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Writing Short Fiction: Voice and Writing Style

July 31 2013

Dave Hood

The writer’s voice is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing short fiction, including education, socialization, values, beliefs, religion, opinions, and life experiences. The writer’s writing style is part of voice. This writing style is what makes a writer authentic, original, different from other writers. It is what readers hear when they read the short story. The writer’s voice is their “public persona,” which is revealed on the page. The most important features of writing style are word choice or diction, sentence patterns, literary techniques, and tone.

One of the popular writing styles of fiction is the minimalist style. It was a style popularized by Ernest Hemingway, and also endorsed by Raymond Carver. This style focuses on the belief that “less is more.” Writers use short paragraphs, short sentences, write with the active voice, and use action verbs and concrete verbs. The writer omits or deletes every detail that is not essential to the writing. Subtext plays a strong role in this style of fiction.

You can develop your fiction writing style by reading and analyzing short fiction, and then incorporating the techniques of other writers into your own fiction.

(Note: You will also use these same guidelines and techniques to write poetry, personal essays, and other types of creative nonfiction.)

In this article, I’ll discuss writing style as it applies to fiction writing.  The following will be covered:

  • How to identify the author’s writing style.
  • Define Hemingway’s minimalist style.
  • Suggest a writing style to use for writing fiction.
  • Learning to write lyrical prose.
  • Developing your own writing style.

Analyzing Short Fiction

The writer’s style of writing is expressed through word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery, the types of sentences or syntax , as well as the choice of fictional techniques.

The best short fiction writers use everyday language in a fresh and original way.  They also avoid using avoid clichés and jargon. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a word that has powerful meaning.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of sentence patterns, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences, sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of literary techniques, such as flashback, suspense, dialogue, showing and telling, and interior monologue.

The best short fiction writers also use the poetic devices of poetry, including simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and allusion. Some writers use similes and metaphors infrequently, such as Carver and Hemingway. Other writers use them a great deal.

The best short fiction writers use a tone that is conversational and respectful. Tone refers to the writer’s attitude to his/her subject and view of the audience. Never use a condescending tone. Learn to write fiction by reading short stories as a writer. Analyze how the writer used the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices to constructed the short story. As you read, answer these questions:

  1. How does the writer begin the short story? With conflict? With setting description? With dialogue? With action? With a memorable event?
  2. How does the writer develop the setting? What is the time and place of the story? Is it real or fantasy? Does the setting create a mood? Is the setting the antagonist? Does the setting provide a backdrop for the story?
  3. A short story must include conflict, turning point, and resolution. Identify the conflict, turning point, and resolution of the story.
  4. Which point of view does the writer use?
  5. What is the theme? How does the writer reveal theme to the reader?
  6. Where does the writer use scene and summary? What are the features of each scene?
  7. where is there dialogue in the story?  How does the writer use dialogue? What conventions are used?
  8. What fictional techniques does the writer use? What poetic devices does the writer use?
  9. What is the writing style of the writer? Does the writer use simple or fancy words? Does the writer use simple sentences , compound sentences, or fragments?
  10. How does the writer end the story? Does it include an epiphany? Lesson learned? Is the ending open, closed, or a summary?

One of the popular writing styles of short fiction is minimalism, popularized by Ernest Hemingway. He wrote minimalist short fiction. Years later, short story writer Raymond Carver also embraced this style of storytelling. Minimalist short fiction has these attributes:

  • Concrete nouns and action verbs
  • Few adverbs and adjectives
  • Short sentences
  • Short paragraphs
  • Short words and everyday language, as well as familiar instead of fancy words.
  • Minimal character and setting description
  • Minimal background details
  • Very little use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, personification
  • Insufficient resolution or ending to the story

Popular Fiction Writing Style

To write short fiction, develop a writing style that includes:

  • Concrete nouns
  • Action verbs
  • Active voice
  • Sentence variety
  • Figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, personification, allusion
  • Lyrical prose, using alliteration, assonance, repetition, parallel structure

Develop a writing style that is friendly and conversational. Learn to show and tell readers. Use sensory detail, language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. As well, read and master the advice in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Learning to Writer Lyrical Prose

Author Constance Hale, in “Sin and Syntax,” explains how you can learn to write literary prose. There are found components: voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm.

