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Teacher Tips and Answers

Revising Personal Essays

After completing a first draft of your personal essay, you should set it aside for a time if you can. Just as you can more easily understand a long period of time by reflecting on it afterward, you can better understand your writing when you get some distance. Then return to revise with fresh eyes.

Revising for Pace

You can't go into great depth about everything that happened over a few months' time. The essay would turn into an endless novel. Imagine Jake's journey across the Great Plains if he reported every excruciating detail.

Too Much Detail

. . . We pass mile marker 193 in Kansas. The road goes on without a bend as far as the eye can see. Only the heat coming off makes it waver. On both sides, corn stretches to the horizon. A farm clusters to the left. An exit leads to a county road. We stay on the Interstate. We pass mile marker 194. . . 

Appropriate Detail

. . . then the even longer plains. It was as if the world was saying, "You really want to keep going? There's pretty much nothing that direction." Finally, we left the brown lands and got where things were greening up. Flat gave way to hills, and they to the mighty Mississippi. . . 

On the other hand, you can't tell an effective story if you just gloss over everything. Imagine Jake's whole personal essay rendered that way.

Too Little Detail

After Dad lost his job in San Francisco, I lived with Grandpa in Marion, Ohio, until we could find a place to rent just outside of Columbus.

You need to dive into deep detail in an important moment and then provide a quick summary of other action before diving into detail again. Focus on significant events. The trip to the library, the trip to Goodwill—these changed the writer, while mile marker 193 in Kansas did not.

Review your pacing.

Reread your personal essay. If an important event gets glossed over, add details that bring it alive for readers, slowing down the pace so they can experience it firsthand. If an unimportant event drags on, delete some details, or replace the passage with a single summary sentence. Continue working until all parts have effective pacing.

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