Tag Archives: personal essay

Tone (personal essay)

I love this cartoon from Natalie Dee on fanpop.com

Before Christmas I got my TYs (over 50 of them) and my Leaving Certs to write personal essays. Their essays for the most part were funny, sad, moving, at times mad and in many cases very very brave. Among other things I read about a childhood obsession with goldfish; a superhero granny; being an only child; falling into a river in front of the boy you absolutely love love love; suicide; a haunted church; spontaneous uncontrollable crying spells; and being wrapped in tin foil and carried off a volleyball court on a stretcher…

I also discovered that “a commode is the love child of a wheelchair and a portaloo!

I did notice however that very occasionally a personal essay didn’t ‘ring true‘. It’s hard for me to explain how I knew that the writer was inventing or embellishing a sad story (leaning towards or sometimes completely inventing a fiction) rather than drawing on real life experiences (fact) but when I asked a couple of students about it sure enough they said what they’d written about hadn’t actually happened but they felt compelled to give the personal essay a tragic ending in order to engage the reader emotionally.

Oddly, it had the opposite effect – I enjoyed these essays up to the point where they transformed into melodrama and then I just somehow knew that the writer was trying to force a reaction out of me.

Have a look at this beautiful personal essay – but be warned:

(1) It will make you cry


(2) You could never write this. You are not a thirty-something-yr-old widower with a toddler and a dead wife. You are a 17 or 18yr old Irish leaving cert student and this is the perspective you MUST write from when you write a personal essay in the exams because fundamentally a personal essay IS NOT A SHORT STORY and IS NOT FICTION. Of course you can write about something funny that happened to someone else and pretend it happened to you; of course you can exaggerate for dramatic or humorous effect. But try to write what you know or your essay is in danger of coming across as insincere and false.

Here it is: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jan/19/telling-toddler-mummys-dead?CMP=twt_gu

Now have a look at this personal essay, whose tone is much more philosophical and opinionated rather than emotional – the tone is completely different but there is no question that it also falls into the category of personal essay.

Here it is (with the longest url in the history of life the universe and everything):


I guess I just want you to realise that you can write a serious opinion piece; an emotional admission; or a funny satire and ALL will still qualify as ‘personal essays’ as long as you write in the first person (“I”) and as long as you are yourself (Irish teenager) not a fictional narrator (a witchdoctor, a talking rubbish bin or a homeless wino).

For clarification of the difference between the personal essay and memoir check this out: http://meghanward.com/blog/2012/08/21/personal-essay-vs-memoir/

That’s all for now folks. Good luck with the mocks revision!


Personal Essay Titles

Here are a few personal essay titles that I gave to my Junior Certs today. I’m really just posting them here so I’ll have them for again! Most of them are taken from a random selection of previous exam papers. Some of the titles that usually come up lean in particular directions – towards descriptive short stories or dialogue heavy ‘scenes’; others towards journalistic opinion pieces – so I’ve avoided them deliberately because I want today to be about the art of personal writing. What these titles have in common is that they ask you to insert yourself into the essay, to reveal who you are as a person – your thoughts, beliefs, experiences, hopes, dreams, personality and sense of humour.

  1. Heroes
  2. The things about myself I’d most like to change
  3. In 30 years time…
  4. Childhood memories
  5. Life’s little luxuries
  6. A significant event that changed my life
  7. It’s a weird and wonderful world

p.s. Another title I made up recently that produced some interesting responses from Leaving Certs was “Write a personal essay about some of the funniest/most embarrassing moments of your life so far”.



Personal Essay – Practice

This post is really for other teachers but if you’re a student and your mates are up for it, by all means read on and give this a go! One challenge we all face is to get the difference between short stories and personal essays absolutely clear in our heads. Of course there are often similarities – use of descriptive writing, opportunity to draw on personal experiences for inspiration, first person narration. However the fundamental differences are really important too.

  • A short story is fictional.
  • The narrator of the story can be anyone – a homeless person, a world leader, God, Hitler or a sheep.
  • You can use first person OR third person narration.
  • There is a plot, a setting, characters, a limited timescale (the tighter the better in my experience) and oftentimes a twist (again, having one is generally better than not having one in my experience!).