Voice

The writer must consider the literary meaning and implied meaning of words, as well as avoid using clichés and jargon. The writer should also use a variety of sentence patterns, such as a fragment, simple, and compound sentences.

Lyricism

The writer can create prose that sound musical by using the following:

  • Imagery-Use of sensory details.
  • Metaphor-Making a comparison between unlike things, without using “like” or “as.”
  • Simile-Making a comparison between unlike things, using “like” or “as.”
  • Personification. Describing things and objects and ideas by using human attributes. Example: The bible preaches its wisdom to anyone who takes the time.
  • Description. Using concrete, significant, and particular description. Example: He pressed the shutter on his black Nikon, full-frame camera, using a wide-angle lens, capturing a fleeting moment in time, a man being shot by police, for all the world to see.
  • Repetition. Repeating words and phrases in a sentence or sentences that are close to each other.

Example:

Streets and highway filled with an avalanche of snow. The plows bulldoze it away. Icicles hang from the eaves like a work of installation art. Cars stuck, spinning their wheels. The Maple leaf, stands, watches, as the neighborhood shovels. Kids frolic, build snow forts, toboggan down hills of snow in the park behind the school. The storm has interrupted daily routines and rituals.

Melody

The writer can create prose that have a melody by using the poetic devices of:

  • Assonance-Positioning two or more words with the same vowel sounds close together in a sentence.
  • Alliteration- Positing two or more words with the same initial consonant sounds in a sentence.
  • Internal rhyme Selecting words that rhyme and using them in the middle of a sentence.
  • Onomatopoeia -Using words that sound what they describe. Example: The fire crackled.

Rhythm

The writer should strive to create sentences that have rhythm. It refers to pattern, pace, repetition, and parallel structure of a sentence. A simple way to create rhythm is to count the stressed syllables in a sentence. The writer can slow down the pace with long sentences, and speed up the pace with short sentence. Create rhythm in your prose by developing sentences with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Learn to use repetition and parallel structure. Example: He smoked, drank, womanized, and died one day, lounging on the beach in the sunshine with a smile. ( Slow pace)

Developing Your Writing Style

Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several ways. The most important advice I have read was written by Elizabeth Berg, the author of “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.” She suggests that you can develop your writing voice by putting down on to paper the words you are hearing in your mind. In other words, be yourself as you write. Use your own words, and don’t imagine you are someone else as you write. Write honestly—share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, impressions, stories that are important to you. And share them by using your own language–how you speak. She also suggests that you should not write about what you know but that you should write about what you love, what you are passionate about.

Next, you should write often and regularly. Start by keeping a journal. Write everyday in this journal, recording observations, interesting quotations, memorable lyrics, overheard conversation, lines of poetry. Write poetry, anecdotes, short, short essays. Try using the technique of stream of consciousness. Write by freewriting. Record “small, fleeting moments.”Ask a question to yourself, and then write an answer. Include interesting photograph, news stories, advice columns. Write about your emotional truth—how you felt about something. In your journal, you can write about anything. Journal writing helps you develop the habit of writing and your writing skills. It can also be a place where you record “possible ideas” for a poem, short story, and personal essay.

Also, learn all about writing style. The best and easiest book to read is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It provides the rules and guidelines of a good writing style. If you intend to write essays or other creative nonfiction, you should also read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Both of these books are classics, are used in university and college writing courses, and are recommended by most writers. Every writer should have copies of these inexpensive paperbacks on their bookshelf for reference. As well, read Constance Hale’s “Sin and Syntax.”

Next, read short stories to learn how the writer constructed the story. If you are not sure, read “How to Read Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.

Fourthly, make sure you understand the rules and guidelines of grammar, such as for use of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and more. If you don’t know these rules or guidelines, pick up a copy of “Woe Is I:The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor. Another great book that presents grammar in with a humorous tone is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I also recommend “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn the rules of punctuation. How to use the comma, exclamation mark, question mark, quotation marks, semi colon, colon. Essentially, you must memorize the rules. To learn the rules of punctuation, I suggest you read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn to the major types of sentence patterns and then to write poetry, short fiction, and personal essays. The syntax of a sentence is an important feature of the writer’s voice. To develop your own voice, learn to write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences. Learn when to use a sentence fragment and how to write using parallel construction. Learn how to use items in a series. Learn how to write both periodic or cumulative sentences. Where can you go for advice?

