The Personal Narrative Essay


Write a narrative that connects to your reader

Strong narrative essays all have one thing in common–they feel like fiction. The key to writing a narrative that draws your reader in is recreating a true story that includes the essential elements of fiction, such as character arc, setting, dialogue and resolution. The difference between the narrative essay and fiction, though, is the veracity. The personal narrative retells true events; fiction does not.

There are many types of personal narratives, such as the hero’s journey, literacy, or reflective. Regardless of the type of essay you choose to write, they all have similar elements in common. Like all genres, understanding what makes a piece a personal narrative will help you create a stronger product.

Tips for Creating a Narrative that Impacts Your Audience:

  1. Start in the Action

Narrative essays tell a story. For the author, that means deciding which life events are worth telling. Much like writing a memoir, the narrative essayist must choose events that are integral to the theme of the essay. It may help to make a list of significant events in your life and choose one that taught you a lesson or moral. When beginning the essay, start as close to the action of that event as possible. Pacing is important for narratives. Beginning close to the action draws the reader in. Keep in mind you don’t need to tell the story linearly. Narratives can follow the same rules as fiction in terms of flashbacks and backstory. Be creative!

2. Create a Scene

Vivid details and a setting are as important in the real world as they are in the make believe world. Readers read for escape. A story draws them in using clear images and sensory elements because they can experience the story as if they were living it themselves. The fact that the story is true only contributes to the satisfaction the reader feels when she is finished.

3. Make it Feel Like Fiction

An effective narrative essay should incorporate the elements of fiction. Dialogue, setting, character arc, resolution, all of these components of fiction can and should be used to create an essay that retells true events through the lens of retrospection. 

4. Show Significance

If your story has a character arc, meaning the protagonist experiences some sort of internal shift or change, then it’s significant. Your goal as a writer is to show (don’t tell) your audience how and why this shift occurs. In “The Three Little Pigs,” the significance of the story is the arc of the pigs. The pigs begin the story believing that if they rush through building their homes, they’ll have more time to play. However, through a series of events, they learn that rushing is not worth the risk. The wolf drives the pigs to change their world to value the importance of hard work and dedication. That is your significance. That is why we have read the story of “The Three Little Pigs” over and over for generations. As an author, you should determine the why of your personal narrative before you begin writing. 

Most importantly, enjoy the process! A personal narrative is all about you. Find unique ways to make it your own!

Memoir Writing

How to Make Your Memoir Matter

Bookstores are filled with memoirs written by everyone from Michelle Obama to Elizabeth Gilbert to Frank McCourt. When we first think of memoirs, we think of the stories of people whose lives are of great importance, like Ernest Hemingway or Patti Smith. But, that’s really not the case. There are tons of examples of bestselling memoirs from unknown people. It’s not the life of a famous person that interests us, but their story. And everyone has a story. The key to writing a memoir that resonates with your audience is finding that story and connecting it to your audience.

First, a note about readers. We’re selfish creatures. No one read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Lovesimply because we had a dying need to know how much pasta she ate during her time in Italy. We read her story because we wanted to know what we could take away from it to enrich our own lives. We read, your readers will read, not to know what happened to you, but to know how what happened to you can teach us a lesson about our own lives. That is the challenge of writing a memoir that matters.  

Tips for Creating a Memoir that Impacts Your Audience:

  1. Start Small

Home in on a small moment for your memoir. By choosing a small moment, you give yourself the opportunity to stretch it out using sensory detail and reflection. A large moment, such as your first year of kindergarten, will require vague language in order to tackle the full length of time. General language makes it challenging for your audience to visualize your story. To the contrary, picking a small moment, such as the time you cried because your teacher refused to exchange your white milk for chocolate (true story—I’m still not over it, Mrs. V), jettisons your audience into the scene. Can’t you taste the disappointment of a 5 year-old denied chocolate milk?

  • Use Vivid Details

Vivid details pull your reader into the story and offers them the opportunity to feel the experience along with you. To piggyback on the chocolate milk example, you could describe the room smelling of playdough and the feel of the moist paper milk carton you held in your hands. These details help your reader follow along with your story just as they would a movie. You’re making their brain work—and they’ll thank you for it!

  • Incorporate Reflection

An effective memoir not only tells the story of what happened but also reflects on the events, offering insight and understanding the author gains along the way. Your audience doesn’t just want to know that you didn’t get the chocolate milk, they want to know how that made you feel. They want to know what impact that moment had on shaping who you are. And, if possible, they’d love to know the greater significance of that moment. Why did that chocolate milk mean so much to you? (Did you think your teacher didn’t like you, and then you took the denial of your preferred milk as yet another sign of her disapproval?). The key to reflection is balance. Your audience wants to know these things, but they need to be carefully balanced with the story. Remember, it’s a memoir not a journal. So add some reflection but keep the story centerstage.

  • Show Significance

When writing a memoir, it’s important that the audience understands why this moment was significant in your life. Given all the moments you could have written about, why choose this one? Showing significance requires a bit of vulnerability. You need to share with your audience how this event impacted your life. But trust your audience. Bring them along for the ride with your details, your insight, and your small moment, and they’ll appreciate your giving them something to take home with them. Perhaps they’ll see how when your teacher denied you chocolate milk again the next day, you walked up to her with tear-soaked eyes and asked her why. Having no reason to deny you, she gave you the milk that was rightfully yours. Your audience will relate to the importance of standing up for yourself no matter how hard it is. 

