What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a personal essay (also known as the narrative essay) is, including what makes it different from other types of fiction and nonfiction writing, examples of effective personal essays, and more.
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There are many types of essays that writers can use when communicating their ideas. Depending on your resource and how they choose to break them up, there could be between four and eight (or more) different essay types. 

(How to Create a Narrative Arc for Personal Essays.)

In this post, we're going to look at what a personal essay is, including what makes it different from other types of fiction and nonfiction writing, examples of effective personal essays, and more.

What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

At its heart, the personal essay is a piece of nonfiction writing that shares an interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining, and/or humorous story for readers that is drawn from the writer's personal experiences (even if it's second-hand information). Also called a narrative essay, the personal essay is different from the other essays, because it shares a story.

But make no mistake, the story in a personal essay should be nonfiction. That is, your personal essay should be true. Otherwise, it would be a fictional short story. Of course, there are instances where writers will use poetic license to condense timelines, conversations, and change names/descriptions to make their stories more interesting and/or protect the identities of friends and family members. 

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Writing the Personal Essay 101

This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and bring readers into the experiences described. Writers learn how to avoid the dreaded responses of "so what?" and "I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learning to trust their writing intuitions, and developing a skilled internal editor to help with revision.

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What Are Essential Elements of a Personal Essay?

There are a few main ingredients most successful personal essays include a compelling hook, engaging story, interesting characters, immersive setting, and meaningful point. 

  1. Compelling hook. A personal essay is a story. As with any story, a good hook is needed to grab the attention of the reader and keep them reading through to the end. That could be an interesting opening line or paragraph, humorous or thought-provoking opening scene, or some other "hook" to pull the reader in. That's why many personal essays start with a pivotal moment cliffhanger from later in the essay before jumping into the actual essay.
  2. Engaging story. If a personal essay is essentially a story, then yes, you need a good story—even if it's very concise. The best stories cause some sort of reaction, whether that means the reader feels joy, sadness, horror, disgust, or something else. If the story leaves readers with a "meh"-motion, then it probably won't find much success.
  3. Interesting characters. Most successful stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, have interesting characters. Since personal essays are typically first-person narratives, this includes the author. But there are times when authors of personal essays step to the side and let their characters take the spotlight. So think about how you portray the real characters in your personal essay.
  4. Immersive setting. Since your personal essay is about real events, your setting should be dictated by where you really were. That said, good personal essays often immerse readers in those settings. So look for ways to bring settings to life through including interesting details, whether that's the sights, sounds, smells, or other sensory details.
  5. Meaningful point. A good story is not always enough to put a personal essay over the top. Many of the best personal essays deliver a theme or message. In other words, what is the point of the story? In a personal essay about dating, the message may be that "friends shouldn't set up friends with other friends," because it can make future social situations awkward if dates don't work out. Or a personal essay on parenting may deliver the message "let children figure out their own way of accomplishing something," because they will anyway.

Of course, writers can incorporate other elements into personal essays, but these are some common pieces that will lead to successful personal essays. Speaking of which, let's look at some successful examples.

Examples of Effective Personal Essays

Here are a few examples of effective personal essays using a few different styles:

  • "Whatsizface," by David Rakoff on Salon. It's a humorous personal essay about the author going to a couple Beverly Hills plastic surgeons to see how they might "fix" his face and why he keeps it "as is."
  • "Peculiar Beliefs," by Roxane Gay on The Rumpus. This is an example of a personal essay that uses story to help get to the meaningful point.
  • "Strange Flowers," by Karrie Higgins on The Manifest-Station. (Trigger warning for sexual assault, domestic violence survivors.) This example really pushes the form by incorporating images with the broader story.
  • "Woven," by Lidia Yuknavitch on Guernica. (Also trigger warning for violence.) I think this is a good example of having all the essential pieces of a personal essay and weaving them together (yes, like the title of the essay implies).

Like all genres of writing, your skills will grow the more you work out your writing muscles in the genre. So start with a small personal anecdote and write your way forward from there.

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Personal Essay Awards

Learn more about our annual Personal Essay Awards, including current deadlines, prizes, and more.

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