Language choices contribute to writer style. Therefore, you should own a dictionary and thesaurus. Use them for enjoyment and to improve your language skills. Develop your language skills by looking up the meaning of words you don’t understand in a dictionary. Find the precise word by checking your thesaurus, which includes synonyms. To expand your vocabulary, begin learning a word a day. Use the words you learn in your writing. Don’t write to impress. Instead, use language to express yourself, to communicate meaning, to entertain, to share important ideas, knowledge, and wisdom with your audience.

If you aspire to become a creative writer, learn how to write imaginatively. Imaginative writing involves learning how to show and tell the reader, writing vivid descriptions of sensory imagery–language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. It involves using literary devices of simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, and other devices that you find in fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction. There are countless books on the market that you can purchase. For a good overview on how to write creatively and imaginatively, I suggest you purchase “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” by writer/instructor Janet Burroway. It’s a superb text that will help you.

Another way to develop your voice is to share emotional truth in your writing. It means telling others how you feel. For instance, if you lost your job–tell your readers how it felt. If you were diagnosed with a serious disease, share your thoughts and feelings with your readers. If you split up with a girlfriend or marital partner, tell the audience how you felt by expressing the emotional truth. Keep in mind that two people can have different emotional views on a situation. And so , there is no right or wrong “emotional truth.” Emotional truth has to do with how you felt about a person, about an experience , about an event.

It takes time to develop your writing voice, providing you write on a regular basis. Many writing instructors suggest you keep a journal and experiment in it. In part, developing your voice is an unconscious effort–you learn by reading and writing, without making a conscious effort. In part, you can make a conscious decision to develop your voice. For instance, you can learn to read like a writer. You can learn grammar, spelling, punctuation. You can experiment with language and sentence variety. You can make a conscious choice about what sort of tone to use. The easiest way to develop your voice is to “put down on paper” what is on your mind.

Your writing voice is what a reader hears when they read your words. Your writing voice is your “public persona,” which is expressed in your writing. It is revealed in the language that you use, the types of sentences that you use, and your tone–your attitude toward the reader and the topic or idea you are writing about.

Additional Reading

To learn more about how to develop your developing and polishing your writer’s voice, read the following superb books:

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
  • The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
  • The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
  • Woe is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
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Adding Humor to Your Creative Nonfiction

By Dave Hood

Much of creative nonfiction is serious. Writers craft essays about depressing or controversial topics, illness, disease, war, famine, gun control, murder, child abuse, rape, and more. And yet,
many creative nonfiction writers use the techniques of humour to write interesting personal essays and entertaining memoirs. Jeanette Walls, author of the memoir, “The Glass Castle,” shares humorous anecdotes about her life growing up, even though the story is disheartening. David Sedaris, author of many bestselling books, writes self-depreciating humour in the form of anecdote about his personal life and family. Mary Karr’s, “Lit: A Memoir,” includes several humorous parts. For instance, she writes, “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” (Page 97/Lit)

Most magazines and newspapers and popular Internet sites of creative nonfiction include humour columns, or articles, or essays. For instance, regularly, The New Yorker magazine publishes essays that have a humorous tone. In The New Yorker’s anthology of “Humour, Disquiet Please, ” writer Ian Frazier uses exaggeration in his essay “Thin Enough.” He writes: “After four or five glasses of wine, I am able to overcome my usual food-finickiness and eat half a crock-pot of whatever my wife has made for dinner, and then a couple of baskets of leftover Easter candy. (Page 234).” People enjoy reading a good story, when the writer combines humour and an appealing writing style.

