Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

What is a Personal Essay?

A personal essay is an autobiographical or non-fiction piece of writing. It focuses on a specific occurrence, how its author experienced that occurrence, and how the author’s life has book-ended that occurrence (the “before” and “after” of the titular thing in question).

Why Write a Personal Narrative Essay About Yourself?

In choosing to write a personal essay, as opposed to other types of essays or personal statements, an author is choosing to compose a narrative about themselves, from their own point of view, with a focus on a specific event and how it has shaped them. Where a personal statement offers an overview of a person’s life, professional experience, or other surveys of personal information, a personal essay shares a specific occurrence and its impacts, perhaps even its larger implications, from the author’s perspective. These essays give authors the chance to use their own life experiences to inform a specific point that might reach beyond their own lives.

Elements of a Personal Essay

Personal essays are commonly attributed a specific, five-paragraph format, involving an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Creative formats, however, abound too. Ultimately, there is no set format for a creative essay, but there is a general structure to be found in most: the telling of a specific story, and how that story impacted the author.

How a story is told can adhere to any number of structures, from braids to linear narrative arcs to circles. The pieces can be a strict five paragraphs or run shorter or longer. Tone is personal, casual, or otherwise such that readers feel invited into the story being told. Unlike other types of writing, personal essays are defined by their vulnerability. As a writer shares a vulnerable part of themselves, they invite readers to travel with them. This includes processing and reflecting on the subject of the essay as well as their own personal stories. The five basic elements of a personal essay are a strong opening hook or attention-grabbing introduction, an interesting story, interesting characters, an absorbing setting, and an ultimate point or conclusion.

How to Write a Personal Essay

Personal essays are created over a series of steps, starting with brainstorming and ending with publication or completion. Those steps are as follows:


Personal essay writers generate possible essay ideas. This is how to start a personal essay. A writer may begin with an exploration of topics, listing of personal events or stories, reading other writers’ personal essays, or a process of reflecting upon what about themselves they (the writer) might like to explore in writing.

Topic Selection

Personal essay writers select an occurrence about which to start writing. This occurrence may be replaced by another one over the course of the writing process, or it may evolve to center its focus in a slightly different way. But by selecting a singular event or story to write about, writers have a starting line from which to work.


Personal essay writers outline their essays before beginning to write them. If writers are adhering to the more traditional five-paragraph format, outlines will detail what an author wishes to include in their introductory paragraph, in each of the following three body paragraphs, and their conclusion paragraphs. The actual contents of these paragraphs may change over the course of the writing process but outlining allows writers to shape the direction of their work and identify which ideas they would like to develop and why.

If an essay is not following the five-paragraph format, outlines still offer writers the chance to map out a piece’s trajectory. If a writer wants to toggle back and forth between the past and present in an essay, they can use their outline process. This allows them to decide when they will switch between the two eras, and how to make that transition happen effectively. If a writer wants to include a secondary story alongside the primary one, outlining how the two will interact and serve each other will help the writer convey each story and its overlap with the other effectively.

First Draft

Personal essay writers write a first draft of their essay, testing out the story and how they want to tell it, exploring what works and does not work. Drafts are not published, as they are not an essay’s final form. This means that writers can freely make mistakes and experiment with structure, tone, and word use in order to find what works best for a specific essay.


Personal essay writers will personally edit their essays and also have others edit their essays. The intent during this process is to remove what does not work in a draft, restructure it, if need be, and ensure the story or stories the author wishes to tell are getting their due. Writers then revise their pieces based on this editing feedback. This step can be repeated more than once as writers prefer.

Final Draft

Personal essay writers take a final pass over their work and then ask others to do the same, confirming the content and clarity of an essay before its final release.

Personal Essay Guidelines

Although personal essays can be very creative, flexible pieces of writing, there are a few guidelines that can aid authors in their efforts to write interesting, thought-provoking pieces:

  • Narrowing an essay’s scope, trying to focus on a specific occurrence instead of a broad topic or series of events. This helps writers keep their essays focused and effective.
  • Editing ideas, a process through which authors can limit how much material is included in an essay and instead concentrate on detailing the material that IS included. This helps to ensure that the writing comes to life for readers, without overwhelming them with the sheer volume of content.
  • Staying on topic allows writers to keep an essay closely tied to a central theme, instead of overextending the piece and overwhelming readers (which is intertwined with the “editing ideas” guideline).
  • Supporting the main idea guides writers as they develop their essays, choosing words and ideas that support the overall intent of the piece, as opposed to diluting its effectiveness by including multiple ideas.
  • Using an outline helps writers reach the benchmarks they have set for themselves in the development of their essays. It ensures the inclusion and order of events as the writer originally envisioned. This keeps the writing organized and its structure consistent.

Tips for Writing a Personal Essay

In addition to the personal essay guidelines listed above, some other tips for successfully writing a personal essay include:

  • Trying to both show AND tell in writing. Personal essays give authors the chance to “show” through explorations of emotions, thoughts, and more. But they also leave room for writers to “tell,” frankly laying out the facts of an event or the reactions elicited by a conversation, etc.
  • Centering the personal, instead of the universal. Personal essays invite readers into an author’s singular experience of something. The more true to themselves and vulnerable a writer is, the more effective their essay can be.
  • Following the direction of the story. An author might intend to write an essay about a disastrous family road trip they took as a teenager, but partway through, realize that, in fact, the story they really want to tell is about why their relationship with their siblings is so strained.

Ways to avoid common mistakes when writing a personal essay include:

  • Writing a strong ending. If a writer can develop a general conception (if not a specific idea) of what the conclusive event or words of an essay will be, before arriving at the end, that knowledge can then inform the whole piece’s development.
  • Writing defensively instead of honestly. If a writer composes an essay that is intended to tell a story but ultimately focuses on the author’s defensiveness regarding that story, readers are left with a singular choice: to either agree with the author or disagree. When an author tells a story, offering personal experience and insight for others to ingest, readers can reflect on their narrative and own experiences, drawing new and different conclusions.
  • Writing a list of events instead of a story. No matter what format a writer uses in their essay composition, an itinerary of events does not create a compelling narrative. An essay writer must weave together information, details, and descriptions in order to guide readers through the piece, instead of handing them a checklist of facts.

Lesson Summary

Personal essays are a form of writing that can be either creative, nonfiction, or autobiographical. They can entertain and also support, argue against, or inform a claim. They can adhere to a five-paragraph format, or take on different, more creative formats. They can also be structured in a linear fashion, or weave back and forth through time and space. This allows them to introduce additional stories, new perspectives, and other aspects of writing that step beyond the lines of traditional formats. The unifying factor across all personal essays is the intent to share and explore a personal event in the writer’s life. The event might relate to broader topics (for example, a story about gender discrimination), but these essays are most effective when kept to a narrow scope, focusing on vulnerability and reflection from the writer themselves about a singular occurrence they have experienced.

Personal essays can be developed in accordance with the step-by-step writing process, involving brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, and finalizing. Having an outline to help guide the process can aid writers in keeping their essays focused and narrowed to a specific topic. The more honest and focused an essay is, right up through its conclusion, the more involvement it can elicit from readers, and stimulate outsider reflection and engagement far beyond the writers’ original intentions.

Join the conversation