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Structuring the Personal Essay

Updated: Aug 10, 2022

One of the most difficult parts of writing a personal essay is learning how to craft a piece using proper structure. With my editing business I help people understand how structure works and how they can develop and maintain a thread or idea that pulls all of their paragraphs together. Here is an example of work by a writer who wants to break into essay writing. With his permission, I have included his original essay and my notes to him. The bold type portions are what I wrote in order for him (and you) to see where the paragraph transitions and subject matter can be improved. It’s his second draft.

Make Yourself Written by: Aaronpaul Dedicated to my aunt Julie

Have you ever wondered what it would be like for the world to go on without you? One day you’re here the next you’re gone. We all lose sleep thinking about death and what happens next. I want you to vision your very own wake and funeral. Take a look around what do you see? Lastly I want you to look beyond your burial and think about who you’ve inspired throughout your life. About: The imprint you are leaving behind.

I was recently driving home from an early evening workout at a local gym. I ended up taking a different route than normal for scene change. I drove past a cemetery that I knew quite well. A family member passed away and was buried in this particular cemetery. I noticed that the big gates at the entrance were still open; and I decided to pay my respects. About: Intention of visiting the grave of a relative.

It seems that in life we all make excuses that we are too busy for certain things and I felt that my excuse as a busy twenty four year old in 2013 has ran dry. So I proceeded to drive in through the gates in search for my aunt’s grave It’s a well-known fact that I tend to be incredibly forgetful so with that being said I couldn’t locate my aunt’s grave within this large Rochester cemetery realizing that it was starting to get late I abandon my search that evening and geared up to head home. About: Being unable to locate the grave and abandoning the idea of paying respect to an aunt.

Without realizing when the cemetery closed I realized that the two large gates at the entrance were now closed shut and locked. It was just my clumsy self to disregard a large sign saying “Cemetery closed at dusk” I let out a long and annoyed sigh followed by what I feel is an excess of swear words allowed in a cemetery. For whatever reasons beyond me the grounds keeper and maintenances personnel decided to drop the ball when it came to closing up that night and also completely disregarded a blue moving metal object with lights franticly driving around a park with relativity NO other significant movement Irony anyone? About: Feeling annoyed about being locked in a cemetery.

I often find myself in weird awkward situations so it was only fitting to post about my current situation on Facebook. We live in the social media age so might as well have a laugh about it but the realization of being along set in. I called my girlfriend and also let her know what just happened, with a few laughs and smart remarks I told her I would call her as soon as I was able to find a way out. About: Dealing with the situation using humor.

I began feeling that butterfly feeling not the “I just fell in love” feeling but the other one where you know you fu*ked up, like when your speeding and you see a cop behind and you don’t really know if there about to pull you over, The “Oh Shit”moment if you will. I realized I was alone in a park yet there were so many others surrounding me they just happen to be six feet lower. Never the less all of us we were all in the same predicament, caged in with the world moving around us. About: Addressing feeling uncomfortable and frightened. Comparing self to the dead.

I started to really think long and hard about my life and those who I’ve inspired and those who I’ve hurt along the way. I can admit that I am no angle and I am certainly no devil, I’m simply human and so are you. We’ll never really know who visits our grave; we can only inspire and leave behind positive energy and good vibes. I don’t think I need to say spoiler’s but spoiler’s I’m going to die and so are you, I don’t need to add a contrived “Webster Dictionary” definition of what death is for you to understand how valuable life is. About: Wondering about who you’ve inspired and addressing the audience in the same manner. Telling the reader he or she will die someday.

Whatever you design yourself to be is entirely up to you. Rather than changing to fit into whatever trends are current available why not make your own and let others follow. The world we live in needs more moral and decent leaders not followers. I’ll go on record saying F*ck Twerking, but however Miley started a movement, however you define her she got the world talking. About: Advising the reader to march to his or her own drummer. Bringing in Miley Cyrus as an example.

All we can control is who we inspire and what we leave behind. Our personalities and inspiration are two amazing tools we all have inside and those two things can drives a good creative culture so just remember inspire those around you. Even if certain people never will visit your grave your inspiration will never dissipate within them so speak freely, live dangerously and please above all… MAKE YOURSELF… About: Inspire people.

This is much better than what you wrote before because at least you are trying to achieve a goal in your essay, which seems to be advising people to become inspirational. However, if you read my summary of each paragraph, you will see that you aren’t sticking to one theme. I will lay it out for you here:

1) The imprint you are leaving behind. 2) Intention of visiting the grave of a relative. 3) Being unable to locate the grave and abandoning the idea of paying respect to an aunt. 4) Feeling annoyed about being locked in a cemetery. 5) Dealing with the situation using humor. 6) Addressing feeling uncomfortable and frightened. Comparing self to the dead. 7) Wondering about who you’ve inspired and addressing the audience in the same manner. Telling the reader he or she will die someday. 8) Advising the reader to march to his or her own drummer. Bringing in Miley Cyrus as an example. 9) Inspire people.

You will notice that you have not fulfilled your essay’s promise, which at the onset seems to be getting people to think about who they have inspired. You have actually worked much too broadly, and not given us an idea about what specifically you want to tackle insofar as the advice you wish to share goes. Also, who is your target audience? A 20-something has a limited audience when it comes to discussing life events, since most people older than you have already been through these emotions and thoughts and they are going to be further along in their discoveries than you are. Therefore, your target audience is likely to be teens. Now you will want to pick up teen magazines and see how the articles are written and how topics are handled.

Now you will probably want to re-organize your essay. Everything you write after your introduction needs to stick with the topic at hand. I don’t see why your dead aunt or being lost in a cemetery has anything to do with being an inspiration (unless you’re inspiring people to find out when the cemetery they’re visiting

1) An introduction about what you will accomplish in this essay regarding why it’s important to be a good role model. 2) Who has been a good role model for you and why. 3) How you have tried to model that person’s behavior. 4) What it did for you, both inward and outward. 5) How you tried to emulate that person, and how it inspired someone else. 6) How that made you feel. 7) Conclude by tying into the introduction by restating how important role models were to you, your role model, and the person you inspired.

That’s part one. Cleaning up the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. would come next. But first, see if this is an essay that would find a home somewhere. Go to the library or bookstore (or Internet, though most of those articles are written for very little, if any, money) and read the magazines that might take personal essays such as this. This is a good practice article for you, but you will probably want to write at least thirty more practice ones until you begin to get the hang of it. PLUS, you really need to read the articles that are being written right now. Pick up a few magazines. Review the subject matter, the way it’s written. Study the theme, the focus, the moral…whatever it is the author is trying to convey. Print it out and do what I did with your article. Break it down into what each paragraph is relating and see how it’s structured. Writing is a lot of work, and sooooo much goes into it.

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