Tell us about yourself.
Welcome to the art of writing personal narratives.
It’s one of the most intimidating but powerful writing styles out there.
But don’t worry. We got your back.
Below, we’re breaking it all down with narrative writing examples.
By the end, you’ll have the tips you need to get it done…and done well.
So grab your notepad, and let’s dive in.
- What Is a Personal Narrative?
- How To Write a Personal Narrative
- 5 Personal Narrative Examples
What Is a Personal Narrative?
Broadly speaking, a personal narrative is a literary category wherein people creatively explore events in their lives. In addition to telling the tale, personal narratives include pointed reflections, associated feelings, and related life lessons.
The style is frequently used to encourage creative, free-flow writing.
Though similar to memoirs, autobiographies, and personal essays, personal narratives have distinct qualities. Here’s how they differ from the other self-focused literary styles.
- Memoirs: Personal narratives and memoirs are the most closely related. However, memoirs are typically broader in scope and usually feature other parties.
- Autobiographies: Generally, autobiographies are less creative than personal narratives. Instead, they focus on the chronology of one’s life and typically lack a reflective element.
- Personal Essays: Overall, personal essays are more formal than personal narratives.
How To Write a Personal Narrative
How do you write a personal narrative? As is the case with all writing, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t exist. However, there are a few steps that many people find helpful. Let’s take a look.
Read Several Personal Narratives
Read several personal narratives before you set pen to paper — or fingertips to keys. It’s the best way to understand the genre and may spark ideas. Besides, reading makes you a better writer.
Pay attention to what you like best about others’ personal narratives and try to incorporate similar features into your own. The goal isn’t to copy other authors’ styles but instead to get a better idea of structure and tone.
If you’re looking for titles, check out the list below.
After you’ve read several personal narratives, it’s time to brainstorm.
While using a computer or notes app is perfectly fine, experts encourage people to brainstorm with a pen and paper. Scientists aren’t sure why, exactly, manual writing unlocks creativity at a higher level and improves cognitive function; they just know that it does.
When brainstorming, don’t worry about writing well. The objective is to get what’s in your head out. Don’t judge what comes out. Just let it flow. Most people are surprised at the ideas they’re able to generate through this simple process. Who knows, you may shock yourself!
Pick a Topic
Once you’ve brainstormed, choose a topic.
Remember, personal narratives typically focus on a single experience, thought, or idea. That’s what differentiates them from memoirs and autobiographies, which cover longer periods of people’s lives.
Try to pick something that deeply resonates with you and lends itself to exploring lessons and reflective ideas.
Hash Out Thoughts, Feelings, and Metaphors
Once you’ve established your topic, it’s time to start thinking about what you want to say. What ideas do you want to convey? What feelings do you want to emote?
Including metaphors is a great idea as they add depth and humor to the piece. But be careful; clunky metaphors can drag a work down.
Create an Outline
Once you’ve sketched out some ideas, make an outline. This will make the actual writing process a lot easier. The main headers should define the flow of the piece with details included under each.
Some writers prefer to make detailed outlines, while others use a looser style. The choice is yours. Experiment with both to see which works best for you.
Write a First Draft
It’s finally time to write the first draft! Weave the ideas in your outline into prose.
Again, don’t worry too much about perfecting it the first time. Many writers would argue that a good first draft is always bad. It’s the time to blurt out ideas in a semi-coherent manner.
When “penning” a first draft, try to keep it moving. If you can’t think of the exact right word, put an “X” and keep on going. This may be difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will become.
Once you have the first draft down, it’s time to edit. This is where the magic happens.
Take each sentence one by one. Examine it.
- Can you use stronger words — especially verbs?
- Consider if each sentence adds value to the story and themes.
- Is it cohesive?
- Does it trigger emotions?
- Have you painted a picture to which others can relate?
Don’t stop at just one edit. Go through it two or three times. Moreover, give yourself at least a few hours between each revision to give your eyes a rest.
5 Personal Narrative Examples
We’ve discussed the definition of a personal narrative and the steps to writing one. Now, let’s review a handful of examples.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Me Talk Pretty One Day is both the name of a personal narrative and a best-selling collection of essays published in 2000 by David Sedaris. The former is an account of a French class the author took in Paris after moving to France.
