Personal Narrative Essay

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College Comp/Creative Writing


Personal Narrative Essay

Reflecting to Make Sense of One’s Experience

As we read through some creative non-fiction in this course, you will be required to write a five-page narrative essay, a true story that develops an explicit or implicit argument around a singular focus. In other words, you should be able to summarize what, specifically, it that you are trying to say about your experience—your insight into our shared human condition—in the five-page essay in a single sentence abstract, i.e. “[Your Essay] is about [your focusing idea].”

While providing a detailed personal account of some memorable incident, reflect upon that event in a way that leads your intended audience to understand your argument. Your narrative should introduce and resolve a single conflict.

Ideally, the incident should cover only a period of time (perhaps five minutes, a half hour, perhaps one afternoon, or perhaps it unfolds over a few months, a season, a year) and should work through scenes to establish a detailed setting and landscape. You are not telling your life story. Start your narration in the middle of the action, or in medias res, developing an engaging hook or opening scene that entices the reader to continue. You may offer necessary background information or exposition as your narration unfolds.

Make deliberate choices about diction, syntax, tone, imagery, and detail, as carefully selected style choices can help to strengthen your argument. Follow the additional criteria on the attached rubric.

A well-written narrative might employ the following:

• Your argument should be unstated but implied and arrive a satisfying conclusion.

• Your argument should go AGAINST conventional wisdom

• Your argument should take bold risks with structure and push yourself toward the discovery of the truth.

The Enduring Understandings This Assignment (and the Unit) Should Cultivate:

• Personal narrative writing can lead to formation of identity.

• Personal narrative writing can lead to recognition of identity.

• Reflection on experience challenges our beliefs about who we are.

• Reading about other people’s experience can cause us to reflect on our own identities.

• One writer’s particular narrative can relate to more universal human experience.

• Examining incidents from multiple perspectives can provide more powerful insights than seeing them from a single perspective.

• The formation of identity is fluid yet constant

• All written documents, no matter how objective, have a human element to them that lead to bias.

• Writers use tone, diction, imagery, detail, syntax, and organization to depict an experience that communicates some universal truth about life.

A “Top Thirteen” List of Instructions for Writing a LOUSY Narrative-Descriptive Essay:

13. Have birds and squirrels show up at just the right moment to teach people an invaluable lesson.

12. Attempt to prove a thesis that everyone already believes or choose an argument that you’ve heard before.

11. Use elevated language, borrowed from a thesaurus, that doesn’t sound like you at all in order to make the essay sound stilted or to make you sound super- smart.

10. Provide insufficient background (where? when? who? why?) for the story to make sense so that you know what you’re writing about but your audience has no idea.

9. Tack on epiphanies (realizations) that seem “forced” at the end of the essay.

8. Don’t use transitions between parts of the essay or between paragraphs.

7. Use weird personification. (“My training wheels had watched us for two weeks on end.”)

6. Plagiarize a line from Virginia Woolf.

5. Use a phony tone. (“Oh! How many new blockbuster hits had come out!”)

4. Don’t give it a title, plagiarize the title, or title your essay “Essay.”

3. Use metaphors that don’t work. (“The city that I call my brain was in mass hysteria.”)

2. Use stock or cliché phrases that have been used so often they’ve lost their meaning.

• “The words felt like a knife going through me.”

• “Put one foot in front of the other.”

• “I felt on top of the world.”

• “My brain was spinning.”

• “If you love him, let him go.”

• “Nothing gold can stay.”

• “A heavy weight on my shoulders…”

• “The challenges that crossed our paths…”

• “I decided to broaden my horizons…”

1. Use silly exaggeration that serves no purpose but to ruin your credibility as a writer.

• “It felt like something huge inside of me instantly died.”

• “She pounced on the long division problem with much ferociousness, bolting down that monster.”

• “A flood of tears began streaming down my face.”

• “My jaw dropped in awe.”

• “This was a nightmare of the worst kind—the kind known as reality.”

• “An idea struck me with great ferocity.”

• “It seemed like the horror of the black plague had returned.” (It was a break-up.)

• “The sky continued to weep as I spoke of my pain.” (Still a break-up.)

• “I noticed the glorious sight of such a beautiful summer day.”

• “I had never been so shaken up in my entire existence.”

