Structuring a Basic Personal Essay

Structuring a Basic Personal Essay

A basic personal essay is about yourself.  It does not include advanced ideas, such as highly intellectual ideas.

Let’s use the prompt we have examined before:

If you could be any wild animal, what would you be? Why?


    1. Choose a title that is specific.
    2. Make sure it is not a sentence.
    3. Capitalize the first word and all the important words.

                            The Ice Worm and I


    1. If you are responding to a prompt, then usually write a tag phrase:

     If I could be any wild animal,

2. Write a What Statement. It should be a short sentence with two variables. At least one of the variables (or their relationship) must likely be New. That means the reader must not know much about it and must probably be interested.

   As you have learned, a What Statement forms an image that looks like a barbell:

3. Write a Why Statement. It tells why the What Statement is true or important.

a. Start with something like—

i. That is important because
ii. That is important to me because…
iii. [New Variable]is/are important to me because …

b. Or: That is true because …
c. Beware of tautology! (circular reasoning)

That is important to me because they remind me of my grandfather, a truffle hunter.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the title and the Summary.

Old Section

1. Decide on the general subject of the New idea.

a. New idea = ice worms.
b. General subject (Old) = worms.

2. Start a new paragraph.

3. Introduce the Old Section subject. Write a Claim. It should—

a. Be short.
b. Be arguable.
c. Summarize your feelings about the Old idea.

    I have always hated worms.

4. Define, describe, and/or discuss the Claim.

         They’re squishy. If you break them, gooey stuff oozes out of them, and both parts keep living. Gross! But most of all, they reminded me that I would do stuff with my dad that I hated doing. I did them just to make him happy. He loveds to fish. I dodn’t mind that part, but it always meant collecting earthworms the night before. That is what I hated, and though I loved him, he was too iron-headed to realize that pulling earthworms from the ground made me shudder.

5. Provide evidence to prove the Claim.

6. Add For example or For instance. Then add a sentence that introduces ONE example.

a. Don’t summarize a lot of examples.
b. Choose one time something happened.
c. Include a few sensory details.
d. Include a little relevant dialog if you wish.
e. Do not use you, your, and yourself.

          For example, one day in August we mowed the lawn, so we could see the worms better, and watered it. Then we went back outside about nine p.m., with flashlights, the air thick with the smell of newly cut grass.

            As soon as we saw a nightcrawler with its head up, we would turn the light away to keep from scaring them.

            The nightcrawlers were like creepy aliens waving at us. Whenever I saw one, I dropped to my knees and grabbed. But not too hard, because then the worm broke. I’d have a squishy lifeform between my fingers, it fighting for its life and me slowly tugging at it, knowing it soon would have a hook piercing its flesh.

             Every time the worm withdrew, I would let it go a little until it relaxed, Then I tugged some more, and at last the nightcrawler would lose its grip. I would pull it from the ground, the worm writhing in my hand, and drop it in the bucket. I don’t know why I never wore gloves. Maybe I wanted to feel the horror first-hand. Bad pun.

“Doing great, kid,” Dad would say.

“Yeah, Dad. Great.”

I would poke the flashlight beneath my chin and grin a hideous grin.

He always laughed. So would I. Except for me it wasn’t funny.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the Old Section. Turn in this part only.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the title and the Summary if necessary.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.

New Section

1. Insert and center one asterisk.

2. Introduce the New Section.

a. Provide a transition sentence. A simple one for a personal essay is—

Then one day I (verb) + phrase that introduces the New idea.
For example:

Then one day I learned about ice worms.
Then one day I went hunting ice worms.
Then one day I saw a TV show about ice worms.

b. Tie the What Statement to that sentence. Make it a Claim if possible. For example:

    Then one day I decided that, if I could be any wild animal, I would be an ice worm.

3. Define, describe, and/or discuss the first sentence.

Our class went on a field trip to Mt. Rainier. As soon as we climbed out of the bus, the park ranger said she had a surprise for us. She was a young woman with long blond hair, just like mine. I instantly felt comfortable. She led us on a hike for about a mile to an ice field. It sparkled in the sun. Good thing we brought sunglasses!

We waited on a semi-circle of benches while she talked about ice worms. They live in the glacier, she said. “They also live in riverbanks and forests, but here in a glacier they’re most spectacular,” she went on. “We don’t know why they surface at summertime, but here they are.”

