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Writing a Narrative Essay

A narrative essay could be called a personal essay, because it tells the reader something about you. It's not rocket science, but it can be intimidating because it means you have to open up a bit, think of it like therapy. The good news is the more you write, the easier you'll find it.

There's a lot of freedom in choice of topic of a narrative essay and style of writing (you can write about anything and beyond writing in the first person, there are no hard and fast rules for structure or composition), but this kind of freedom demands a bit of self discipline, creativity and an understanding of the target reader.

Basically, you're going to write about yourself, or maybe someone you know. We all have experiences that are worth sharing, just look at the number of blogs out there, and because it's about you, you have the right to say pretty much whatever you want. However, preparation is important, and a lot of your time will be spent on the prewriting stage. Your main resource is your memory, but memories can get confused.

The first hurdle is to think of something worth writing about. Try a bit of brainstorming here, just write down whatever comes into your head. You could choose to write about something that's happened to you, something from the past, or something more recent. You can even write about something that happened to someone else, something from the news, or something that happened to a friend or relative, but from your point of view.

Choosing what to write about

You have to identify something that you actually want to write about. Part of the motivation to write is being interested in what you're writing about.

Here are a few suggestions:-

1. A childhood event: This may include a particular thing learned for the first time and the realization of its importance.
2. A particular achievement: From school or work, or a personal accomplishment which has had a positive effect on your life.
3. A particular failure: Focusing on a disappointing experience can sometimes be more interesting than a successful one.
4. A life changing event: This may be someone you met, something you experienced or read about, or maybe the birth or death of a loved one.

Think about the structure of your writing:-

There should be a beginning, a middle and an end, most importantly there should be a point to the whole thing.

How to start

Once you've decided on a topic, starting to actually write can be the most difficult part. As you stare at the tyrant that is a blank screen or piece of paper, your mind might become a blank too.

But start you must. You could write a general statement, proverb or a fact that will reflect on what you're going to write about. Sometimes just thinking up a title for your essay can spur you on, or simply begin with the word "I".

Then write whatever you remember about your topic. Don't worry too much about what's relevant or not, you can tidy up later. Maybe write a timeline, how it began, what happened and how it ended. Establishing a chronology for your esay is a good way to arrange everything. You don't have to follow it slavishly though, you can mess about with it later and insert some flashbacks etc.

You need to grab the reader's attention, so don't just relate an incident - this happened then that and in the end this. What characters are you going to introduce? What setting is it in?

Try to maintain the reader's interest by adding personal details or observations. Share your point of view. Share your world.

Begin to structure your essay with a brief sentence or paragraph about the experience, hint at the significance it had to you, but don't give too much away.

How to continue

Answer the following questions: Who did this happen to? When did it happen? Where did it happen?

Think up examples and descriptive words that will illustrate what you're writing about. This will also help to make your story relevant to the person reading it.

How to end

You shouldn't just stop, that's like slamming on the brakes of the car, very uncomfortable. You need to pull everything together, to provide a satisfactory feeling of completion for the reader. This can be done by relating back to the beginning, reflect on the larger meaning or importance of the experience described and what kind of impact it has had.

Tidy it up

Once you've written a draft you need to tidy it up. You need to switch from writer, to reader. Rethink your ideas and go back to the structure:-

The beginning is your introduction to the reader, but it's also your only chance to grab their attention and make them want to read on, or not. Is your opening strong enough? Has it got a hook? Does it prepare the reader for what your story will be about?

The introduction is followed by the body of the essay. Select those things that support, explain, and enhance your story, add any necessary details or personal observations, like sensory details about what things looked, sounded or tasted like. Check for unnecessary repetition and get rid of anything that doesn't support the narrative. Make sure everything flows and is well organised.

The end of the essay is your conclusion; it should bring everything together and leave a lasting impression. It's your chance to let the reader know why this experience was important to you and what you learned from it.

If you have time, don't be afraid to take a break from writing. Go for a walk, have a good nights sleep. It's not going anywhere, but make sure you back all your work up. If you're using a pen, make a photocopy. If you're using a computer, make a backup copy.

Get friends and family, or your mentor or teacher to read through what you've written. If you're a member of a forum or online group get the other members involved, ask for feedback, but don't ask other people to write it for you. That's cheating and no one likes a cheat.

Proof read! All that effort deserves some decent grammar, punctuation and spelling.

Read it out loud, record yourself, or get someone else to read it out loud for you. At a push you can get a text to speech reader to read it out loud (Windows has one inbuilt). (It's amazing what you might spot by doing this).

And only when you're certain that you're conveying what you want, and providing a good read should you inflict it on the rest of us.

Writing Narrative Essays in Class

When you're writing for a class assignment, keep the following in mind:-
  • Narratives are generally written in the first person, that is, using "I".
  • When you're writing for a class you know you've got at least one reader who'll have to read everything - your teacher.
  • You might be given a choice of particular topics, try to choose something you're passionate about.
  • You might be given a topic to write about. Try to stick to the point, make sure you don't ramble off topic.
  • Use appropriate links and connections between paragraphs to make your point.
  • When writing is done in the class you shouldn't need to go beyond a few hundred words. Only write what is necessary and make sure you use those words effectively, don't use long-winded terms where one word will do.
  • You'll be under a time constraint too, which is why you should practise lots so that it becomes less of an effort.
1. Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes, Oxford University Press.
2. A Handbook to Literature, C. Hugh Holman