Writing the Personal Essay

Complete Syllabus

In this class we’ll take a close look at the writing and research skills needed to write a personal essay, and refine them over the course of 10 weeks. We’ll discuss how to best use essential literary elements such as detail, dialogue, structure, and description, as well as how to collect information through interviews, research, and other methods. You will complete three essays, and will also be given optional shorter exercises that can later be developed into longer works. There will be substantial time spent on revision, that magical process that takes a pleasant anecdote and turns it into a breathtaking essay. 

How it works: 

Each week provides:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day. To create a better classroom experience for all, you are expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: The Ground Rules of Memoir (and when to break them)
In this first week we’ll consider some of the questions that commonly arise while writing personal essays: What should you do when you can’t remember certain details from your past? How do you handle conflicting reports of the same event? How much can you embellish before your nonfiction becomes fiction? We’ll also discuss some practicalities, such as how to create a personal writing schedule and how to choose an essay topic for the class. You will complete a short writing assignment to share with the class.

Week 2: Detail and Description
This week we will jump into the writing process with a close look at the powers of detail and description in writing. We’ll discuss which types of details make the most impact on a reader, how to create descriptions that are accurate and evocative, and other skills. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 3: From Caricature to Human Being / Group Review
Human emotions and interactions are at the heart of all personal essays, so there are few skills as important as being able to make the people in a personal essay seem real, unique, and worthy of the reader’s interest or compassion. We will discuss how to use dialogue, character description, and other techniques to pursue this goal. You will write an essay that uses the skills from the first three weeks and submit it to the instructor, and may also submit work to their classmates for Peer Critiques.

Week 4: Revision #1
During this week we will consider some first steps in the revision process: making sure that the essay has a strong narrative and/or structure, eliminating superfluous material, balancing emotional themes with narrative content, and more. You may complete an optional revision exercise.

Week 5: Researching Your Memories
Many people think of memoir as a type of writing that doesn’t require any research—one simply writes down one’s memories, and everything is taken care of. But research can be a crucial tool in filling in detail, clarifying doubts, or adding a new perspective to a personal essay. In this week we’ll discuss methods for finding information about events that are long past, interviewing friends and family who may have a different perspective, and other related topics. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 6: Point of View
We tend to think of personal essays as being written exclusively in the first person, but taking on a different point of view can be a way to bring fresh insight to a personal encounter. In this week we’ll discuss different points of view and how they can best be used to accomplish various writing goals. You will write an essay that uses the skills from Weeks 5 and 6, and submit it to the instructor.

Week 7: Compression and Expansion
Personal essays that deal with ongoing events or long spans of time can be particularly challenging because it’s difficult to know which episodes are most essential to the story. During this week we’ll consider how best to handle this dilemma, and also look at ways to compress several events—or several characters—into one. In addition, we’ll consider those instances where it pays to spend extra time on a particular scene, and how both expansion and compression fit into the larger narrative structure of an essay. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 8: Incorporating Information
Research can add authenticity and specificity to your personal essay, but gracefully incorporating factual information into a personal story is a skill all its own. During this week we’ll examine some writing techniques that make it possible to include research information without having it sound forced. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 9: Experimenting with Structure / Group Review
Personal essays are often written with a straightforward narrative structure: a story is told, starting at the beginning and working toward the end. But experimenting with the chronology of events in an essay, or taking on an unusual form that reflects the essay’s main themes, can be a powerful tool for catching and holding the reader’s interest, or affecting the reader’s perception of the events being described. In this class we’ll explore several possibilities for structure. You will write an essay using the skills from Weeks 7, 8, and 9 and submit it to the instructor (and, if desired, for Peer Critiques).

Week 10: Revision #2
During this final week we’ll consider revision on the micro level. How can we improve an essay sentence by sentence, or even word by word? How can we best identify our individual weaknesses as writers and address them? We will discuss specific techniques for producing more powerful and graceful prose, as well as ways to edit a piece of writing to fit a particular length requirement.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page or contact the Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]creativenonfiction.org.