This article was first published in the Written Word supplement of the Irish Independent in January 2016.
Writing a personal essay is, very simply, about writing as yourself. Unlike in a short story, where you might pretend to be a cowboy, astronaut, doctor or spy, in a personal essay YOU, an Irish teenager about to finish school, are the star of the show.
See the personal essay as a chance to reveal your personality. It is a chance to explore your attitudes, emotions, hopes and beliefs; the more original the better- show off what makes you unique and make your essay memorable as a result. Personal anecdotes can greatly contribute to revealing personal memories and feelings and can also be hugely entertaining. You also have the option of exploring your opinions and thoughts on more universal themes.
You can be flexible in the style of writing you use– try descriptive writing in one paragraph, anecdotes in another, argue a particular point of view in another. As long as your true personality is shining through the style can vary. People generally write better when they’re writing ‘what they know’ so the personal essay is a great choice for most LC students.
Here are some examples of titles that have come up over the past few years:
2015: Write a personal essay about your response to an ending, or endings, in your life that you consider significant.
2013: Write a personal essay about the tension you find between the everyday treadmill and the gilded promises of life.
2012: Write a personal essay on what you consider to be the marvels of today’s world.
If you’re stuck for ideas think about how the topic relates to you under some of the following headings:
- You in a personal way
- The Local community
- Ireland – national level
- The world – global level
- A humorous angle
- Popular culture
- Literature and History
Here’s a sample introduction for the 2012 title about ‘the marvel’s of today’s world’ written from my personal perspective:
When I was a child I watched ‘Star Trek’ with avid fascination. Giant spaceships that could take you anywhere in the universe in total comfort; magical handheld devices that could let you contact someone else instantly; machines to which you could say ‘Earl Grey tea, hot’ and get your drink instantly – amazing! Along with many children of the 80s, I fantasised about hoverboards and videophones and all the other futuristic gadgets TV could dream up. Would they exist when I was grown up? I fervantly hoped they would but didn’t expect it to really happen. Now I look around me in 2015 (the ‘future’ in “Back to the Future”!) and my hopeful inner child is utterly amazed at the marvels of today’s world. From the International Space Station to smart phones, from 3D printers to bluetooth headsets; so many science-fiction gadgets have become science fact and are affordable for most people to access. We have also made great strides in the fields of medicine, food production and human rights. We are the first generation that is genuinely capable of ending world hunger. Pope John Paul II said “The future starts today, not tomorrow” and, for me, 2015 is the great, glorious future that I anticipated when I was young.
The following techniques can be used to great effect in personal essays:
· A Conversational Tone: imagine you’re chatting to someone when writing a personal essay and that you’re telling them all about yourself. (This doesn’t mean you should use slang or textspeak) Using a conversational tone creates intimacy with the reader and draws them in to your writing. You can pose questions and then answer them just as would happen in a conversation.
· Use personal pronouns: It might seem obvious but use the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’ throughout the essay. Saying ‘this is how I see things’ is a more pleasant way to voice an opinion than saying ‘this is how things are’.
· Quote: A well chosen quotation from a piece of writing/song lyric that you love can set off an introduction or conclusion to a personal essay really well. E.g ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done,’ Nelson Mandela. Start collecting them now!
· Be honest: Be frank about your thoughts and neuroses – the personal essay is all about TMI! (That’s ‘too much information’ for any remaining pre-internet readers out there). Tell anecdotes from your own life – you may think that nothing interesting happens to you but curiosity about other people’s lives is a key part of the human psyche (hence our passion for soap operas).
· Humour: Take the truth and exaggerate it (hyperbole) to add humour to your work. If an examiner is laughing and enjoying a piece of writing they’re less likely to be picking holes in it. Test out your laugh-inducing writing skills on your teacher over the coming months as a humorous tone can sometimes be tricky to convey on paper.