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How to Write a Personal Narrative Essay: Easy Steps

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Written by
Dr. Simon Robbins
  • Icon Calendar 18 May 2024
  • Icon Page 3203 words
  • Icon Clock 15 min read

A personal narrative is a document that tells about the writer’s life story. Basically, this guide on how to write a personal narrative focuses on covering the writer’s life experiences, whether good or bad. Like typical essays, personal narratives follow the standard structure of an academic text – introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. However, personal essays use the first-person language and include personal life experiences to enrich the writer’s arguments. In turn, a standard research essay covers external evidence to back up the writer’s claims and arguments. When writing a personal narrative, a writer should focus on memorable events and moments, expand on situations of great personal conflict, and develop a theme and build on it.

Generals Aspects of Writing a Personal Narrative Essay

Academic writing is an exercise of great importance for students and anyone wishing to develop their critical thinking and reflection skills. In academic writing, students and researchers write different kinds of text for this purpose. Basically, writing a personal narrative is one of these types of essays and entails students using a personal story to enrich their writing skills. In this case, personal narratives tend to be diverse. Moreover, some written pieces can be more interesting than other papers, while academic texts can be educative. Therefore, a decision about which narrative a student chooses to focus on is always a matter of personal conflict. In most instances, narrative writing that leaves a mark in a person’s life, such as those involving tragedies and victories, tends to be effective in exploiting the writer’s creativity.

How to write a personal narrative

Definition of a Personal Narrative Essay

By definition, a personal narrative is a story that individuals provide about their life experiences. Basically, this type of paper can be positive or negative, such as a tragedy or a victory, and is written in the first-person language. In other words, a narrative essay must be “personal” in every sense of the word. Unlike other stories that a person may give in writing, a personal narrative essay is written with a lot of emotional connotations, making references to sensory perceptions. In turn, this aspect makes a personal narrative essay as vivid as possible, meaning that readers can almost see the unfolding of events in the writer’s life.


Students write papers about a personal narrative differently from other types of papers, such as research essays and reports. Basically, one of the major differences is that a narrative essay is written in the first-person language (“I”) to create a sense of the individual or personal in the text. Then, another major difference is a personal narrative paper revolves around the writer’s experiences and never relies on external research to back up any claim or argument. In essence, such personal papers cover the writer’s life story or part of it.

Focus of a Personal Narrative Essay

Since a personal narrative essay is the writer’s life story, such papers focus on experiences that allow readers to know more about authors. In order to make experiences leave a mark on readers, a narrative essay involves many emotional references. Moreover, after reading written narratives, a reader should be able to tell others about a particular writer more vividly. Then, reading a personal narrative paper is like watching the writer’s life on the big screen, while the reader’s emotions are heightened. Interestingly, such essays with sad episodes or endings tend to be more powerful in leaving a mark on readers because of empathy. Therefore, when choosing which story to tell, students should focus on those that will make the greatest impact on readers’ emotions.

Writing a Personal Narrative Essay: Step-by-Step Guide

Writing a personal narrative essay involves the same approach as writing any other academic text. Basically, students must take into account certain features of effective writing. For example, these features include preparation, stage set up, actual writing, and wrap up or perfection. By taking each of these features seriously, authors are assured of writing a narrative essay that satisfies academic writing standards and leaves a mark on readers. In short, basic features mean building blocks of effective writing of academic texts, including a personal narrative essay.

Step 1: Preparation

The element of preparation is crucial in academic writing. Like anything else that involves the use of a human mind, writing is demanding on the part of a writer. Basically, when it comes to writing a personal narrative essay, students must recall experiences, including finer details about them. Also, this aspect often requires sobriety and keen attention to specific details. In turn, evidence of preparation involves the definition of a topic, generation of ideas, and consideration of the needs of the audience.

A. Definition of a Topic

Given that a personal narrative essay is about the writer’s life story coming up with a topic is often a daunting task. In most instances, instructors provide essay topics that students should write about, such as “My First Day at School” or “The Most Embarrassing Moment in My Life.” However, instructors may give writers the freedom to choose their topics. In such cases, students must be creative and choose topics that excite them and provide enough room for reflection and critical thinking.

B. Generation of Ideas

Ideas mean building blocks of an essay as they are the basis of any content. In writing a personal narrative essay, authors should first generate ideas before beginning the writing activity. While the generation of ideas involves researching the topic in different fields, it involves reflection in a personal narrative essay. In short, writers of personal narrative essays can get ideas for their papers by reflecting on their experiences or the part of their lives. As indicated, authors need to focus on a story that arouses readers’ emotions and write it vividly, as it is more likely to leave a lasting mark.

C. Needs of Readers

The audience of a personal narrative is the instructor and anyone else who might benefit from reading an essay, such as classmates. Basically, the needs of professors are summarized in assignment instructions, which represent a grading rubric. In this case, students should write an essay with these instructions in mind. Then, one of the aspects of instructions involves writing a narrative essay that meets the highest standards of academic writing. Hence, during a preparation stage, authors of personal narrative essays familiarize themselves with these standards.