His short personal narrative details the humorist’s experience under the lethal linguistic sword of an exceptionally caustic teacher (aka, the “wild animal”), the camaraderie forged between the classmates and the joy of finally understanding a fluent speaker in one’s non-native tongue.
Written in a plain and personal style, Me Talk Pretty One Day is an excellent example of taking a single event and extrapolating universal — and funny — life lessons.
Notable Passage: At the age of forty-one, I am returning to school and have to think of myself as what my French textbook calls “a true debutant.” After paying my tuition, I was issued a student ID, which allows me a discounted entry fee at movie theaters, puppet shows, and Festyland, a far-flung amusement park that advertises with billboards picturing a cartoon stegosaurus sitting in a canoe and eating what appears to be a ham sandwich.
Goodbye to All That by Joan Didion
Written in 1967 and beginning with the line, “It’s easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the end,” Goodbye to All That was Joan Didion’s exploration of what it was like to fall out of love with New York City.
Having arrived as a naive and hopeful 20-year-old, the essayist describes her dingy apartment, lack of financial resources, and the things that made Manhattan magical.
Through the course of the piece, however, her angst begins to unravel, and she starts to realize that the “city that never sleeps” was not a good fit as she grew into a full-fledged adult.
Written in Didion’s distinct style, Goodbye to All That is a glowing example of a personal narrative about lost love, growing up, and the ups and downs of one’s twenty-something decade.
Notable Passage: That was the year, my twenty-eight, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and ever procrastination, every word, all of it.
Typical First Year Professor by Roxane Gay
“I go to school for a very long time and get some degrees and finally move to a very small town in the middle of a cornfield.” So begins Roxane Gay’s personal narrative entitled Typical First Year Professor is about her inaugural 12 months as
The glory of having one’s own office, printer, and nameplate on the door, and the agony of only getting paid once a month, enduring ludicrous lies about missed assignments, and the stress of achieving tenure.
Written in the first-person, present tense, Typical First Year Professor is a tightly worded, funny, and relatable personal narrative about starting a new life and all the insecurities that come with such a journey.
Notable Passage: I try to make class fun, engaging, experiential. We hold a mock debate about social issues in composition. We use Twitter to learn about crafting micro content in new media writing. We play Jeopardy! To learn about professional reports in professional writing. College and kindergarten aren’t as different as you’d think.
Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
Composed in 1936, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant is an account of the venerated author’s time as a British cop in Burma. As the title suggests, it tells the story of when Orwell was tasked with taking out an elephant.
An exploration of being an outsider, Orwell weaved his insecurities about his position in life and not loving his job into a story about a moment in his life when he did something he knew he had to do but didn’t want to.
Although Orwell is best known for his magnum opus, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Shooting an Elephant gives readers a peek into who he was as a man and his values.
Notable Passage: But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow, it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast’s owner to be considered.
Your Brain’s Response to Your Ex, According to Neuroscience by Amy Paturel
Billed as an essay about “the good and the bad of what happens when you connect with an old flame,” Your Brain’s Response to Your Ex, According to Neuroscience is a unique personal narrative disguised as science writing.
Amy Paturel describes what it was like to meet up with a serious ex after 15 years apart and getting married and having a child.
A clinical lesson in how hormones and the brain work to bond us to past loves, Your Brain’s Response is also a personal narrative of what it was like to meet up with someone you once passionately loved as a young adult in middle age.
Notable Passage: Today, our lives couldn’t be more disparate. He’d been living in a loop since I left — upscale dinners, regular happy hours, exotic vacations — and before his engagement, a different woman by his side every few years. I married, bore three children and spent most days with a toddler attached at the hip — or more often the knee because both hands are full.
Personal narratives are one of the most engaging writing styles available. While they’re frequently used for school and job applications, they’re also a great way to flex your creative writing muscle.
Again, the best way to become a personal narrative writing rockstar is to read lots of them. Good places to check them out include:
- The New York Times
- The New Yorker
- The Atlantic
- O, the Oprah Magazine
- Harper’s Magazine
- The Antioch Review
Don’t be afraid to experiment, and do your best to focus on a single event. Narrow things down and be concise. Moreover, use words people know. While word choice should be a focus, do your best to avoid using words that go over people’s heads.
And remember, the gold is in the editing.
Good luck! Be you.