Whether you are writing a college application essay or creative nonfiction, this guide will help you how to write about experience.
There are many theories about how and why humans evolved to have an unparalleled capacity for language. One theory is that two million years ago, early humans developed language to describe their personal experiences with toolmaking to teach those skills to others.
When you write nonfiction about your own experience, in any format, you are doing something profound. You are creating an opportunity for empathy and learning.
Writing about your own experience may sound easy (after all, you’re the world’s foremost expert on yourself), but it isn’t always as simple as “Me name Oog. Me make knife by flaking chip from stone, see!” The personal essay writing process is full of risks and potential pitfalls. However, doing it well is within nearly anyone’s grasp if they follow a few basic steps.
Step 1: Choose a Topic
If you’re old enough to write a personal essay, you’ve lived long enough to have a wealth of experiences to write about. You may think nobody would want to read about your boring life, but you’re wrong. The key is simply choosing the right experiences to write about.
Write About Tension and Conflict
In any piece of writing—a novel, a memoir, or even a college application essay—the number one way to keep a reader’s interest is to focus on two dynamics: tension and conflict. Ideally, this will include both external conflict (you versus an obstacle in the outside world) and an internal conflict (you versus yourself, emotionally speaking).
Conflict is essential for a good essay. Nobody wants to read about the dinner party you hosted where the food turned out great, the guests all got along, and someone helped you do the dishes before they left. Instead, they want to read about the dinner party you hosted where one guest threw a glass of wine in her husband’s face before storming out. Conflict makes every story more interesting.
Tension is different from conflict, but they are related. One form of tension is that uneasy period of waiting for the obviously inevitable conflict to occur. For example, suppose conflict is a glass of wine to the face.
In that case, tension is the wife slicing her steak viciously as she watches her husband play footsie with another woman, growing red-faced with anger, standing up to leave, realizing she has a glass of wine in her hand, throwing it, and the horrifying slow-motion sequence of red wine flying through the air on the way to her husband’s face.
Tension can take a variety of other forms. Foreshadowing can create tension. If you mention that the party ended with a glass of wine to the face, but you start by describing a party that is going smoothly, the reader’s curiosity about how the party went from A to point Z can create tension.
The subtext is another good strategy. If you can give the reader the feeling that not all is as it appears or that they know more than the characters do, the reader will wonder if and how the characters will figure it out and what conflict will result.
Write About Growth
There are exceptions, but in general, readers find stasis boring and growth interesting. Even in the case of our caveman Oog describing his innovative stone tool construction technique, communicating about how you learned to do something important is intrinsically interesting. That is why 99% of protagonists in fiction (James Bond excluded) experience an arc of personal growth over the course of a story. Nonfiction is no different.
Phillip Lopate, an expert on the art of creative nonfiction, calls it the “double-perspective.” He explains, “In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double-perspective, which will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say) while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”
This does not necessarily mean that your writing should contain anything as heavy-handed as an explicit lesson or moral. Instead, your goal should be to balance clarity and subtlety. The key is to show growth rather than merely telling the reader that you grew.
Write About Something Remarkable Yet Relatable
One of my mother’s favorite stories is about a “rubber” chicken. In this story, she, a newlywed, prepared a wonderful dinner to impress her in-laws. As she carried out a platter topped with a golden, steaming, juicy chicken that she had roasted to perfection, she tripped on a rug.
Everyone stared as the chicken launched off the platter, bouncing across the room like a rubber ball. Concealing her panic with an upbeat tone, she said, “Oops! I’ll be right back.” She picked the chicken up from the floor, took it into the kitchen, dusted it off, put it back on the platter, and walked back into the dining room. Beaming, she announced, “Good thing I roasted a backup chicken!”
It could have happened to anyone. Something like it (embarrassment at the moment you’re trying your hardest to impress someone) has happened to everyone. It is entirely relatable, but it is also remarkable. It is a story with tension and humor baked in (pardon the pun). The visual image of the chicken bouncing across the room is memorable. Listening to the story, I felt her triumph as she overcame her panic and devised a creative solution.
The point is you don’t need to have worked as a war zone medic or climbed Mt. Everest to write a compelling story about your own experience. You simply need to mine your memories for moments that will surprise your readers, spark an emotional response, and engage their empathy.
