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Organizing a Personal Essay

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May 2010
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In the last post, I defined the personal essay. In this post, I explain how to structure your personal essay. Remember that there are two types of personal essays. The first is a personal narrative in which you tell a story about an event or experience that had significant meaning to you, and resulted in a lesson that you learned. The second type is a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is of interest or importance to you.

There is no one method of structuring a personal essay. However, your essay does require a beginning, middle, and end.  After you have decided on a topic and determined what you are going to say, you can organize/structure your personal essay. Here is how:

Introduction or Lead

The introduction includes a hook that captures the reader’s attention, tells the reader what your personal essay is about, and why he/she should read your personal essay.

1. The hook: This is a sentence or more that grabs the reader’s attention.  It can be a:

  • Personal anecdote
  • Question
  • Quotation
  • Controversial statement
  • Fact or statistic

2. Your introduction also needs to introduce your personal experience or topic and how it is important to you.


If you are writing a personal narrative, the body of your essay should include several paragraphs that narrate your story. You can include the following:

  • Narrative
  • Anecdote
  • Thoughts, feelings, opinion
  • Scene building

If you are writing a personal opinion piece, your body paragraphs will explain the problems or the issue, state the facts provide evidence, and perhaps possible solutions.

Whether you write a personal narrative or a personal opinion piece, each paragraph should include:

  • A topical sentence that introduces the paragraph.
  • Support for the topical sentence. Each supporting sentence must relate to the topical sentence.
  • Transitional words between sentence and paragraphs.


Conclusion or Ending

In On Writing Well, author William Zinsser states that  “the perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right…For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when your ready to stop, stop.”

If you are writing a personal narrative, your conclusion should include the following:

  • What you learned from the experience or the personal meaning of the experience
  • A main point. It should answer the question “So what?” This makes your personal experience relevant to your reader.
  • You personal experience must provide a universal truth. That is why including the lesson that you learned or the insight you gained is important. The universal truth allows your readers to learn from your experience.

Give your readers a reason why your personal essay is relevant to his or her life by providing a universal truth. For instance, “Crime doesn’t pay.”

If you are writing a personal opinion piece, your conclusion can include your recommendations, judgment, prediction, warning, final opinion or final thought. The key is to leave your reader with one final point to ponder.

Zinsser writes in On Writing Well: “It takes just a few sentences to wrap things up. Ideally they should encapsulate the idea of the piece and concludes with a sentence that jolts us with its fitness or unexpectedness.”

In summary, your personal essay must begin with a hook that inspires your readers to read your essay, and you must introduce your topic. In the middle, tell your story or provide support for your views on a topic. You can expand on your personal essay with evidence, action, dialogue, scene-building, and so forth. In your conclusion, you reveal the lesson that you learned from the experience or make your final, important point. Throughout the personal essay, you weave your theme.

In the next post, I will explain the techniques for writing a personal essay.

1 Comment

  1. barnyarn says:

    Today I finally identified the genre that I naturally write as personal essay. It’s reassuring (and harder than you might think) to find a structure for personal essay writing to look to for guidance. This article is exactly what I need, right now. Thank you for it.

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