How to Write a Personal Narrative Essay That Doesn’t Suck
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When I come across a personal narrative essay, nine times out of ten it’s total garbage.
It’s no coincidence that personal narrative essays tend to be the most popular choice for aspiring writers.
I can describe most aspiring writers with a single word — narcissistic.
I’m not piling on to be mean. I do it because it’s important to tell you the truth about what it takes to become a successful writer.
You don’t have to write traditional blog posts and how-to advice. You can write personal narrative essays people love. I know plenty of writers that do.
But you have to do it with the right intentions and the proper mental space, which is why I’m going to spend a bunch of time talking about both before we get into the nuts and bolts of how to write a personal narrative essay.
The Right and Wrong Motivations and Mindsets for Writing a Personal Narrative Essay
It’s not what you do, but how and why you do it.
Often, the content itself comes second to the reasons why you’re creating it. Your readers can see right through you.
Selfish, navel-gazing and mentally masturbatory writing always appear as such. You can fake good intentions. They just have to be there.
First, let’s look at the wrong intentions because removing errors is always the quickest route to success.
You Think You’re Special
There is a huge difference between believing you have value to offer the world through effort and diligence vs. believing you’re special and entitled to success just because you’re you.
I can’t tell you how many aspiring writers I’ve come across have high levels of entitlement with extremely low levels of output. They haven’t even committed to successfully putting pen on paper, but they genuinely believe they deserve success.
Most aspiring writers can’t even see their own arrogance and entitlement, which is why I often spend a lot of time knocking them down a few pegs when I give advice.
You’re not special. At least, the world doesn’t understand that yet. It’s your job to prove it, not the readers’ job to believe it.
You Want to “Document Your Life”
Documenting your life is a critical aspect of writing personal narrative essays — the world personal is in there for a reason — but documenting your life successfully requires you to, you know, have an interesting life.
Or, at least, interesting insights into the life you live. Most aspiring writers craft essays that contain neither important element to it.
Either they tell mundane stories or they have had interesting experiences but the way they write about them is so jumbled and reads so much like a diary entry that it turns readers off.
When I write about myself and inject it into stories, I talk about my experiences in a way that connects with readers, e.g., I’ll write a self-improvement post and talk about my past struggles that led to current successes.
You Suffer From “Hemingway” Syndrome
There is a special group of writers who consider themselves above traditional blogging techniques. They see themselves as ‘artists’ and if readers don’t fall over themselves to appreciate their work, they decide the market doesn’t “get it.”
Well, if you want fans and you want to make money, you have to at least take the market into consideration. These Hemingway syndrome types aren’t esoteric because it’s the natural way to express what they want to write.
They are esoteric for the sake of being esoteric. It comes off as insincere and snobby.
You have an MFA? Awesome.
I’ll go toe to with you by using my self-taught, commercialized, and ‘formulaic’ techniques. I’ll write in your arena and do just as well as you. I have an advantage that you might not have. I learned how to write through the lens of thinking about the reader first.
Now, let’s look into some positive motivations for writing a personal narrative essay.
Your Believe Your STORY is Special
It’s a subtle distinction from believing you’re special. If you have experiences in your life that you believe are genuinely useful to others, then you will write a personal narrative essay that uses your story as a medium for a broader message.
James Altucher is my favorite writer of personal narrative essays. He’s talked about making 15 million dollars and losing 99.99 percent of the money. When I personally lost $100,00 due to gambling on stocks, I re-read his posts to stay sane.
He’s talked about the wreckage in his life that resulted from his mistakes — divorce, strained relationships with his parents, not being there for his kids like he should’ve.
He also talks about how he bounced back from it all. Can you see how that story is useful? Entrepreneurs can relate, so can anyone who’s had major setbacks.
Parents can relate. Divorcees can relate. Anyone who feels like they’re stuck to the floor and can’t get back up can relate. His mantra is ‘advice is autobiography.’ His story is the means to the end instead of the end itself.
You’ve Lived a Truly Interesting Life
Ryan Holiday once wrote an article where he told aspiring writers that, instead of writing more, they should focus on living more.
You can get away with writing about yourself in a selfish way if your stories are so ridiculous and interesting people can’t help but read them.
Elizabeth Gilbert got divorced and traveled the world to find herself. Interesting.
