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Clear, Concise, and Captivating: 5 Steps To Writing a Personal Essay for ESL Students--and the Rest of Us

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

If you find yourself staring at a blank computer screen and don't know where to start--read on! With a little hard work, and a solid plan, you can use your life experiences to shape your writing and impress your audience!

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    1. Make The Connection

    Start with your topic--this is generally what your essay will be about. And this is the fun part. Remember the Word Association game where Player A says a word and Player B says the first thing that comes to mind? Well freewriting is a little bit like that, only this time you will write for 10 minutes noting everything that comes to mind when you think about your topic. Whether you write in sentences or lists of words is not important; what is important, however, is that you do not stop writing until time is up! If you get stuck, repeat the word until a new idea comes. Like magic, when you read your work over you will find that the initial associations you've unearthed are the obvious ones that most of us share, but the longer you write, the more you will find the associations that are unique to you. This is writer's gold and the raw material that you will shape into your essay! Don't skip this step!

    2. Narrow Your Scope

    Now that you have your raw material, read it over and highlight the ideas that really appeal to you. Your purpose here is to figure out what you really want to say about your topic. For example, love is a pretty broad topic. What is your take on it? Love is a battlefield? Love is what makes life worth living? You decide, but you should be able to express your main idea about your topic in one or two sentences. This idea becomes the thesis of your essay.

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    3. How To Begin and How To End

    How will you engage your reader from the first line of your essay and keep their interest to the very end? Believe it or not, by using the very same language tricks! Try starting and/or ending with:

    a) A question: this will get your reader thinking about your topic and formulating their own ideas about it.

    b) A startling/surprising statistic or fact about your topic: a surefire way to pull the reader in.

    c) A quotation: begin with a thought-provoking quote that will set the tone for the essay to come.

    d) A definition: begin with Webster's take on the topic and then move onto your own.

    e) An anecdote: a very short personal story that relates to the topic you will cover in your essay.

    4. Filling It In

    You have a great opening and a good idea for a bang-up finish, so it's time to talk about what goes in-between. How do you organize your essay? Try using:

    a) Description: Use vivid language to express your own or someone else's experience with the topic.

    b) Example: Use one or more examples to explain your topic.

    c) Comparison and Contrast: Compare your topic to something that is very much like or unlike it.

    d) Cause and Effect: Explain your thesis by showing how one situation has led to another.

    e) Classification: Make your point by dividing your topic into parts and explaining each.

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    5. Revision--You Gotta Do It!

    Just because you have one draft complete doesn't mean you're done! Set it aside for a day if you can so that you can approach it a second time with "fresh eyes". Try these revision techniques to make your writing the sharpest and the most effective it can be.

    a) Read your essay out loud once or twice to yourself. Your ear will pick up mistakes and/or trouble spots that your eye will not. Even better? Have someone else read it to you--preferably a friend or family member who has a good command of the English language.

    b) Consider your audience. Who will be reading your essay? Will the teacher be the only one who sees it, or will you be reading it to the rest of the class? Does the level of language you have used work? Is it too formal? Too casual? Too slang?

    c) Is your essay full of generalizations or have you used specific language wherever possible? Instead of referring to the flowers in your garden, name them. Were they roses? Tulips? Snapdragons? You get the picture.

    d) Vary the type of sentences you use. Try using rhetorical questions, imperatives and exclamations to make your writing engaging and exciting.

    3) Use a thesaurus to avoid repeating the same words over and over.

    f) Spell check, and again have a friend or family member check for words that may be spelled correctly, but are used in the wrong context.

    If you've followed the steps and stuck with the process, then congratulations, you have a finished personal essay that you can be proud of!

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