  • By contrast a personal essay is based on reality (but feel free to exaggerate & even make things up as long as they sound believable – here if you want to include a talking sheep you’ll also have to mention the drugs you were on when this happened!!!).
  • The speaker is YOU – you are writing as yourself, a teenager who lives in Ireland. You cannot be a sheep for a personal essay 😉
  • You will (and should) use descriptive writing but you will also use quotes from your favourite bands and anecdotes from your childhood or family and offer your thoughts and opinions and attitudes and beliefs and feelings. You may use rhetorical questions and lists and statistics. In other words, every technique available to you.
  • You are not limited to a fixed timescale – a short story is a slice of life whilst a personal essay can be a montage of various events from past to present to future, from you, to your family and friends, to other people and cultures, from local to national to global.

In order to make this REAL for my students, I recently did this experiment in class. Everyone wrote a mini personal essay of between 200 and 300 words (including me). As a prompt we began with the words “My name is ___________. Let me tell you a little bit about the kind of person I am”. Each of us was allowed to give ‘clues’ to our identity but we made it a rule that you couldn’t make it too obvious. The reason I joined in was  because they bullied me into it!!! Ok, I’m being facetious. But in reality I think it made them feel less self-conscious about ‘revealing’ themselves, laying themselves bare to each other as it were (the essence of being a good writer if you ask me!). They also insisted that I write in the persona of me as a teenage girl. Again this made absolute sense – if I started referring to my husband and child I’d really have given the game away 😉

After creating a first draft, we all typed them up, same font and font size, I checked for spelling and grammatical errors (God help me this was time consuming) and then I printed them off. The first two girls who finished (thanks Lauren and Cathy) sat down with the list of names of people in the class and five sticky notes and created groups which were a genuine mixture of personalities and which kept close friends apart. This meant they were facing a real challenge guessing who the writer was and more importantly they were getting a true insight into people in the class they might not know very well. Each group of five was given six mini-essays (all bundles included my one but no group got a bundle including any of their own). Their job was to figure out who the writer was, a variation on the game of guess who where you have a post it note stuck to your forehead and you have to figure out what famous person’s name is written on it.

All of this took place over four 40 minute classes and not rushing things was definitely the key to success. My students were also pretty brave in finding the courage to reveal themselves publicly in front of their peers. Getting me to join in led to some pretty funny moments – any student in their right mind would be mortified to be mixed up with their teacher (the one person it is absolutely NOT COOL to be similar to in any way!). We did this immediately after a week of working on and creating short stories so the contrast helped in embedding the distinction between short stories and personal essays in their brains (at least I hope so). Finally, teachers, if you grade this EVERYONE GETS AN A. You cannot and must not give someone’s personality anything less, nor did I want to – this class are a great bunch of women and I’m lucky to be their teacher. In a few weeks time we’ll come back to them and analyse them from a writing point of view – what works, what doesn’t, which bits keep the reader most engaged and entertained but in the meantime I think they’ve learned a lot about personal essays and about each other (as have I) .

Below I’ve included my effort if you want a template to work off!!!

Who am I?

I guess it really depends who you ask. My mother says I’m a ‘flibbertigibbert’, flitting from one thing to the next, never sitting still long enough to eat a decent dinner – or wash up afterwards! My father says I’m a nutcase – well actually, he sings a song “you’re a nut, beep, beep” and grabs my nose and twists it for the “beep beep” bit (funny man!) My sister tells me repeatedly that I’m ‘the adopted one’. I am a bit odd I suppose, but refusing to recognise that we’re even related is a bit harsh don’t you think?

My boyfriend says I’m pretty and smart. Far too pretty and smart to be going out with him. He’s wrong but I guess it’s nice to have someone who thinks you’re special. Special in a good way, not special in a ‘not the shapest tool in the box’ kind of way. Although on occasion I have done things that might cause people to label me a complete and utter spanner!

And me? I’m not sure how I feel about myself. Some days I think I’m just your average teenager, trying to figure it all out and not do too much homework along the way. Some days I think I’m a supersonic bolt of electric lightening sent to save the world from spinning out of control. And some days I wish, with all the power in every fibre of my being that I could just be somebody else. Just for a little while. And then those days pass and I get back to the business of just being me. It’s a tough job baby, but somebody’s gotta do it!