In this chapter, I’ll discuss how to use humour in creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:
• Power of humour
• Humour versus comedy
• Techniques of humour
• Suggestions for using humor

The Power of Humour

In his bestselling book, “On Writing Well,” author William Zinsser, writes that “humour is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.” It is often the best tool and only tool for making an important point. (Page 206) Usually, the writer uses humor in nonfiction to make a serious point and also to generate a laugh or amusement. The writer must find the right humour technique or techniques to disguise his/her serious point. Read the books by David Sedaris, a humorist writer, who uses exaggeration to make a serious point. Writers also use many other types of humour techniques, satire, irony, satire, exaggeration, joke, truth, and more.

And yet, the writer doesn’t always write humour to make a serious point. Sometimes the writer only desires to share a funny story with readers, with the intention of generating a comic effect. Sometimes writers use nonsense to make readers laugh. Frequently, all that is required of the writer is to exaggerate the truth. Sometimes the truth is funny, especially when the writer uses absurd facts or ludicrous quotations by people. The humorist writer must be an active observer, noticing amusing incidents, events, fleeting moments, funny conversations and people, making mental notes of sensory details that are amusing or funny.

Zinsser, in the text “On Writing Well,” provides some useful advice to writers who aspire to write humorous prose. First, the writer should never strain for laughs. Instead, the writer should focus on surprising the reader. Secondly, the writer should write about the truth, real people, places, events, experiences, not make things up. Thirdly, before writing humour, the writer must learn to write well, using familiar rather than unfamiliar words, proper grammar, sentence variety, a humorous tone, different paragraph types. (To help you write better, read and master “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, and “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale)

Writers should use the techniques of humour subtly, and not overuse humour, especially when it is directed at real people. Otherwise readers will see the humour as an attack. Writers must also be aware that humour is subjective. Not all readers will laugh at the same things. And so, the writer should focus on first writing the story, including the facts, and then adding humour. Humour should be secondary to a good story that is well written.

Humorists are the rogues and mavericks of creative nonfiction. They often write what some people don’t want to hear. They often write what the collective consciousness is thinking but afraid to discuss publically. Yet people want to read the stories of humorists. Good humour writing makes readers laugh.

Humour Versus Comedy Writing

What are the similarities and differences between humour and comedy writing? The terms “humour and “comedy” are often used interchangeably. Both terms have elements in common. Both are also different.

Similarities
Humour writing and comedy writing are often based on truth. Both frequently use the same humour devices, such as irony, satire, exaggeration. Both use the anecdote and storytelling. Both use the joke, which requires a setup and punch-line. Both use wordplay and the one-liner. Both tend to write about subject matter that is funny. Both writers write about serious topics, with the intention of making them funny. The intention of both is to create a comic effect.

Differences
Despite the similarities, comedy writing and humour writing are different in certain respects.
Usually, the humorist writes an essay or article or filler that is amusing or funny. The humorist’s material is intended to be read. Most humour writing is done for print publications, such as newspapers, magazines, or books. On the other hand, most comedy writing is done for TV sitcoms, comedy films, comedy sketches, and stand-up comedy. The comedy writer writes material to get laughs, usually in front of a viewing audience. Comedy writers are best known for writing material for situation comedies, comedy films, stand-up comics, and sketch comedy. Most comedy writing is intended to entertain by provoking laughter, while most humour writing is more subtle and cerebral, intending to amuse, inform, educate, and persuade the audience to change its opinion. The humorist won’t use profanity or shock humour, which is popular in comedy, especially by the stand-up comic.
Unlike the comedy writer, humour writing can take the form of “filler.” This filler can be a joke, quote, or short anecdote that is used to fill space at the end of a column or page. There is no formula for filler.

Techniques of Humour

Writers use humour to make a serious point and to evoke amusement or laughter in the reader. Unfortunately, humour is subjective. One person will laugh at the writer’s humour, while another person won’t find the joke or parody or exaggeration funny. To make their point and generate a comic effect, writers use several techniques of humour, including:

