Writing an essay about yourself, usually called a personal essay, can feel incredibly intimidating. Anything with the word “personal” or with the word “essay” is often anxiety-provoking. Put the two words together, and stress skyrockets.
Once you know what to do, these assignments become much more tolerable. Let’s make writing a personal essay tolerable!
Knowing what to do and what not to do when writing about yourself is an essential first step. Take a look at these basic Dos and Don’ts to jump-start your personal-essay-writing expertise, and then we’ll dive in more deeply.
The Dos and Don’ts of Writing Essays about Yourself
When writing about yourself, DO:
- Have a distinct purpose
- Shine a light on something unique to who you are
- Infuse your essay with something meaningful to you
And when writing about yourself, DON’T:
- Wander aimlessly
- Tell a seemingly endless string of facts
- Let your ego do the talking
This brief list hits the highlights and can be a handy quick reference guide as you plan your essay. There’s more to writing an excellent essay about yourself than these dos and don’ts, though. A quality personal essay requires planning, with attention to the following:
Your Essay’s Topic: A Very Personal Thing
You’ve lived with yourself your whole life, so you’d think you could come up with an essay topic about you, right? Unfortunately, that’s not right! The moment the human brain is told to write about itself, it seems to either do a factory reset on itself to empty all content, or it goes into overdrive, racing with irrelevant thoughts. Either way, your essay feels daunting, even impossible.
Part of the reason for this is that you are very complex. You have a rich history filled with ups and downs and exciting things and boring things and maybe tragedies and triumphs. You’re going to reign this in and use it to your advantage when you choose your topic.
Selecting Your Topic: Brainstorm
A great starting point is to think freely about yourself. Turn on music, grab some coffee, tea, or water, sit in a favorite place, and tune into yourself.
Write down anything that pops into your mind, and don’t try to guide your thoughts to something profound. Just brainstorm. Free-write. Scribble down words, phrases, places, activities, good, bad, ugly, beautiful. Use different colors. Use the same color. Create a mind map (or word web) on a big piece of poster board. Make an orderly list on lined paper. Do your style.
You can set a timer or just let yourself go until you’re done. Once you have your list or web, you can sort through it looking for treasure (which, of course, is your essay topic).
Selecting Your Topic: Purpose
It’s crucial that your personal essay have a purpose. What is the meaning behind it? How is it unique to you so your essay stands out? Why are you telling this particular story of your life?
When you have a purpose, it will guide your writing as well as make it stand out. Consider these topics:
- My Year on the Swim Team
- Why I’m Glad a Wasted an Entire Year in the Swimming Pool
The first essay topic really has no purpose other than to recount time on the swim team. Lots of people write about their time in an activity, so this won’t stand out to your readers.
The second topic piques interest, and it indicates that there’s an actual story here. This essay has a purpose, and that purpose conveys some personal meaning.
Bingo! There’s where you find the magical topic. Comb through your brainstormed list, look for strong themes or ideas, and select something that you can infuse with meaning.
Think of your topic as the smooth surface of a pond. After lining up a bunch of rocks, you carefully select one that means something to you, and you toss it into the middle of the pond. From that landing point, rings ripple outward.
That rock is your purposeful topic, and those rings are the details, also purposeful because they came from your stone in your pond. You need to develop those ripples into a structured personal essay.
The Structure of Your Personal Essay
Happily, this isn’t much different from the structure of any good piece of writing. You need a(n)
That’s it. Nothing fancy.
A tricky part of a personal essay is knowing where to start. That’s one of the reasons having a purpose and meaning is so important. You’re not just relating a linear string of events. You’re telling a story of one point in your life.
In your imagination, when you threw the rock, what was the “rock’s” purpose, and where in your pond did you throw it? Were you in the middle of a friend’s disastrous birthday party, moments before you grabbed the hand of the kid being picked on and left?
Choose a point in the meaningful event, and begin. That’s where your rock lands. From there, you’ll create the ripples to round out the story. Choose those details that enhance your purpose, and omit those that don’t.
Continue adding to the ripples, the detailed body, just until you can let them go. End your story before the actual end of the event in your life. A powerful ending is one that leaves your reader hanging just slightly (but don’t abruptly cut off).
Your Style: The Essay Should be Personal
Your story has personal meaning, and it’s unique to you. Your style will give it a personal voice, too. You want this to sound like you, like how a book written in the first-person point of view sounds unique to the narrator.
A few guidelines might help
- Personal essays are semi-casual, almost conversational
- You’re not texting or Snapchatting friends; don’t be that casual
- Your audience is made up of adults who are in a position of respect
- This is about you, but not your ego; avoid being boastful (arrogance is considered shallow, not meaningful)
A quality personal essay weaves words together into a story. You’re taking your reader on a journey across you pond. Just do it. Don’t tell them that you’re going to do it.
Writing an essay about yourself can feel like a terrible task. Yet when you brainstorm, choose a purposeful topic, and follow basic guidelines for structure and style, you might find it enjoyable. Or at least tolerable.
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