Three Characteristics Of A Good Personal Essay

“For more than four hundred years, the personal essay has been one of the richest and most vibrant of all literary forms.” (The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate.) The personal essay is also one of the most popular forms of creative nonfiction. A personal essay can be based on a personal experience that results in a lesson that you learn. A personal essay can also be a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is important to you. This article defines the personal essay.

Personal Essay versus a Formal Essay

The personal essay is different than a formal essay. In the personal essay, the writer writes about experience without having to prove the point. The author needs only to introduce the subject and theme. It is based on feeling, emotion, personal opinion, and personal experience. It is autobiographical. On the other hand, in the formal essay, the writer states the thesis, and then attempts to prove or support his point with facts—to provide proof. To do this, the author must do research.

Definition of the Personal Essay

A personal essay is either a personal narrative in which the author writes about a personal incident or experience that provided significant personal meaning or a lesson learned, or it is a personal opinion about some topic or issue that is important to the writer.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Narrative

A personal narrative has the following elements:

  • It is based on a personal experience in which you have gained significant meaning, insight, or learned a lesson. It can also be based on a milestone or life-altering event.
  • It is personal narrative. The writer tells the story by including dialogue, imagery, characterization, conflict, plot, and setting.
  • It is written in the first person. (“I” point-of-view)
  • It is an autobiographical story in which the writer describes an incident that resulted in some personal growth or development.
  • A personal essay is a glimpse of the writer’s life. The writer describes the personal experience using the scene-building technique, weaves a theme throughout the narrative, and makes an important point. There must be a lesson or meaning. The writer cannot just write an interesting story.
  • It does not have to be objective. However, the writer must express his/her feelings, thoughts, and emotions.
  • The writer uses self-disclosure and is honest with his/her readers.
  • The writer writes about a real life experience. The incident or experience must have occurred. The writer must use fact and truth.
  • The writer must dramatize the story by using the scene building technique. A scene includes setting/location, intimate details, concrete and specific descriptions, action, and often dialogue.

The Personal Essay as a Personal Opinion

A personal essay can also be an opinion piece, an opinion that is based on a particular political or social concern or topic of interest. In this type of personal essay, the writer can states the problem, provide solutions, and then write a conclusion—which must state an important point. Whatever the writer discusses, the topic is of interest to the writer. The writer frequently seeks to explain the truth or reality has he/she views it. Sometimes the writer ponders a question. Other times the writer explores a topic from his own perspective. The writer must not lecture, sermonize, or moralize. In other words, the writer must present his/her opinion in such a way that allows the readers decide for themselves.

In Writing Life Stories, author Bill Roorbach provides an excellent definition of the personal essay, one that is based on a personal opinion. He states that the personal essay that is based on a personal opinion has these attributes:

  • A personal essay is a conversation with your readers.
  • The personal essay is an informed mixture of storytelling, facts, wisdom, and personality.
  • The personal essay examines a subject outside of yourself, but through the lens of self.
  • The subject of the personal essay may be the self, but the self is treated as evidence for the argument.
  • Passages of narrative often appear but generally get used as evidence in the inductive argument.
  • The personal essay strives to say what is evident, and to come to a conclusion that the reader may agree or disagree.
  • A personal essay can wonder through its subject, circle around it, get the long view and the short, always providing experience, knowledge, book learning, and personal history.

It should also be noted that a personal essay doesn’t need to be objective. It can be purely subjective. You don’t have to prove a point or show both sides of the argument. But you must express your own personal feelings, thoughts, and opinions on a topic or issue in a logical manner.

Subjects for the Personal Essay

Your subject can be about anything that you are passionate about. You can write about a “turning point” in your life, or a milestone, or adversity, such as death, illness, divorce. The subject you choose must have provided you with significant personal meaning or a lesson that you have learned. But, keep in mind, you are not just reflecting or remembering, you are going to make a point, some universal truth that your readers can appreciate. Otherwise, your story is just a story. So, write about the following:

  • Personal experience
  • Incident
  • Anecdote
  • Topic
  • Issue
  • A memory

Your subject can also be a personal opinion on an issue or concern that is important to you, such as the garbage strike, crime, or unemployment.