  1.  Satire. The writer mocks another person’s mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
  2.  Incongruity. The writer juxtaposes two different things not normally associated with each other. The incongruity of speech, character, behavior, or situation can result in a comic effect. For instance, the exterior of a mansion might be awe-inspiring, but the interior is like a home owned by a hoarder. A man might be dressed like a model in GQ magazine, but talk as if he’s uneducated.
  3.  Irony. A figure of speech. There are several types, including verbal irony and situational irony. Verbal irony is writing that means something other than its literal meaning, with the intention of creating a comic effect. Sometimes, irony can be misconstrued as sarcasm by the reader. Irony is not sarcasm. Sarcasm means what is intended, while irony is a trope in which the intended meaning of words is different than the literal meaning. Situational irony occurs when the expected outcome is different than the actual outcome. Many true stories involve situational irony. For instance, the groom goes to the church, expecting to get married, but the bride-to-be runs from the church at the last moment.
  4.  Exaggeration. Writers can use overstatement, embellishing what they hear and see and experience, to generate laughs. When using exaggeration, writers focus on exaggerating the attributes of a person, place, thing, event, experience, and so forth.
  5. Understatement. The writer makes a situation seem less important as it really is.
  6.  Self-deprecation. Writers mock their own mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
  7. Anecdote. A short and amusing story about a person or incident.
  8. Nonsense. Sometimes writers use the technique of nonsense to write a humorous piece. This technique defies logic. It is an unrealistic representation, intended to amuse or stir a laugh.
  9. Truth. Sometimes absurd facts and ludicrous quotations by people can be humorous.
  10.  Parody. Occasionally, the writer imitates the artistic work of another writer or artist, mocking artistic style, the author, or topic, intending to generate a comic effect, such as amusement or laughter.
  11. Joke. Sometimes writers incorporate jokes into their writing. The joke includes a set-up and punch-line. The set-up provides the premise and background. The punch-line is the line that generates a laugh or amusement. When telling a joke within a personal narrative, the writer must use the element of surprise. The writer should not notify the reader that a joke is coming. Example: “Here’s a joke..” This type of humour technique should be incorporated into the essay or memoir.

To study and learn from the humorist writers, read “Disquiet Please,” an anthology of personal essays by some of the best writers of humour, published by The New Yorker magazine.

A Few Suggestions

If you’d like to write humor, follow these suggestions:

  1.  Don’t be mean-spirited or sarcastic. Instead evoke amusement or laughter with subtle humour, such as exaggeration.
  2. Observe the world in which you live, searching for humour events, incidents, people. Read the newspaper and watch television to unearth humour. Look at your own life for a humorous story. If an experience seems funny to you, write about it. Write about what makes you laugh, and so become an observer. This means you must be aware of the world around you, paying attention to the sensory details of each day. Make not of what you find humorous. Jot down a few notes in your journal.
  3.  Use the techniques of humour to write a humorous personal essay, including exaggeration, satire, juxtaposition, irony, anecdote, and so forth. However, humour should be secondary to narrating a good personal essay.
  4.  Write about humorous people who have passed in and out your life. Ask yourself: What makes them funny? Write the story or anecdote.
  5. Read the columns or books of humor writers, including David Sedaris. He often uses anecdotes to tell amusing stories about himself and family. By reading and analyzing humour writing, you will learn how to write it.
  6. Always focus on collecting the facts, and then writing the humorous essay.
  7. Use humorous figures of speech to amuse, such as similes and metaphors.
  8.  Mine your memory for humorous stories. What are some of most amusing moments in your life? Why are they remembered? What is the significance? What is funny or amusing?
  9. Never make racial or religious slurs.
  10.  Sometimes truth can be funny. Consider incorporating ludicrous facts and absurd quotations by people you didn’t expect would say such things.

To write humour, you must learn the techniques of humor, such as exaggeration, satire, incongruity. Start by reading humorous writing by Mark Twain, Stephan Leacock, David Sedaris, and The New Yorker. Read their essays once for enjoyment, and then reread them to learn how these writers crafted their humorous essay. Focus on structure, writing style, techniques, and tone. Practise using the techniques of humor by writing in your journal, and by using the techniques of humor to write your own personal essays. Instead of forcing humour into the story, become an active observer, and notice humour unfolding each day, then write a story, based factual truth.

Additional Reading

For more information on using humour in creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Writing Creative Nonfiction, Edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerald
• Naked by David Sedaris
• When Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
• Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
• Disquiet Please: More Humour Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder
• Comedy Writing by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Organizing a Personal Essay

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.

Body

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.

What is a 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.