editing because this can help you analyze your writing more objectively. A second opinion is always helpful too.

When editing, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is the grammar/sentence structure of your essay correct?
  • Is your essay well-organized and easy to follow? Does it flow?
  • Is your writing on topic throughout the essay?
  • Will your readers be able to picture what you have described?
  • Did you make your point?