Getting Started With Personal Narrative Essays

For memoirists and other writers, personal narrative essays can be a great way to get your work published and your name out there, while also allowing you to fine-tune your writing craft. For college applicants and others applying for positions that require a written essay, the personal narrative is a chance to share what makes you a beneficial addition to a school or organization.

Personal narrative essays are a form of creative nonfiction and can range from a couple hundred words in length to several thousand words. They cover a broad array of topics including family, love, loss, travel, childhood, parenting, aging, and more. The key to an impactful personal essay that engages readers is telling a compelling story about a personal experience with universal themes. Read on to learn how to brainstorm and structure your personal essay, and how to get it published and out into the world!

Personal essays for publication

There are a couple of practical reasons why an author may want to publish a personal narrative. If you’re trying to break into freelance writing, published essays are a great way to start building your portfolio. Some websites offer payment for your work, so bringing in a few extra bucks doesn’t hurt either!

Essay writing can also be a way for writers to strengthen their skills and test out a new idea. Perhaps you have a personal story to share that you don’t want to expand into a full memoir, or aren’t sure how to make it an entire book yet. Writing a personal essay can help you flesh out the idea and see how you can best tell the story. Once it’s published, you may find that readers resonated with certain parts more than others, and that can give you a clue as to what should be emphasized in later writings.

Speaking of readers, publishing a personal essay can attract new readers to your blog or books. Make sure that anyone who reads your essay knows where else to find you on the internet, including a website and on social media

The key thing to remember when writing a personal narrative essay is that it’s not just about your specific story. Use your story as a jumping-off point to reflect on a more universal truth or experience. Readers want to know what happened in your life that matters to them, so make that the main focus, and illustrate your point with examples from your life.

College admission/application essays

If you’re writing an essay as part of an application, chances are you’ll be given a prompt that helps give you a narrow focus. Don’t stray too far from the prompt or try to come up with your own topic – application reviewers will be on the lookout to see that you can follow written instruction and adhere to basic guidelines. But a specific prompt can be helpful when planning your essay. Use it as a way to bring yourself back to the main topic whenever you get off track.

An application essay needs to show what you specifically can bring to the table that no one else can. Do this by sharing a story. Instead of telling the reviewer that you’re brave or clever, show him or her by recounting a story about a time you stood up for others or came up with a solution to a complicated problem at your home, school, work, church, sports team, or extracurricular group.

Your story doesn’t need to be an epic tale. Even if it was a small moment and not ultimately life-changing, reflecting on your behaviors and the results in a sophisticated way can make for a compelling essay. Share what you learned from the event, and how you plan on implementing that lesson in other areas of your life and as you grow.

How to structure a personal narrative essay

As with any compelling story, a personal narrative must have a story arc with a beginning, middle, and ending. The beginning or opening should include an introduction that hooks the reader. The reader needs to clearly understand what your essay is about. The middle or body of your essay should include your main points or experiences that support your overall themes. This can be several paragraphs in length. The ending or conclusion should summarize what you’ve learned from your experiences and what you hope the reader takes away.

The storytelling in a personal essay is typically chronological, meaning it’s told in the order that the events or experiences occurred. Because it is a story based on your real-life experiences, it should be told in the first person point of view, using “I”, “my”, and “we”.

Before submitting your piece for publication, it’s important that it’s been properly edited. You can certainly self-edit your essay, but it’s always best to get multiple pairs of eyes on any piece of writing.

How and where to get published

Publications will typically list the desired length for submissions. If they offer payment for published pieces, they may list a pay rate – otherwise, you’ll have to set your own rate per hour, word, page, or project. Don’t discount a good publishing opportunity that doesn’t pay – if the publication has an established readership it can still be great exposure for you and your work.

Some websites, magazines, and other publications have a narrow focus, be it parenting, food, travel, or pets. If you can write an essay that fits into a niche category, you may have a better chance of getting published, because you’re offering exactly what the publication is looking for. Keep in mind that when approaching these publications, you may be able to submit a short pitch, but others will ask for the completed essay. If you’re able to submit the entire piece right off the bat, this can also increase your chances – editors will quickly be able to see what they are working with and what your story can bring to the publication. Be sure to pay attention to ALL submission requirements. Not following the requirements may lead to an automatic rejection from a publication. Many publications use online platforms such as Submittable for their process, so it may save you time to go ahead and create an account.

Outlets with a more broad focus include:

Boulevard: publishes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, with a focus on less experienced or unpublished writers.

Brevity: publishes short essays from both well-known and new writers.

Creative Nonfiction: publishes immersion reportage, personal essay, memoir, and more.

Hippocampus: features memoir excerpts, personal essays, reviews, interviews, and craft articles.

Memoir: publishes visual artwork, sound projects, short form memoir and creative nonfiction essays, interviews, and book reviews.

Narratively: accepts writing, short documentary films, photo essays, audio stories, and comics journalism. Interested in new, diverse voices.

The Real Story: publishes personal essays, lyric essays, reportage, narrative journalism, experimental nonfiction, prose poems, flash essays/flash nonfiction, vignettes, sketches, comic essays, and short memoir.

Salon Life Stories: publishes personal essays on a wide variety of topics.

Slate: accepts pitches for writing related to culture, human interest, news/politics, technology, business, health and science, and sports.

Story: publishes fiction and non-fiction.

The Sun: publishes personal essays, fiction, and poetry, with a specific interest in political and cultural issues.

Vox First Person: publishes personal narratives from writers (previously published or not) of every age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and political leaning.

Remember, the personal essay is not just about you. Share your experience, but use it to reflect on bigger issues and connect with readers. By using storytelling techniques such as vivid descriptions, emotion, and well-developed characters, readers can easily relate to your story.

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