Personal Narrative Workshop- 2011 Workshop

Presenter: Aaron Milstead

Potential Pitfalls of Assigning a Personal Narrative Essay

  1. Students oftentimes feel like nothing important has ever happened to them.
  2. Students feel like the only important issues they have faced are first love or drug/alcohol usage (which typically leads to clichéd papers).
  3. Students typically feel like the only subjects worth exploring are the darkest recesses of their psyche (this can become draining for the teacher).

Writing as a Recursive Process

The “Post-writing” phase refers to each draft, not to one final submission. Each time you prepare to pass a draft to someone to read over, you should go through the following procedure:

Revise: i.e. review your text with a view to altering, amending and improving the entire message.

Edit: i.e. prepare the draft by checking your style, word choice, and grammar.

Proofread: i.e. examine the final typed manuscript to spot any last-minute errors. With a Word Processor, it means using a Spellchecker and Grammar checker, if there is one available.

All three stages are important. We can look at the writing process as follows, beginning with the Pre-Writing stage, narrowing the topic down, writing the paper, revising, then editing and finally proof-reading. What we should also factor into the model is the element of ‘recursion’, because the movement down to the specifics is never linear.  There is always another shift back to a more general level of revision, where a re-reading reveals something you see can be expressed more clearly. So the diagram might look like this:

Youtube Video on Writing the Personal Narrative



How Can Students Be Rewarded for Exemplary Essays?

Top Student Papers Can Be Submitted To the Scholastic Arts and Writing Competition

At the national level, $10,000 scholarships are given to 15 graduating seniors who earn Portfolio Gold Medals in the Art, Photography, General Writing and Nonfiction categories. This year, an additional 30 seniors will earn $1,000 Distinguished Achievement Awards.


These are the two eligible types of writing:


A self-revelatory work dealing with individual experience.

Special Instructions: Nonfiction work only. Fictional essays should be submitted in the Short Story or Short Short Story categories.Grades 7 – 8

500 – 3,000 words

Grades 9 – 12

750 – 3,000 words



A highly focused story concerning a central idea, conflict or situation.

Special Instructions: Please note word length for Short Story compared to Short Short Story. Short Short Stories in which humor or science fiction/fantasy are key elements should be submitted in those respective categories.Grades 7 – 12

600 – 1,300 words

The teachers are also recognized and given awards presented at the ceremony

With the following prompt one of my students last semester submitted his personal narrative and won the Gold Key: The highest level of achievement on the regional level. Gold Key works are forwarded to New York City for national adjudication.

Personal Narrative Assignment

Brief Description

Interview a person age 60 or older in order to learn about significant events in their lives.


Students will

  • Gain an understanding of the importance of oral history.
  • Build listening skills.
  • Practice effective interviewing and note-taking techniques.
  • Learn empathetic writing. 

Materials Needed

  • A typed sheet of questions.
  • A tape recorder or camcorder. 

The Lesson

In this activity each student writes a narrative in the voice of the individual they have interviewed.


Writing Good Interview Questions

The key to writing a good narrative is having good material to work with and the key to getting good material is asking good questions. Have students work individually or in small groups to come up with questions to ask. Then you might set aside a time for students to share the questions they create. Talk about the questions that are the most interesting and why they are the most interesting. In that way, students think critically about the reasons for asking questions and about the questions that might result in the most interesting responses. After talking about what makes questions good, students create their final question sheet, which should contain about 15-20 questions.  Questions might include some of the following:

  • What was the happiest time in your life?
  • What are the most significant ways in which the world has changed since you were a student my age?
  • What technological advances have most surprised you?
  • What one or two things have changed little or not at all since you were a student?
  • What is the most significant political event you have witnessed?
  • What did you do for fun as a child?
  • What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life? How did you learn it?

Take good notes as you record the responses to your questions. 

Keys to success

  • Try to recreate as accurately as possible the language, expressions, and idioms the individual used.
  • Stay true to the information you gathered.
  • Present information in logical order.
  • Include as many vivid details as possible in your presentation.
  • Use humor where it is appropriate.

Personal Narrative Rubric

The following checklist serves as a rubric that is effective for grading Personal Narratives and helps the student understanding that writing is not purely subjective.

Rough Drafts

  1. Include all of the drafts and previous peer reviews. Remember that writing is a recursive process that begins with brainstorming, moves on to the first draft (during which time you disassociate from your internal critic) and continues through the various drafts until finally resulting in a polished final draft. For clarification refer to the essay on creating a Crappy First Draft.


  1. Double spaced.
  2. Heading.
  3. Your last name followed by the page number on every page.
  4. 12 point times new roman.
  5. A Works Cited page if you quoted any materials.
  6. The essay is a minimum of 4 complete pages (meaning that it must naturally roll over to the 5th page.



  1. It is original.
  2. It is catchy.
  3. It somehow references the essay.



  1. It engages and hooks your target audience.
  2. It is consistent with the theme of your narrative.


Sentence and Paragraph Structure

  1. Sentence length and structure varies (we have worked on sentence structures ranging from simple sentences to compound, complex, and compound-complex).
  2. Paragraph length varies according to need. Longer paragraphs are utilized to slow down the narrative flow and shorter paragraphs are used to speed it up.
  3. The concept of the five paragraph essay has been discarded.
  4. The transitions between paragraphs are logical.



  1. Stay in first person (be especially careful to avoid second person “you”).
  2. Correct any run-on sentences.
  3. Correct any sentence fragments.
  4. Correct any coma splices.
  5. Keep your tense consistent (in all likelihood writing in past tense and avoiding present tense).
  6. Make certain that action sequences take place in the proper time continuum.



  1. Provide external conflict along with internal conflict and self-reflection.
  2. The “So What?” question is answered.

 Student Sample: Personal Narrative