Jordan Belfort went from broke wall street analyst to penny stock peddler to pump and dump scheme millionaire with tales of hookers, cocaine, drunkenly crashing helicopters and a multi-million dollar yacht, and driving home in a Lamborghini high on enough quaaludes to kill multiple people. Ethical? No. Interesting? Hell yeah.
Speaking of Hemingway, the guy had a ton of crazy life experiences as well like serving in World War I, traveling widely for activities like skiing, bullfighting, fishing, and hunting. He lived in various parts of Europe and joined a ‘scene’ of other aspiring writers.
The more unique, interesting, and absurd stories that you can tell and others can’t copy, the more interesting your personal narrative essay will be.
You’re At Least Somewhat Interested in What Readers Think
I’m a big believer in enlightened self-interest. Pure altruism doesn’t exist. Even people like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King got an emotional payoff for their efforts.
If you have a tendency for some level of self-interest and selfishness, at least be smart about how you use them.
Understand that to get what you want — attention, readers, accolades, the sense that you’re creating truly useful work, feelings of accomplishment, whatever — you have to give people what they want.
There are two types of writers who pull this off. One type, like me, does it intentionally. Others don’t do it intentionally, but they at least put a ton of effort into making their work good, even if it only serves them.
Contrast this with aspiring writers who write personal narrative essays with a sense of entitlement and a lack of diligence.
Now that we’ve covered mindset, let’s cover structure.
How to Write a Personal Narrative Essay That People Actually Want to Read
I’m not an expert on personal narrative essays. You can find much better teachers who will talk about every little nuance, structure, and rhetorical trick in the book.
I focus on the thing that helped me have a successful writing career, which is getting your work out into the world. I prefer to use a basic and structured frame for my writing that ensures I can spit out polished prose relatively quickly.
I’d argue it’s better to focus on, not necessarily prolific daily blogging, but a consistent effort that gets your work out into the world.
In today’s fast-paced writing climate, there seems to be a floor of two essays per week you need to achieve to become relevant. You can slow down after you have an audience, but before that, focus on getting your name out there.
Now let’s take a look at some familiar pieces of advice I’ve given readers over and over again, but bear repeating because hard-headed newbie writers have a hard time listening and following directions.
Create the Map To Traverse the Terrain
Almost every time I have a coaching call with students of my writing course, one student always asks the same question or has the same concern, and I always respond to their question or concern with a question of my own.
“I can’t get the words out of the page. Or, when I do, they come out jumbled and it takes a ton of time to edit.”
I respond “Are you taking the time to carefully map out your ideas before you start to write?”
“Don’t I constantly tell you to do this?”
“But, I just like flow…I like to let the words come to me when they come.”
Well, your process, based on the results you’re getting, sucks. Why would you continue to try a strategy that doesn’t seem to work?
It’s a real head-scratcher for me because I’ve always been the type of person who course corrects when I know something isn’t working.
I come across writers all the time who’ve written hundreds of blog posts, and their total lack of success appears to be a real mystery to them.
Remember the classic definition of insanity…
It feels unnatural to create mind maps and outlines until you practice doing them. Taking time to prep seems like it slows you down, but it speeds you up long-term because you create more polished work consistently.
I’ve already talked about this process at length, so check out these resources for more detailed guidance:
- How to Write An Article Like an Absolute Boss
- How to Write a Blog Post for Beginners (Video)
- How to Write a Great Essay About Anything
While you’re mapping out your thoughts, keep these useful questions in mind.
Questions to Ask Yourself While Crafting an Outline For Your Personal Narrative Essay
- Who’s it for? Any answer works as long as it’s not ‘everybody’
- What’s the point? Is it pure entertainment? Is it to help your reader overcome a problem? Again, there are many different answers but have an answer
- Would I read this if I weren’t me? This takes a level of brutal honesty and self-awareness that doesn’t come easily, but stepping outside of yourself is crucial.
- Is there a theme/thesis to the story? I’ve told several stories about my life where the theme was something like ‘there are hidden lessons in your setbacks.’
- Do I have an answer to all of the above questions? Run your story idea through that checklist and, again, be honest.
Like I said before, I’m not the utmost expert at writing personal narrative essays, but I have learned some tried and true techniques, methods, and structures that work.
Here’s a rambling list.
