Almost every personal essay, whether it’s 300 or 3,000 words, tells a story of change: a change in your attitude or the way you move through the world, a change in your relationship, a change in your core beliefs or habits.
The arc of the personal essay: I felt a certain way > then I had this experience (e.g., I changed my circumstances; I changed my mind over time; I saw a person/situation/aspect of myself in a new light; something happened that led me to admit I was wrong; OR something happened that led me to realize I’d been right all along) > then I felt a different way.
For a short-form essay like My Simple Realization, the epiphany doesn’t have to be major; sometimes small adjustments or realizations can open the door to bigger things.
An affecting story is rich in detail and specifics; you’re aiming to create a mini-movie in our minds.
That old saying “show, not tell” still holds true; instead of “I was excited” or “I was crushed,” go deep and let us in on what you’re feeling: “I could feel the blood pounding in my ears” or “It was like a two-ton weight had descended on my chest.”
Pace yourself; a common pitfall, even for professional writers, is to set the essay up at the beginning with a gorgeous, hilarious, or otherwise compelling scene … but then run out of steam; you have to love and care for the middle and the end of your essay just as much as you love the beginning.
Personal Essay Writing Prompts
- When have you had a realization that made you live differently afterward? It doesn’t have to be an enormous change.
- Is there something you loved in childhood that you’d abandoned and you’ve rediscovered it? What have you learned about yourself as a result?
- Is there an area in your life where you’ve learned to let go of self-criticism, and rediscovered true joy as a result?
- Has there been a moment that’s led you to reevaluate a relationship? (Perhaps you’ve decided to let an unhealthy relationship go, or possibly you’ve deepened an existing relationship; i.e., an experience led you to understand a parent, sibling, relative, teacher in a way you never had before)
- Have you had a life experience that led you to decide you’d been wrong about something? What was troubling about that? What was freeing?
- Or, have you had a life experience that led you to trust your instincts and believe in yourself in a way you never had before? How did that feel, to trust yourself?
Personal Essay Examples
Amy Maclin has worked as a writer and editor for numerous magazines, including Elle, Allure, Whole Living, O, The Oprah Magazine and Real Simple. She received a 2017 Clarion Award for Best Magazine Feature Article for her personal essay, "No Place Like Home," about the changes to her Tennessee hometown.