How to Start a Personal Essay for High School English

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In many ways the personal experience essay is the easiest one to write. You know the subject of the paper well—it's you! You are the one the paper is about, it is your own experience that you are sharing, and you know the ending. Surprisingly, though, you may not yet know the lesson you learned from the experience. Usually it doesn't become obvious until after you've written about it and had a chance to reflect on it. That's why the personal experience essay can also be the most interesting paper to write.

How to Start a Personal Essay for High School English

  • Pick an experience you care about deeply, one that readers can relate to, even if it's a normal, ordinary one—these often provide the best insights into human nature.
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  • Begin your article at a dramatic point: ask a question, tell a brief but moving anecdote, describe a shocking or amusing situation—what aspect did you find most surprising, interesting, or moving? Start in the middle of your story—the crisis, the action. You wake up to a shrill voice calling, "Fire, wake up, get downstairs fast." Or the sound of crunching metal as you slide on the ice into the car in front of you. Or the sound of the slamming door. Always use sensory details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch). Make the situation real. There must be emotional involvement: while readers may not have ever had your experience, they will be able to relate to the emotion.

  • Show, don't tell, what you went through—let readers arrive at their own conclusions. Don't say, "I was scared"; say, "My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating, and I thought I was going to die." Don't tell every little detail, even if it really happened. If readers would say, "So what?" to it, don't include it. Do your best to move your reader, inspire him, make him cry. Make your story live.

  • Once you've gotten the reader hooked, you can give any background that is needed to explain how you ended up in that situation. Your parents were in the middle of a terrible divorce. Your best friend ditched you. You tripped in the lunchroom and spilled your soup all over the class president. You've just gotten the sweetest note from your boyfriend.

  • The purpose of the paper is to arrive at some basic truth. As a result of the experience, something should become clear to you; you should reach a new level of understanding that you can convey to your readers. That insight is what you use to finish the paper.

Tips & Warnings

  • Have the courage to reveal yourself honestly: your job as a writer is to deliver to readers the truths they subliminally know, and these truths are often the darker, unmentionable feelings we have about people and situations in our lives.
  • Don't make writing for the teacher your primary goal in writing your essay: your initial satisfaction should come from the process of writing and the discoveries you make in the process.
  • Don't write a personal experience article to vent anger, indignation, or other negative emotions—except for your loved ones and your therapist, no one is interested in hearing you whine and complain.

References

  • Writers Inc: A Student Handbook for Writing and Learning; Patrick Sebranek; 2000
  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
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