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How To Write A Personal Narrative Essay

by | Dec 12, 2022 | Creative Writing

Whether you’re applying to college or just wanting to write an introspective piece, familiarizing yourself with personal narrative essay writing is a great idea. However, even experienced writers sometimes have trouble writing personal narrative essays, as their deceptively simple premise can often hide the essay’s true, complex depth.

If you’re working on a personal narrative essay as a creative work that you plan to submit to literary journals, or if you’ve been assigned to write this type of essay by a professor, this article will certainly help you get started!

What Is A Personal Narrative Essay?

A personal narrative essay is about a personal experience, so you should write it in the first person. We all have powerful stories to tell, and a personal narrative essay is your chance to share such a story with readers in a creative way. Your personal narrative essay can communicate an understanding of yourself, others, or society.

These kinds of essays are abundant, yet so different from one another because no one person’s story is like someone else’s. The scale of personal narrative essays range from the macro to the micro; it can be about a major life-changing event or something as simple as watching TV. The core concept, though, is that the writer is telling a nonfiction story and reflecting or providing commentary on something from the story that is accessible to a large audience.

Personal narrative essays can be difficult to write as they require a steady and skilled command of emotional writing, which is its core rhetorical move. While it may seem daunting, it’s also a great way to improve upon your emotional writing skills and sharpen your overall storytelling abilities. It’s an opportunity to analyze your thoughts and process events, concepts, and philosophies.

Planning Your Personal Narrative Essay

Choosing Your Topic

Deciding on a personal story to write about is probably the hardest part of personal narrative essay writing. Depending on the audience for your essay, it might feel quite vulnerable to share personal stories with strangers or classmates. Your essay topic can be whatever you feel most comfortable writing about, and it’s this freedom that can become a roadblock for writers. If this is your first try at a personal narrative essay, it might be a good idea to choose a personal story that’s more recent and lighthearted. You can save the more serious or emotional stories for later down the road when you’ve had a chance to get comfortable with this kind of writing.

Get Ideas By Reading Other Personal Narrative Essays

There’s nothing better than reading examples to gather ideas and inspiration. Scan the internet for personal narrative essay examples that can help you pinpoint your topic and format. A great place to look for personal narrative essay content would be literary journals such as Brevity Magazine, The New Yorker, The Sun, and so many more. As you read through essays from other authors, pay close attention to the overarching theme of the piece. Think about how your personal story might also have a theme. Notice how each essay handles dialogue, detail, and rhythm. Can you steal any of these writing techniques for your own personal narrative?

Outline Your Personal Narrative Essay

Outlining your personal narrative essay can not only help you better plan for what’s ahead, but it can help you stay focused on only the essentials for getting your story across. Your outline can be as formal or as informal as you’d like. Outlining is an important and often underrated step of the writing process that provides clear space to organize your thoughts.

The outline for your essay can be a simple bulleted list of scenes you intend to use in your essay. It can be a series of sentences that detail what happens in each section of the essay. Or it can be a simple summarized paragraph of what the essay is about. Whichever way you handle your outline is up to you. The important part is that you know what you’re writing about, what you intend to include, and how you plan on getting to the point of your essay.

Writing Your Personal Narrative Essay

When beginning your personal narrative essay, as with all writing, you want to make sure that you have a strong lede. You want it to hook your reader at the first line and make them unable to put it down. For a personal narrative essay, the opening line is often used as the space to set the scene and the stakes for the story. Who are you? What are you writing about? While not all these things need to be addressed in your first line, they are crucial questions to keep in mind as you craft your hook.

Curating Your Voice

The next major part of writing a personal narrative essay is curating your voice and establishing your relatability. These two aspects work hand-in-hand to help tell your story. A personal narrative essay about a widely relatable subject, like making dinner or brushing your teeth for example, is easy to have your reader imagine. You can allow your voice to do the heavy lifting to make common or relatable events interesting and creative. On the flip side, if you’re writing about something that is not widely relatable, like a once-in-a-lifetime event or a particular family tradition, your voice works harder to set the stage for readers to relate.

Your main goal is to invoke an empathetic response from your audience, so being aware of your topic’s relatability can help you figure out your voice and pacing. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, but it can be useful to help measure out your storytelling and your commentary to achieve a satisfying balance that makes a good personal narrative essay enjoyable.

As you continue shaping how you’re telling your story, make sure that you include self-reflection. Personal narrative essays often point out some observation about humanity at large or the narrator has a realization of some kind. This doesn’t have to be complex, but it will often relate to the overarching theme of your personal narrative. Ultimately, it is the reflection that gives the personal narrative essay its purpose, and it tells the reader why reading it mattered.

As you dive into writing your personal narrative, we hope you found this article helpful in guiding the way, and that you feel inspired to continue this journey to completing your essay. This kind of writing is highly rewarding and therapeutic, even if no one ever reads it. No matter why you intend to write a personal narrative essay, you will undoubtedly learn something new both about craft and yourself! Good luck!

Caitlyn Dark

By Caitlyn Dark

Caitlyn Dark (she/they) is a writer and editor from Siler City, North Carolina. She earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Literary Studies from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she also spent time teaching writing and composition. As a crafter of words, Caitlyn is a passionate serial comma advocate and singular ‘they’ enthusiast who loves exploring the real-time evolution of language and modes of communication.


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