A Note on Choosing Topics

You are free to write about anything that interests you as long as it is written in good taste. I will not accept anything that is racist, sexist, homophobic or mean-spirited in tone and intent. I will provide you with a list of narrative prompts, but that is exactly what they are: Questions and suggestions meant to prompt you toward a deeper understanding of yourself and your world.

There are also topics that are fallbacks for a lot of high school and college students. I call these The Big Three. I am not saying that you can’t choose one of these topics; however, be aware that you will need to be conscientious of the pratfalls of cliché and work a little harder to make your essay original and unpredictable.
Here are The Big Three:

  • The Big Game. It is final out/final second of championship game, and you’re at bat/on the free throw line/on the goal line/dribbling down the field, knowing that the team, the school, the community at-large is counting on you to come through in the clutch. Remember, we often learn more from our failures than our successes, and this topics may work in the final minutes of a Hollywood film but not necessarily as well in creative non-fiction.

  • Death Be Not Proud. Death and how we learn to cope with its ubiquitous presence in our life and to move forward and live a productive life in the wake of its inevitability is a great topic to explore; however, the death of your dog/cat/bird/iguana/distant Aunt Betty who lives in Idaho and you met once when you were too young to remember tends to trivialize it. We’re going to read a couple of essays where death lingers throughout in ways that makes us re-examine our own ideas about it or confront the things we choose to ignore. That’s good writing!

  • The Greatest Love of All. I understand that you and your ex loved with a love unlike any old love that this world has ever known; however, the break-up essay can be really tiresome unless you have a way of making it unique. If your essays ends with the line—“Although I will always love Darren, I now understand that we could never be together”—we have big problems. Tread carefully with love stories/poems/essays. It’s not that I’m an ornery old man who hates seeing people happy, rather, I’m a guy who really despises clichés.

At the end of this unit, you will pass in a portfolio containing your final essay and the copious revisions (see attached sheet on the difference between revision and editing) as well as a thoughtful self-reflection on the process. This assignment is designed to be creative—hence, creative non-fiction—so have fun with it, take chances, and learn something about yourself in the process.

Grammar and Mechanics Mistakes Common to Beginning Writers

  1. Writing it all in one long paragraph.

  2. Not titling your essay appropriately, or worse yet, naming it “essay” or “descriptive essay.”

  3. Not using a comma after a dependent clause that begins a sentence and/or before a dependent clause that ends a loose sentence.

  4. Not using a comma with a conjunction to join independent clauses.

  5. Using a comma where a semi-colon should be.

  6. Not avoiding trite/hackneyed/overused/stock phrases.

  7. Switching tenses back and forth from past to present.

  8. Using verb construction that is not parallel.

  9. Not using commas to set off appositive phrases and adjectival clauses.

  10. Missing semi-colons

  11. Misused personal pronouns (me/I, he/him)

  12. No use of the dash when needed.

  13. Not using had correctly in the past imperfect tense.

  14. Not avoiding passive voice.

  15. Using commas where they don’t belong.

  16. Mixing up there/their/they’re

  17. Misuse of apostrophes

  18. Dangling modifiers

  19. Avoiding mixed metaphors

  20. Leaving the main verb out of a sentence entirely

  21. Not using commas in a series

  22. Run on sentences

  23. Semi-colons where they do not belong

  24. Lack of antecedent/pronoun agreement

  25. Sentences without subjects

  26. Fragments

  27. Joining all dependent clauses into one “sentence”

  28. Misusing the word “hopefully”



Add significant detail.

Fix grammar mistakes

Clarify ideas, provide more evidence, and develop commentary that clearly explains the link between the selected evidence, claim, and thesis.

Fix spelling mistakes


Respond only to what teacher has pointed

out or recommended.

Omit needless words.

Make cosmetic changes only.

Combine sentences for more interesting, effective, and appropriate syntax.

Change font or spacing.

25-95% of the essay is markedly different from the previous draft.

Changing the title.

Cut out sections that don’t serve to advance the argument or theme.

Less than 10% of the essay is markedly

different from the previous draft.

Refocus (or more tightly) focus the essay.

Make sure your point is specific and precise and that your paper is grounded in incidents and examples that support the thesis.

Revise presentation of the opposing argument to make certain it is presented fairly and validly (and without ridicule).

On endings:

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