Step 2: Brainstorm and Build
Coming up with the base topic that will form the backbone of your essay is the easy part. The next step is to develop the idea into a draft.
Listing Ten Ideas
If I had in mind that I wanted to write a story about my mother, I might start by thinking about how she is a kind and caring person. She grew up on a farm, and she taught me to read … BORING! When it comes to writing essays, the first idea is rarely the best idea.
One great strategy for digging deeper, to find the truly interesting story, is to make a list. Force yourself to make a list of at least ten different things you could write about that fit the subject.
Even if you love the second or third idea, press on and write at least ten bullet points. You may stick with the second idea, but it’s more likely that around idea eight or nine, you’ll start running out of steam, and then BAM! You’ll remember the rubber chicken.
Even if you already have the central spine of your story, you can use this technique to flesh it out. I might try to think of the top ten lessons I learned from hearing my mother’s rubber chicken story (stay calm, think fast, lie when necessary, don’t put throw rugs in the dining room, always cook a backup chicken, etc.). Just remember that your first idea will almost always be the most boring, obvious idea. Dig through the chaff until you get to the wheat.
Mind maps are a great way to brainstorm connections that will give your essay depth. Take your central idea and write it in the center of the page, and then circle it. For example, I might write “Rubber Chicken” in the middle as my starting point.
Then draw lines radiating away from the circle, and at the end of each line, write down an idea related (even if tangentially) to the central topic. For example, my second-level ideas might include connections like “Mom teaching me how to cook,” “Vegetarianism,” “When honest people lie,” “Overcoming humiliation,” and “Disastrous first impressions.” Write as many as you can.
Circle each second-level idea, then repeat the process. Then see if you can find connections between any second and third-level ideas and draw lines connecting them.
In going through this process, I might discover that rather than writing about my mother’s rubber chicken story itself, I really want to write about terrible first date experiences (connecting the humiliation and first impressions topics). I might realize that I can use the rubber chicken story as an anecdote that contrasts how I actually handled a disastrous blind date with how I wish I’d handled it.
These kinds of unexpected connections often result in the most innovative essays.
One of my favorite essays that I’ve written appeared in my mind, fully formed, after I read a truly stunning essay (Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams.”). I set the book down on the couch next to me and grabbed my laptop to start writing. When I finally stood up, five thousand words later, I had a free-write that, with editing, became a pretty strong essay.
It is rarely the case that a brain dump results in a structurally sound essay in the first draft. But even when the result is a hot mess that will never see the light of day, it is an extremely valuable exercise.
A no-thoughts-censored free-write uses the momentum of your internal, intuitive sense of narrative to help you uncover ideas that you would never have thought of simply by making lists or writing your first draft using a pre-determined structure and outline.
You might only save a sentence or two from your free-write to use in your actual essay. Still, the process of getting into a flow state, writing without constraints, simply letting your brain wander is an invaluable creative process. You might need to repeatedly free-write related themes to find the magical glue that holds your essay together.
Step 4: Revise, Revise, Revise
This section is not simply called “Revise” because the truth is virtually no great essays about your experience result from one writing session and one revision session. Therefore, revision should be viewed not as a single editing pass but as a series of them, each targeting a specific aspect of the essay.
It is crucial to find the proper structure for your topic. Once you do, you may need to rewrite substantial sections of your draft or write entirely new sections. Therefore, structural revision should always be the first editing pass you make to save yourself wasted time and effort (for example, time spent proofreading a section you end up cutting).
You can go with a standard structure, like chronological order, or using a “frame story” (for example, starting with a flash-forward to the ending, then moving back in time to tell the story in a chronological format), or the classic three-act structure (set-up, rising action, and climax/resolution).
You can also try a more creative or innovative structure. The “braided essay,” in which you have several distinct threads/stories that weave together, is a great choice.
You may need to try fitting your essay into several structures before you find the one that works best for describing your experience. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.
At the same time, don't get so attached to a structural gimmick (reverse-chronological order, or present tense, or anything other than first-person, for example) that it distracts from the substance of your writing.