Step 2: Setting Up the Stage

After preparation, the next step in the effective writing of personal narrative essays is setting up the stage. Basically, this stage involves choosing a story, making notes, and creating an essay outline. For example, these components ensure writers have a good organization of their work. Moreover, one of the prerequisites of effective writing is mental preparedness. In turn, the set-up stage provides students with an opportunity to prepare mentally by ensuring that everything they need to write for a great article is in place.

A. Choosing a Story

As indicated previously, the focus of a narrative essay is the writer’s life, meaning their personal experiences. Since these experiences differ in terms of effect, students must choose a story with the greatest significance in an aspect of their life, such as childhood, schooling, family, or community life. In this case, decisions that authors make must ensure that stories have the potential to leave a lasting mark on readers, meaning that personal narrative essays must involve them emotionally.

B. Making Notes

When choosing a story to focus on in a personal narrative paper, writers should make notes, as they reflect on their experiences. Normally, recalling past experiences involves flashlights of memories, and it is essential to note such flashbacks down. By considering the dynamics that may have played out in the writer’s past, forgetting some details is highly probable. It is for this reason that making notes while reflecting on past experiences is critical.

C. Creating an Outline

In any academic text, an outline provides an essay structure. Basically, creating an outline is essential before actual writing starts. Concerning the outline, all academic texts follow a particular structure. For essays, this structure involves the introduction, body, and conclusion parts. In turn, personal narrative essays follow the same structure. However, the only difference with other essays is that students do not need to title these sections.

Step 3: Actual Writing

After an author of an essay prepares and sets up the stage, the actual writing activity starts. Here, students start with developing first drafts, which allows authors to identify any mistakes and errors in their works. Moreover, scholars create a thesis statement to guide entire papers and take time to construct concluding thoughts. While the thesis denotes the writer’s main focus, concluding thoughts offer insight into the lesson learned.

A. Organizing First Drafts

First drafts represent written papers that authors prepare before coming up with final versions of documents. As such, this first draft offers authors an opportunity of perfecting their personal narrative essays. Generally, writing involves a lot of grammatical mistakes and other errors, such as inconsistent arguments and illogical conclusions and flow of ideas. By writing first drafts, students are sure that these mistakes and errors would be identified and addressed before submitting their papers to relevant authorities.

Step 4: Wrapping Up

After writing the first draft, students take time to go through it to identify any grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies in arguments and conclusions. In other words, it is the point where authors perfect their written texts before submission. Moreover, such activities include revising instances of areas of inconsistencies and illogical flow of ideas and editing grammatical mistakes, such as a lack of relevant information and wrong punctuation.

A. Topic Sentences

When writing an essay, students should ensure that body paragraphs consistently present arguments connected to the thesis statement. Basically, authors achieve this goal by starting every paragraph with a topic sentence – a statement of an idea about an argument that permeates the entire document. Then, clear examples of circumstances that enhance the readers’ understanding of a single idea in a paragraph follow each topic sentence. In a research essay, this involves citing evidence gathered from external credible sources. Since personal narratives do not require such in-text citations, students use examples of personal experiences to drive home the point made in the topic sentence.

B. Concluding Sentences

While topic sentences introduce an idea about the thesis, concluding sentences link a particular argument made in a paragraph with the thesis. Basically, concluding sentences represent the writer’s concluding thoughts about how this argument in a paragraph relates to the paper’s central claim. As the word denotes, this sentence comes at the end of a paragraph.

C. Transitions

Transitions are specific words that authors use to create a logical flow in their texts. For example, these words include “consequently,” “however,” “moreover,” “hence,” “thus,” and “most importantly,” among others. In turn, students can use such words at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a document. When used at the end of a document, transitions help readers to move to the next section without losing the writer’s focus or flow of thought.

D. Peer review

In academic writing, peer review is essential in ensuring that texts meet the threshold of scholarly documents. For example, journal articles undergo peer review before they are published in journals. In this case, the goal of a peer review is to promote the credibility of a text. Therefore, when writing a personal narrative essay, students should give first drafts to their friends, mentors, or instructors to determine whether the writing is of high quality.

E. Writing a Final Draft

Final drafts mean a major improvement of first drafts. Basically, it is a document without grammatical mistakes and errors of inconsistent thoughts and illogical arguments. However, students should read their papers at least twice and even subject such works to peer review to be satisfied that written documents are of high quality. In case of such satisfaction, writers are free to submit their personal narratives to relevant authorities.

Techniques for Writing a Personal Narrative

Like any other essay, a personal narrative essay should be a great text demonstrating the writer’s sense of creativity and understanding of academic writing. For example, authors use different writing strategies to meet these goals. In a personal narrative, students use the technique of brainstorming ideas to develop a memorable event. Basically, this exercise takes place in the first stage of writing a personal narrative essay – a preparation stage. In essence, scholars take time to reflect on their experiences and choose those that greatly impact an aspect of their lives.

