How to Write a Personal Essay

When I first started at university, one of the first assessments that I had to complete was to write a personal essay. I was familiar with the skills of writing an academic essay, but a personal essay had me mystified. I wondered, is it possible for the words ‘personal’ and ‘essay’ to belong together? The idea of a personal essay sounded more like an oxymoron than a creative writing structure that is affiliated with academia. But I was soon introduced to the academically-freeing and creatively liberating personal essay. Here are some tips on how to write a personal essay that will captivate your reader.

Writing a personal essay is an art form that many writers over the decades have embraced as a professional tool for personal exploration. A personal essay can be based on any topic and allows the reader intimate access into the author’s life experiences, observations and personal opinions. Some examples of personal essays by famous authors are: Why I Write by George Orwell, Professions for Women by Virginia Woolf.

A personal essay allows an author to explore a range of issues that are unique to the human condition and to try to make sense of the mysterious complexities of life. Writing a personal essay can be personally liberating for both the author and the reader.

The personal essay differs from an academic essay in a number of ways:

The Personal Essay.                                                                                             

  • Uses a subjective/informal tone (using ‘I’ first person narration).                 
  • Can contain elements of fiction – imagery, character, or point of view. (Although the personal essay is about exploring some concept or offering some fresh insight into an experience, using elements of fiction can create interest in your essay and keep your reader engaged).
  • Contains the author’s personal opinions that support the main topic.      
  • Can contain quotes and research.

The Academic Essay.

  • Uses an objective/ formal tone.
  • Contains facts/information/argument.
  • Contains qualitative and quantitative data that is supported by scholarly research and scholarly quotes.         

The overall objectives of the personal essay:

Aimed at a general audience as opposed to a specialist scholarly reader.

Allows the author to share and explore their personal opinions and private experiences.

Can be based on research which is necessary to support the main idea.

Offers knowledge on a particular subject in a general manner.

Offers a unique perspective on an idea or event.

Challenge social perceptions of a previously accepted idea or offer a controversial viewpoint.

Use a variety of tone – humorous, sarcastic or confessional.

One of my favourite personal essays is The Ambition of the Short Story by Steven Millhauser.

Overall, a personal essay can offer you an opportunity to explore and develop your unique literary voice and writing style. Whether you choose to a write a confessional or explorative style personal essay, this form of creative writing can be liberating and cathartic, and it can carry great significance for your reader.


Creative Task.

Write your own personal essay.

Step One.  Read one of the personal essays provided via the links above.

Step Two. Choose a topic that you would like to discuss or explore.

Step Three. Write a personal essay on your chosen topic or use the essay question provided below.

Look at my bookshelf! These are the books I read. To what extent can literature have an influence on or effect people’s lives? Discuss and explore.


Happy Writing.


Image: Creative Writing


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