By Elissa Bongornio
Writing a personal essay for publication—or perhaps to apply for the Creative Writing Awards!—can require digging deep and thinking a lot about yourself. How best to tackle the topic of you in a compelling way? And just what are the differences between college application personal statements and memoirs? We’ve rounded up some resources for teachers and students full of helpful tips on writing the very best autobiographical piece.
Begin with Brainstorming.
When writing a memoir, you don’t need to catalog your entire life, from the second you were born until right now, as you sit, typing. Consider focusing on one important event in your life that made you who you are, or perhaps a period of time when you experienced growth.
Consider using these prompts from Scholastic’s “Write It: Memoir” resource:
- The person who has had the biggest influence on me is…
- An experience that challenged me was…
- My favorite place is…
A great exercise from 826 Digital called “Your Front Door,” encourages writers to picture their front door, and then look outside and write about what you see. Teachers, in particular, may also like the “Looking Out the Window” lesson plan that helps with memoir writing. (826 Digital resources are free, though you do need to create a login to access them.)
Write that Draft.
If it’s hard to know where to start writing, imagine a good friend sitting across from you. Then write what you’d say to them as you begin your tale. The New York Times, when providing essay-writing advice, encourages authors to listen to themselves, trying out sentences in their head before writing them down.
Remember, a personal essay or memoir does not need to discuss what you specifically want to study in college, or what exact degree you want to pursue—this might differ from a personal statement for a college application. The college you’re applying to may need that information (check the submission details to be sure), but once your application is submitted, you can write with different goals in mind.
Editing to Excellence.
Once you’ve written your draft, congratulate yourself! Take a break to celebrate your accomplishment, and then get ready to edit. Read your piece aloud. That will help you hear when a sentence flows well, or if you’re stumbling over certain phrases. There are other great tips on this editing checklist from the National Council of Teachers of English, to help check your grammar and punctuation. If you feel ready, share your work with someone else, and listen to their thoughts before doing another set of revisions. Many writers go through a few rounds of edits before perfecting their piece, so take your time.
Read, Read, Read.
Finally, know that a great way to write an excellent personal essay or memoir is to be inspired through the works of others. This round-up of short memoirs from Book Riot has some great examples to check out. Or you can check out WNDB’s own OurStory app for reading suggestions. By seeing how others tell their stories, you can understand better how to relay your own experiences in an effective manner.
Remember, public high school seniors in the US have until March 2 to enter the Creative Writing Awards for a chance to win one of five $10,000 scholarships.
* * * * * *
Elissa Bongiorno is a journalist who has been published in USA Weekend, the Baltimore Sun, and DCist, among other publications. As editor of Romantic Times, she interviewed bestselling authors like Suzanne Collins, Beverly Jenkins, and Francine Pascal. Elissa has also written numerous nonfiction titles on topics like state history, job skills, and stem cells. You can find more about her at elissaedits.com.