Consider the significance your parting gift to the reader. Let them take home a lesson and apply it to their own life.

Most importantly, enjoy the process! Writing memoirs is one of the most fulfilling forms of writing because it is your opportunity to share an important moment in your life with an audience. Make it touching, sad, funny or satirical. But above all, make it yours!

Explicit Revision–Outline Method

Struggling writers feel a sense of accomplishment and pride after completing an essay. The effort exerted to create the original draft often depletes their capacity to focus on and engage with the revision process. They believe the hard work is behind them; therefore, convincing them to revise their essay with fidelity is a challenge.  

Before teaching explicit revision strategies, my students frequently submitted a second draft that simply corrected the issues I noted in the feedback of the first. Revisions were teacher-driven and showed little sign of reflection and contemplation. Had it not been for my comments on the previous draft, I doubted the students would be capable of revision at all. 

Explicit Revision–Exposing the secrets to better writing 

Most students, especially those struggling with academic writing, believe writing is a talent they just don’t have. This defeating attitude keeps them stuck, unable to see that writing is a skill that can be learned just as much as cooking, dancing or basketball. The simple revelation that they can learn to write well is often the first step to successful writing.

Breakdown Outline

Unfortunately, emerging writers struggle to identify the individual components of the essay, so they are unable to engage with meaningful revision autonomously. The Breakdown Outline enables students to see the individual functions of each sentence in the essay. As a result, they more easily identify areas of strength and weakness. 

The process of creating the Breakdown Outline takes some time to set up, but it adapts for any revision process you may use in class, often yielding more meaningful results. To start, after students receive their first graded draft, present them with a template that lists each of the key elements of the essay along the left-hand margin (see templates provided). For example, the Introduction section of the outline might list MI (Main Idea Statement), GS (General Statement), Bridge, T (Thesis). The start of each paragraph is clearly marked and the required elements for each paragraph are listed along the left-hand margin. It is helpful to use an electronic working document as opposed to a hard copy so students can add MDs (Major Details) and MiDs (Minor Details) to each body paragraph. Students then copy and paste the corresponding sentences into the template. 

When finished, all sentences will be placed into the template in list form next to the correct indicator. At this point, students clearly see visual patterns in their sentence structure, elaboration of paragraphs (or lack thereof) and preferred word choice. The outline visually shows the individual sentences not only functioning as separate elements but also working as part of a whole. 

Meaningful Results

One of the benefits of this strategy is that it is a first step that can be used to enhance any revision method your students need, whether it be revising at the sentence-level, editing for grammar and mechanics, or developing deeper analysis through critical reflection. 

In addition, this method does not need to be applied to every essay. The process of the Breakdown Outline itself sheds light on what students previously thought was a mystery of writing—organization, sentence development, cohesiveness. After breaking down their own essay into its individual components, essay writing shifts from an abstract process to a clear and attainable one.

One ESL student who struggled with developing essays was amazed when she first saw her own essay in a straightforward outline, each sentence standing alone yet representing her complex and, at times, disorganized thoughts. “Oh, wow. Now I get it,” she said. “I see now how it’s all working together. I didn’t get that before.” She went on to revise her essay independently, first focusing on the sentence-level errors, then developing more complex sentence structures. Finally, she added in reflection and details to elaborate on her topic sentences which she could now see were poorly supported in her first draft.

Struggling students respond well to explicit activities that demystify writing and make an abstract process more concrete. As familiarity with the process grows, they apply a deeper understanding of the elements of good writing into essays naturally and fluidly, empowering them to improve their writing in all areas of their education.

Check out a sample template here!

Publication information:

Grookett, Jaime. “Empowering Struggling Writers with an Explicit Revision Approach.” NOSS

(National Organization for Student Success) Writing Network Newsletter, Fall 2019. 

Who I am and Why I’m here

Welcome! So glad you found me. This is going to be a lot of fun and I’m so glad you’re coming along for the ride.

First, a little about me. I am equal parts writer, writing teacher, meditation teacher. I have passion for all in equal measures. I teach writing of all sorts–composition, fiction, poetry, memoir, even guided meditation. I also write in each of those forms myself.

What I don’t love? Overcomplication. Pretension. Convolution. Too many writing lessons are filled with vague explanations and directions, as if writing is a mystery. Well, actually writing is a mystery, but it’s your own personal mystery you’ll discover along the way as you write. What shouldn’t be a mystery is the mechanics and the structure of it all. You’ll figure out your own style and voice as you move through writing as long as you are mindful of the process–that is where the magic happens. And that part is all you.

So how do I fit in?

  • Because to grow your writing and discover what is uniquely your style, it helps to have some structure and form. Think of me as helping you build the foundation. The house is all you.
  • Because it will help you to focus your own writing in a way that builds on your strengths and improves your weaknesses. The first step to success is know what you don’t know. The next step is to be mindful of what you don’t know, so you can quickly improve those areas.
  • Because although there are infinite ways to write correctly, there are also wrong ways. OR, know the rules before you break them.

I’m so excite to connect with you through writing! I wish you all the luck on your writing adventure!