How to Choose a Topic

Choose a topic in are interested in and passionate about, and that resulted in a lesson that you learned or personal meaning. Here is how:

  • Your writing needs to be a process of inquiry. So answer the 5-Ws: Who? What? When? Where? Why?
  • Brainstorm your topic. Create a list of topics. Then create subtopics.
  • Mind map your topic. For more information on mindmapping, search the Internet. This is a popular form of creative thinking.
  • Narrow your topic. Instead of writing about global warming, you can narrow your topic by writing about “going green” or “how you should recycle in your home”.
  • Think of a milestone, or something memorable, or a turning point in your life. What were your impressions? What did you learn? What meaning came from the personal experience?
  • Be sure that your topic has a universal theme—such as hard work, love, death, bravery, wisdom.
  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.

Make the Most of Life Experiences

  • Your goal is to make others laugh, learn, hope, empathize, sympathize with what you have written. Your readers must be able to identify with what you have written.
  • If something happened to you that was interesting, humorous, sad, and so forth, you can write about it.
  • Write about personal experiences that have taught you a lesson.
  • Include your opinions, point of view, feelings and thoughts.
  • Be truthful and honest. In other words, state the facts and evidence.

Resources for Writing Personal Essays

There are some fantastic books available to help you learn to write a personal essay. Here are the books I recommend:

  •  Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoir, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
  • Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
  • The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lapote

The personal essay has loose structure and conversational tone. It is usually written in the first person. The writer uses self-disclosure, honesty, and truth. The writer can write about any subject, topic, or personal experience. But the personal essay must have a universal theme and conclude with a major point. Otherwise, the reader says, “So what?” It was a nice story, but so what is the point?

In the next post, I will explain how to structure/organize your personal essay and what to include.

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By Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Personal Essay on .

No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”

If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.

Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.

Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.

(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.)

Here’s what I ask my tutoring students to help them start corralling their defining qualities—especially when many of them have no idea what I’m talking about at first:

“If your mom or dad were talking to a friend or relative who didn’t know you well and asked what you were all about now that you were all grown up, how would they describe you to that person?

What are some of the words or phrases they might use to sum you up?”

If you think about it, you can almost hear them, I bet: “Well, Sarah, she’s still very driven, and hard-working, and focused.”

Or “Oh Sam, he’s still a free spirit, and creative and imaginative, and he’s also very social and outgoing.”

or “Mike, he’s our problem solver, very logical, but he’s also so humble and generous.”

I’m not saying that your parents are always right about you, but in general, they have a pretty decent idea of what makes you tick.

Of course, include qualities that you think you have, or ask some of your friends. You don’t need a long list; anywhere between three to five solid qualities are plenty.

Once you find a quality or characteristic, you just need to think of a real-life story (called an anecdote) from your past that illustrates that descriptor—and you are well on your way to writing an effective essay!

Another trick when digging for your personal quality or characteristic is to try to focus them as much as possible.

For example, if you say you are “social,” try to think of qualities that are even more specific to exactly how you are social.

Are you open, talkative, friendly, funny, easy to talk to, accepting, empathetic, flirty, etc.

If you say you are smart, you need to be more specific.

Narrow it down; specifically how are you smart?: insightful, observant, logical, analytical, fast learner, critical thinker, problem solver, etc.

One more tip: If you’re among the students who already have a subject path in mind for your college, such as engineering or medicine or law, it doesn’t hurt to identify what qualities you have that would make you effective in that field.

But if you are like most students, and still have no clue, don’t worry about lining up your qualities with any goal other than finding those that are true to who you are.

When flaws are good: Although most of your defining qualities or characteristics will be viewed as attributes or strengths, it doesn’t hurt if you have one in there that could be viewed as a flaw or weakness.

Don’t overlook those. They can be very powerful when writing college admissions essays or personal statements.

Make sure those more negative qualities have an up side for you.

For example, if you have a stubborn streak, that could make you a persistent person (future lawyer? haha).

Also, sometimes, if we have a weakness, you have developed another quality to help compensate for it.

Flaws are fine as long as you can turn them around and show how they make you even more effective at being who you are.

If you are like some of my students who freeze up or go blank when I put them on the spot and ask them to jot down their “defining qualities,” I know it always helps to have a list to get you started.