4. Provide evidence for the Claim.

Within moments, the ice field came alive with tiny black threads about an inch long. “There are five billion per glacier,” the park ranger said. “So go, take a look.”

We were like cross-country runners starting a race, all of us running pell-mell across the crunchy ice.  Then we were down on our knees, mittens off, digging our fingers into the cold and scooping up the little creatures. One twisted and turned in my palm, but instead of disgusting me, it filled me with delight. It was like a dance being performed for me.

“We think they eat snow algae and bacteria, but no one knows for sure,” the woman said. “They usually burrow down about thirty feet into the snow and only come up for a short time each year, and only at certain times of the day.”

She told us that the worms live in “a tiny temperature slot,” as she put it. “If the temp down there goes more than five degrees below freezing, then they freeze to death. And if they get caught up here and the temp goes more five degrees above freezing, then they also die.”

“They melt?” someone asked.

“Well, not exactly,” the ranger said. “But … okay. ‘The wicked worms of the West.’” 

Everyone laughed.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the New Section.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the Old Section.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.

Why Section

  1. Insert and center one asterisk.

    2. Introduce Y1.

a. Constructing a Claim for a Y is simple.
b. Start with “One reason”
c. Then insert the hyperthesis.

    One reason I would like to be an ice worm because they remind me of my grandfather, a truffle hunter.

d. Insert is before because.

    One reason I would like to be an ice worm is because they remind me of my grandfather, a truffle hunter.

    3. Define, describe, and/or discuss.

          Truffles are a fungi that grow underground. They can be the size of a pea or as large as an orange. The grow especially well in cool-weather zones such as in Western Washington. People have prized them as a delicacy from thousands of years.

   4. Provide evidence.

         They are becoming harder and harder to find, because they are very valuable. Some people use trained dogs or pigs to help find them. Pigs are probably best, because truffles are their favorite food. They are used to rooting in the ground for them.

         My grandfather is so great at finding them that we often call him “our big boar.” He taps his nose and laughs. “I smell them.” What is left of his nose, anyway. He lost part of his face in an explosion in Iraq. The medical hospital reconstructed his nose, but it does not look very natural.

         He lives in a shack at the end of a dirt road back in the rainforest. that surrounds Mt. Rainer. We go up to the mountain a lot to see him, though it’s hard to do that in the winter, because of the snow. Then, he hunkers down (that’s what Mom calls it) in the winter and almost never comes out except to drive his old pickup to town for groceries.

         No one knows why he lives that way. He suddenly quit his job as a fireman in Seattle and moved up there. My dad says it’s probably due to his face, but Grandpa once told me, “No, it’s something else. Something much earlier than that part of my life.”

         The ice worms are a lot like him. The way they come up to the sunshine in the summer, yet fearing it will warm them too much. They way they burrow down at winter but fearing the cold as well. Do worms fear, or just react. I don’t know.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the Why Section.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the New Section.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.


1. Insert and center one asterisk.

2. Keep the conclusion very short in personal essay.
3. Do not write, In conclusion or In summary.
4. Do not tell readers what they already know.

          Nor do I know why Grandpa lives the way he does. But it doesn’t matter. Because sometimes, when my hand is in his big, rough hand as he leads me on another adventure through the rainforest, I think of myself in his palm.

         Squirming happily.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Write the Conclusion.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Rewrite the Why Section.  Incorporate instructor’s suggestions.

Formatting the Essay

Teachers will often have a way to format a paper. The most accepted format, though, is as follows:

1. Highlight the entire paper.
2. Set the paragraph. Move the top half of the ruler’s cursor to the ½” line. Not five spaces.
3. Format the spacing—

a. In Home, go to Paragraph. Click on the little dialog box on the lower right.
b. Set BOTH left-hand scrolls to 0.
c. Set the right-hand scroll to Double.
d. Click the little box on the bottom of the page.
e. Click OK.

4. Go into Insert. Click on Page Number. Put it upper-right.
5. Add your name, class, and date as your instructor sees fit.

Small-Group or Class Activity

Rewrite the essay. Check grammar and spelling.

Individual or Small-Group Activity

Complete the exercise:    Newfoundland and Labrador

Optional Activity