1. Focus on a Memorable Event

One of the criteria that determine the significance of personal experiences is that it should be memorable. Basically, this aspect should be the writer’s goal – to ensure that a story leaves a mark in the lives of readers. In order to achieve this goal, authors should use specific memorable events or moments in their lives and develop a topic around them if instructors provide none. While many students may think that specific events must be major, it is not true. In turn, the secret is not the length or impact of events, but whether it is memorable. Moreover, focusing on a memorable event means that authors can recall finer details with great precision, arousing readers’ emotions in significant ways.

2. Expand on a Critical Moment of Conflict

Generally, human beings tend to recall negative experiences with greater precision than positive ones. Therefore, when writing a personal narrative essay, students should take a moment in life that represents a personal conflict and build on it. Basically, authors may use details that they recall as platforms for advancing arguments in creative ways. However, writers should ensure that, as they seek to be creative, they do not exaggerate as it would be a turn-off rather than a reason for excitement on the part of readers. In turn, examples of personal conflicts include strained familial or romantic relationships or a moment of failure in a personal venture.

3. Advance a Particular Theme

The secret to great writing is to develop a theme that acts as s guiding pillar for claims, arguments, opinions, and conclusions. For instance, many writers do it when creating the thesis statement. In this case, students should develop a theme that underscores their chosen story, such as poverty, pain, sorrow, or depression. Moreover, such themes help authors to remain focused on their writing, only using examples of personal experiences that advance chosen themes. In turn, it would be out of place for writers to focus on experiences that brought joy to them in childhood when their focus is explaining how household poverty subjected them and their siblings to a life of lack of basic life necessities.

How to “Show, Not Tell” in Personal Narrative Essays

A personal narrative paper differs from other types of papers because it is “personal.” Basically, such an essay is about the writer’s experiences and not about events in the natural, business, or other worlds. In this case, the main features of a narrative are personal experiences, which students should provide vividly by using descriptive language. Moreover, authors need to show readers how particular events affected their lives and not just tell them about it. In turn, this aspect of vivid description creates a connection between a particular story and readers. Besides, the audience becomes engaged and involved to the point of being empathetic in the case of a sad story.

Major Mistakes in Writing a Personal Narrative Essay

When writing a personal narrative essay, students face temptations that are not common in other types of essays. Basically, one of these mistakes is an exaggeration, where writers use a seemingly untrue language to arouse readers’ emotions. In this case, the solution to such temptations for authors is to focus on being authentic in their stories. This is why it is important to choose memorable stories, as they have enough details that are emotionally involving for readers. Then, another mistake that students make is holding back information for fear of what readers might think about them. In order to avoid such mistakes, scholars should always provide details about the “lesson learned.” As a result, readers would not judge authors based on their life experiences, but they would focus on how they have moved on, despite discussed events.

Example of Writing a Personal Narrative Essay

Topic: My First Day of College

My first day of college began dramatically, but it ended thoughtfully. It was on a Monday morning when my mother stormed into my room with the news that we were late, for what I didn’t have any clue. When I followed her downstairs with questions, I remember hearing the words “college, for heaven’s sake!” I must admit I was taken aback by these words since I had no idea that I was supposed to be going to college, at least not until the beginning of the following year. Although this news was a bit confusing, it created excitement. I dressed quickly, only for my sister to insist I take a shower. Since nothing could dim my new-found light of excitement, jumping into the shower was not such a bad idea.

The trip to the college took about two hours, which seemed like 30 minutes to me. All along the journey, I was creating a picture of how my life would be: I would join the football club, have a new girlfriend, start going into clubs and think about my future. The last part was not so clear since I had never given serious thought about what kind of profession I would love to pursue. When we arrived at the college, which was in a suburban area, the place looked more like a bonanza than a college admission day. Cars and color were the themes of the event, something that sat well with me, but not my mother. From the car to the admission room, she had given me countless pieces of advice. I only recall the words “choose your friends wisely.” I am an introvert, meaning friendships have never been my strong point. Having a girlfriend, however, was definitely on the top of the “to-do” list.

The day was slow, but I was finally admitted and bade farewell to my mum and little sister. Their departure brought mixed feelings of liberation and confusion. I felt liberated as I would not explain where I was the whole day, but confused because I did not know who to ask where my stuff is. In short, it was time to learn that independence has a price.

Summing Up on How to Write a Personal Narrative Essay

Writing a narrative is an essential academic activity that helps students to develop their reflection and creative writing skills. Unlike other types of texts, personal narrative essays use the first-person language and induce specific experiences instead of external research to develop content. When writing a personal narrative essay, students should master the following tips:

  • read examples of personal narratives;
  • focus on memorable events and moments;
  • expand on moments of great personal conflict;
  • develop a theme and build on it;
  • start with a hook;
  • start with an experience that introduces action;
  • move through the events chronologically;
  • use sensory details and descriptions;
  • conclude with a “lesson learned.”

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