Essay #1: Personal Experience Essay (Narration or Description)

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English 097 Fall 2011

Essay #1: Personal Experience Essay (Narration or Description)
Your first essay this term, due at the beginning of class on Thursday, September 19, may be primarily either a narrative essay or a descriptive essay. You will probably find organizing a narrative easier, since you will be basically telling a story. Many narratives are presented chronologically; that is, they relate events as they occurred in time. But writers and film makers vary this structure, starting at the end, using flashbacks, and so on, in order to further a theme or add dramatic effects. You can use those techniques too, provided your readers can follow the sequence of events.

Choice #1: A narrative essay should be developed from your personal experience and should relate an event (or series of events) that taught you something; that lesson should be your thesis. While you probably could tell readers lots of exciting or funny stories about yourself, these events may not have had any significant effect on you or your life. So you should choose your topic carefully, examine the event, and show how it changed you. Avoid writing narratives with clichéd morals (for example, “I learned to live life to the fullest”) which are not explored or developed. Since you are looking back on events, you will use mostly past tense, and of course you should use first-person pronouns (I and me).

Essays and stories we have read give examples of important events in others’ lives and may help you decide on your topic.

Choice #2: A descriptive essay could be about a person who is important to you or even about yourself. But beware of writing about someone you are infatuated with (but may not know really well) or about general qualities. Also, do not treat this like a “job interview” in which you polish up your image to “sell” yourself. Instead, this essay should seriously explore the personality and character of the subject, not just list adjectives. The method of organization should be determined by your subject and purpose. You should focus on presenting particularly important qualities, perhaps as displayed in actions, and offer details to support your thesis.
If you look at the examples we have read of professional writers, you’ll see that they may use both methods (narrative and description) in their essays, and you may use a variety of modes too. Whichever type of essay you write, you should have a thesis and supporting details. One way to develop a thesis from your notes is to ask questions such as, “Why was this event significant?” or “Why is this person important to me?” Your thesis statement would then answer the question. For example, your thesis statement in your notes (not the final paper) might read, “This event was important to me because....”

You can certainly employ literary techniques (such as metaphors, symbols, and analogies), use both narrative and descriptive strategies in either essay, and include dramatic scenes with dialogue. But remember these techniques should further the theme and thesis: this is an essay with a purpose, not a work of short fiction. You may also need to limit your topic so that you can provide sufficient details; you probably cannot tell anyone’s entire life story effectively in a four- or five-page essay.

If you have written similar essays in high school or college, you can start with those topics, but be aware that this English class may have different requirements, and your present instructor may have different standards than your previous teachers in high school. Essays written for this level of college English should be fully developed and complex, not superficial, and your ideas and experiences should not be shoehorned into the “five paragraph theme” structure.

As always, remember that you are writing for other class members who will read and review your essay; do not write anything so personal that you would be reluctant to share it with others. You should write for a larger audience which does not know you or your background. Remember to print two copies of your essay, one for the instructor and one for peer review.

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