Once you have the general structure, consider how you’ve integrated your major themes. Do they cohere, or do they send the reader’s mind heading in too many directions? Are they too obvious, or are they too subtle? Can you find ways to represent your theme implicitly, using symbolic images?
For example, is there an anecdote you can swap out for a different one that addresses the theme more meaningfully?
If it turns out all of your content related to one theme is in the last third of your essay, consider how you can sprinkle it into the beginning. Or perhaps you’ll want to do the opposite.
Is your essay structured to build up to a huge and unexpected revelation? Maybe you want to cut out obvious hints about the revelation that slipped into the first half.
Only after the substance of the essay feels solid should you give serious attention to your sentence quality, but that doesn’t make it any less important. If you have any doubt about the power of style to elevate an essay, read one by David Sedaris, Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson, or James Baldwin.
When you’re editing for style, one of the best strategies is reading your essay aloud. Consider how your sentence length and structure affect pacing and emphasis.
Remember that you’re writing about your experience, so the authorial voice should sound like you. You can aim for a slightly elevated version of how you normally speak, but be careful not to elevate it too much. Many otherwise delightful essays have been ruined by overly formal diction or overuse of a thesaurus.
Revision is a great time to inject some humor. You might also do a little research and include a quotation that fits your theme or some factual information that contextualizes the personal experience you’re writing about.
Try to replace vague, mundane details with unusual, specific information. (My mother’s roasted chicken didn’t just fall to the floor, it bounced across the room like a rubber ball, for example.) Replace the passive voice with action verbs. Find good opportunities for figurative language, but don’t overdo it.
Only when your essay feels like it’s polished and firing on all cylinders should you bother to look for typos and formatting problems. Unfortunately, by this time, you will likely be unable to actually read your essay. Instead, your eyes will skip over it and read what you expect to see there rather than the words that are actually on the page.
That makes it extremely important to have a friend proofread your essay rather than doing it all yourself. The good news is, your essay should be so well-written at this point, from your previous rounds of editing, that it will be a pleasure for your friend to read for you.
The Bottom Line on Writing About Experiences
There are certain essays and essay collections that stick with you. Sometimes it’s because the author had a truly extraordinary experience, but more often is because in reflecting on the subject, the author showed genuine insight into their own life that sparks the reader to have a new understanding of their own life.
With deliberate use of conflict, vivid detail, and the double-perspective, you can elevate your own experience and inspire others with your writing.
FAQs on How to Write About Experience
What Are Some Good Topics For A Life Experience Essay?
You can’t go wrong following the three guidelines described above (write about tension and conflict, write about growth, and write about something remarkable but relatable). However, the specific experiences you write about should be guided by the goal of the writing.
For example, if you’re writing a college application essay, make sure that you directly and specifically answer the prompt. If the application asks, “Describe a person you admire and why,” don’t forget to explain the why (not just what admirable thing the person did, but why that thing mattered to you personally). But even though the prompt doesn’t ask it, remember the overall Why? Why should they want a student like you at their university?
The same principle applies when writing about your work history and other relevant experience for a prospective employer. Perhaps above all, the university or hiring manager you’re writing for wants to see that you have the potential, under their guidance, to grow as an intellectual/professional and as a human being. So show them that you know how to grow.
Even if you’re writing an essay that is more creative, more literary, focusing on the double-perspective is often the easiest way to find an essay topic with enough meaningful substance to mine. Look for a past experience that is vivid in your memory (so that you can accurately and compellingly portray your younger self’s experience) but is also remote enough to show growth (by contrasting the at-the-time experience with a new perspective).
Trauma can be a tempting starting point for an essay, but be cautious. Unless you have sufficient distance and have done the hard work of processing and recovery, trauma can be just as challenging to read as it is to write. A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t write about your trauma without including at least a few moments of levity, you aren’t ready to write about it for others to read.
What Are Examples Of Personal Experiences?
If you’re trying to write about your experiences and still struggling to come up with a subject, here are five great starting points:
1. Write about a time when you faced significant obstacles and overcame them.
2. Write about the end of a meaningful relationship, for better or worse.
3. Write about the first time you visited a place totally unlike your usual environment and what it showed you about your blind spots.
4. Write about a firmly held belief you used to have and what changed your mind.
5. Write about a habit that is important to you and how you formed it.
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