Writing personal essays for English classes usually implies a great degree of freedom – unless you are given definite guidelines, you are free to write about virtually anything, as long as it helps you to express yourself and your personality. And, just as usual, the more freedom you have, the harder it is to write.
Don’t Talk about Yourself
However, there is no need to reinvent the wheel; the best way to write a personal essay if you are unsure of your own originality is to follow the classic scheme: introductory paragraph, three main points (typically expressed by three paragraphs) and a concluding paragraph. Just don’t fall into a mistake of just telling about yourself: no offence meant, but an abstract description of yourself, your interests, hobbies and views is about as interesting and inspiring as a three volume treatise on turnip-growing.
Use Your Personal Experience
Instead, concentrate on what nobody else can write: your personal experiences, the most significant and vivid ones, their influence on you and your outlook on life. Can you remember an event that defined you to any extent? Or simply got ingrained deeply into your memory?
Stick to One Topic
You may think that it would be better to show yourself from different perspectives, but an essay doesn’t provide you with enough space to comfortably do so – the best you will be able to achieve is to touch lightly upon several points, without going deep into anything in particular. If you use, let’s say, your attitude towards animals as your defining point, use examples from this topic only – it will make your essay more focused and powerful in the long run.
Succumb to the Flow (Sometimes)
Nevertheless, remember that good writing isn’t achieved simply by following a set of directions. If you feel that you need to break away from conventions, by all means do so – especially considering the fact that conventions themselves are far from being set in stone (as one may believe). Let’s take, for example, the optimal sentence and paragraph length. You may have heard some recommendations of this kind: don’t have sentences longer than 20 words, don’t have paragraphs longer than 5 sentences, try to break up complex sentences into multiple simple ones to make them easier to read, etc. And most of these recommendations are sound – until they aren’t. If you find that rambling, long-winded sentences are necessary for your particular essay, use them. If you see that you cannot comfortably express your point in five sentences, do it in seven.
But before you start bending conventions to your will, you should know what is generally accepted. And the generally accepted idea is that short sentences are more expressive than long ones, short paragraphs are easier to perceive, simple sentences prevent confusion. Learn how to write in this fashion, and then you will be able to see in which cases it isn’t suitable.
A personal essay is, well, a very personal piece of writing. There is no clear-cut way to approach writing it – you will by definition invent something when doing so. Just make sure it isn’t off-putting – regard it from the reader’s point of view, not just the writer’s.