The Hero’s Journey
It doesn’t go out of style. From the Alchemist to Harry Potter to the Avengers, this story framework seems to be embedded in our collective consciousness. Here’s my simplified colloquial rendition of this classic storytelling method.
- The lowly and unassuming main character – Has mostly bumbled through life so far.
- Call to adventure – Something happens that sparks the character into action. A spider bites Peter Parker, Katniss Everdeen sacrifices herself for her sister and joins the hunger games, Doctor Strange loses the ability to use his hands, seeks mystical treatment, discovers he’s meant to become a wizard.
- Rising action – The hero begins the journey. At first, tepidly and rife with mistakes. Eventually, confidence grows and the hero comes closer to reaching the climax, but not without several obstacles along the way.
- Climax – The crescendo moment where the hero is just on the horizon of victory.
- The pull-back – Just when it seems victory is won, the hero(es) is dealt a catastrophic blow that puts them into an improbable situation that seems dire. Thor almost kills Thanos, but he ‘should’ve aimed for the head’ and half the universe dies.
- Victory and the return home – They overcome, win the final battle, or complete the challenge, and return home the victor.
You can use this structure in a single personal narrative essay. I use one repeatedly in my self-help content. I start off broke, hate my job depressed. I get a job that inspires me to begin working on myself and stumble into writing around the same time.
I make progress, and money, but along the way launch products that fail. Just as I start to make real money and build a real audience, my marriage falls apart and I’m suspended from my job because of mistakes made from the stress. I take a sabbatical from work for a month, give full-time writing a sincere shot, and never look back.
“You Understand What It’s Like to be me” Personal Narrative Essays
These are essays where you talk about your life and your experiences intertwine with a specific audience.
Here are some examples from my contemporaries at Medium (and yours truly):
- A Letter From the Fat Person on Your Flight by Your Fat Friend – People who are fat can relate to feelings of being ogled and ostracized for their weight
- I Blew Up My Life Just to Save It After an Evangelical Cult Rewired My Brain by Shannon Ashley – People who grew up with families and communities filled with religious zealots can relate. There are, after all, plenty of em’
- I Made $97k My First Year of Being a Content Creator by Zulie Rane – This post analytically details steps to build a content business, something that many many people want to do. Half personal narrative essay, half how-to guide.
- I Quit my Job to Become a Full-Time Writer by Sean Kernan – Again, tons of aspiring writers wish for this exact outcome. Read it. The prose is just filthy good.
- How I Went From Having $127 in My Checking Account to Building a Six-Figure Business and Living My Dream – My story. I don’t so much give advice. Instead, I share my personal success story and weave tidbits of audience-directed wisdom into the story.
The experiences connect with something readers have gone through or aspire to do.
Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
This is the category reserved for stories that are so outlandish they’re hard to believe. In this case, you can just write about them and the story will be so good people will just read them all the way through.
Not that people necessarily wrote personal narrative essays about these moments, but random stories that come to mind for me are:
- The guy who got his arm stuck between two boulders and spent 127 hours cutting his arm off with a dull swiss army knife to save his life
- Leah Remini was a star television actress while simultaneously being a member of the Church of Scientology — an organization that drained her finances and exerted tons of control over her life
- Neil Strauss takes on a writing assignment to document the lives of ‘pick up artists’. In the process, Neil himself goes from socially awkward nerd to scoring dates with Victoria’s Secret Models, participating in Orgies, and has orders of magnitude more sex than he did in his pre-pick-up days.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger grows up as a poor kid in Austria. He picks up a bodybuilding magazine and decides he wants to become the world’s greatest bodybuilder. He wins Mr. Olympia six times, while making millions of dollars with a real estate side hustle. He goes on to become not just any old actor, but the highest-paid actor in the world. If that was enough, he runs and wins the highest political position available to a non-U.S. citizen — governor of the largest state in the country.
- Lori Baker, a normal everyday woman who accidentally discovered she was one of the best Tetris players on planet earth — a game she played as a fun hobby. Here’s the story told from her husband’s point of view.
By now, you should get it.
I talked about the proper motivations for writing a personal narrative essay. I gave you structures and strategies you can use. I’ve also provided more than enough examples for you to get the gist of what it takes to write words people want to read.
Now, the rest is on you.
Counterintuitively, one of the best ways to successfully write personal narrative essays is to think less about yourself and more about the person on the other side of the screen.
It’s a subtle, but vitally important and career-defining, distinction.