All Writing is About Understanding Audience

Put yourself in the shoes of your writing teacher: they are probably 40 years old (or older), have between 50 and 150 students, and have read hundreds if not thousands of essays. What would they like to read?

Probably NOT the typical narrative essay written by a typical student.

The typical Narrative Essay assignment asks the writer to, “illustrate a pivotal event in their life.”

So students write about how their team won the big game, or a breakup with a boyfriend/girlfriend, or how a grandparent’s death affected them, or about their parent’s divorce.

These essays can be heartfelt, but they aren’t accomplishing the real goals of the narrative essay: to reflect, analyze, and illustrate with evocative evidence. And, regardless of whether it is clear in the assignment instructions, the writer’s job is always to engage the audience.

Here’s a summary of thousands of narrative essays written every year:

  • Our team struggled mightily and lost many games
  • We fought, but pulled together before THE BIG GAME
  • Although it was close (maybe the author was injured), we won (or lost) THE BIG Game and learned:
    • Teamwork is important!
    • Leadership can really make a difference!
  • In conclusion, I’m glad I played a sport and I’ve learned SO much from the experience!

Why isn’t this satisfying to your audience (i.e. the writing teacher)? Because, while the events are important to the writer, they come across as mind-numbingly formulaic to the audience. Some writing teacher we know ban sports events as subject matter altogether, because the results are so often cliched and vacuous.

When students write about trauma, whether a car wreck or the death of a relative, the results can be even worse. The audience (the writing teacher!) is put in the position of criticizing someone’s tragic experience – not for the content of the experience, but for the way it has been written. Good writing doesn’t just happen because your best friend died of cancer; in fact, heavyweight subject matter like this can be more challenging.

How to Write a Compelling Personal Narrative That Will Earn a Good (Better) Grade

All of this sounds daunting, but the predictability of most student writing is your greatest opportunity.

Most challenges in life can be better understood if you ask, “what do they REALLY want?”

The “illustrate a pivotal event in your life” question (and its variations) is really asking:

  • Tell a story, and tell it well.
    • Start in the middle of the action (Not, “I was born in 1993 in Ohio”) and use evocative, unpredictable detail to paint pictures with words.
  • Communicate how the events of the story changed you, or made you think differently, in unpredictable ways.
This last piece is the part most writing instructors leave out. Example:

If your parents got divorced when you were in high school then we might expect that you felt abandoned, or had to make some tough decisions (who to live with).

Big deal. That’s predictable.

But what if the parent you chose to live with moved to a much more exciting neighborhood? What if you ended up being happy, at least partly, that your parents split up?

This conclusion would be counterintuitive, and therefore interesting (potentially) to your audience. And perhaps your secret happiness made you feel guilty? Even more to write about. You could frame the story around the first time you ventured out of your new house and discovered your new world. Describe the skate park, or ocean, or the small-time pot dealer you met – whatever.

Of course writing about pot dealers might not be your best choice. Generally speaking, college professors will be pretty liberal about subject matter. And reading about pot dealers sure beats (yet another) state championship soccer game story. You need to balance something you would like to write about with what might entertain and engage your audience.