These are all one-word descriptors, but you can also include short phrases:

Able, Accepting, Accurate, Achieving, Adaptable, Adorable, Adventurous, Affectionate, Alert, Alive, Altruistic, Amazing, Ambitious, Analytical, Appreciative, Appealing, Artistic, Assertive, Astonishing, Attentive, Attractive, Authentic, Aware, Awesome, Balanced, Beautiful, Blissful, Blooming, Bold, Bountiful, Brave, Breath-Taking, Bright, Calm, Capable, Careful, Carefree, Caring, Cautious, Centered, Certain, Charitable, Charming, Cheeky, Cheerful, Chirpy, Civic-Minded, Clean, Colorful, Competitive, Clear-Thinking, Communicative, Compassionate, Compatible, Competitive, Complete, Confident, Conscientious, Considerate, Conservative, Consistent, Content, Co-operative, Courageous, Conscientious, Courteous, Creative, Cuddly, Curious, Cultural, Cute, Decisive, Deliberate, Delicate, Delicious, Delightful, Dependable, Desirable, Determined, Devoted, Disciplined, Discrete, Discriminating, Dynamic, Easy-Going, Eager, Efficient, Elegant, Empathetic, Enduring, Energetic, Enlightened, Enthusiastic, Entrepreneurial,  Excellent, Exciting, Experienced, Fair-Minded, Faithful, Farsighted, Fast-learner, Feeling, Fierce, Flexible, Flourishing, Focused, Forgiving, Fortuitous, Free, Fresh, Friendly, Frugal, Funny, Generous, Gentle, Good, Glorious, Graceful, Gratuitous, Great, Groovy, Handsome, Happy, Harmonious, Healthy, Heavenly, Helpful, Holistic, Hopeful, Humble, Humorous, Honest, Humble, Idealistic, Imaginative, Having Integrity, Independent, Individualistic, Industrious, Innovative, Insightful, Inspirational, Interesting, Intelligent, Intense, Intuitive, Inventive, Invigorating, Joyful, Juicy, Just, Kind, Leading or Leader, Learned, Loving, Loyal, Lucky, Luscious, Luxurious, Macho, Magical, Manly, Magnificent, Masculine, Mature, Moral, Motivating, Natural, Neat, Needed, Noticeable, Nurturing, Obedient, Objective, Open, Optimistic, Original, Organized, Outgoing, Outstanding, Passionate, Patient, Peaceful, Perceptive, Persevering, Persistent, Persuasive, Playful, Poetic, Polite, Popular, Powerful, Practical, Precious, Precise, Profound, Progressive, Proud, Professional, Punctual, Pure, Purposeful, Questioning, Quick-witted, Ravishing, Realistic, Refreshing, Reliable, Resilient, Resourceful, Respectful, Responsible, Rich, Romantic, Rosy, Seductive, Selfless, Self-Aware, Self-Confident, Self-Disciplined, Sensitive, Serene, Sexy, Sharp, Simple, Sincere, Sizzling, Skilled, Smart, Smooth, Soft, Special, Spectacular, Spiritual, Splendid, Spontaneous, Stable, Steadfast, Strategic, Stunning, Strong, Strongwilled, Stylish, Successful, Supportive, Supreme, Sympathetic, Tactful, Talented, Tasty, Tenacious, Tender, Terrific, Thinking, Thorough, Thoughtful, Thrifty, Thriving, Tolerant, Tough, Trusting, Trustworthy, Unassuming, Understanding, Unwavering, Uplifting, Useful, Valuable, Verbal, Vibrant, Vital, Warm, Wholesome, Willing, Wise, Worthy, Youthful, Yummy.

Once you have your personal collection of defining qualities, you are armed to write a college essay that reveals your true character.

In most essays, you will typically focus on one main quality at at time, otherwise they will end up too general and not as powerful.

If you are starting an essay, read the prompt closely and see if it is trying to get you to share your core qualities.

Sometimes a prompt will ask you to write about someone other than yourself–a role model, leader or mentor in your life.

In these essays, the trick is to identify the qualities they demonstrated and what you learned from them.

Here’s my Jumpstart Guide to help you start most college application essays or personal statements, such as those that ask you to describe an experience, talent, accomplishment, achievement, dilemma, risk, etc. (It’s perfect for any of the Common App prompts as well as the UC prompts.)

Also, any prompt that asks you to show how something has influenced you–whether it’s a person, an issue or even a fictional character–you can’t go wrong by linking that influence to your defining qualities.

Once you have a defining quality you want to write about, all you need are some examples of how you developed, refined or applied that quality, and then why it was important to yourself, to someone else and/or to the world, and BOOM, you have a great college essay!

Want to know the best way to relate an example of your defining qualities in your essays?

Read about how to write an anecdote to show the reader about your defining/core quality. Usually one of the best ways to share your defining quality is to tell a story about it.

RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One

In How to Tell a Story, you will learn how to show your defining quality instead of just tell about it.

 

 

 

 

 

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