Here’s a great criteria checklist for the personal essay genre, whether you’re writing them or teaching students how to write them. I discovered it yesterday while browsing the pages of What the Writing Tutor Needs to Know by Margot Iris Soven (Thomson Wadsworth: 2006).
- Does the essay enlighten the reader through an interpretation of self, the self in relation to others, or the self in relation to the world?
- Is there sufficient description of events and people?
- Does the essay convey the author’s mood or feelings?
- Has the author responded to all of the questions in the assignment?
- Is the style personal? (Usually includes the personal pronoun “I,” descriptive adjectives, and conversational language.)
- Are mechanics correct? (Soven 131)
There are so many aspects of this that I like. Most attractively, it’s simple, yet manages not to be vague. Furthermore, the list leads with the hardest tasks — enlightenment and interpretation — which nod at the key feature of an essay; it’s idea-driven. The essay’s relationship to the reader is emphasized. “Sufficient” detail is enough; description does not have to be exhaustive.
Mentally, I measured some of my essays-in-progress against this list, and some of them passed and a few did not. About the few that seem still to be lacking, I realized that I am still struggling with the first item. What are the essays about, at the level of the idea? They might tell a story, or present anecdotes and observations, but they do not (yet) present to a reader an original interpretation of the story or anecdotes.
I’m not teaching the essay this year — all my classes are science writing ones — but, if I were, I’d use this checklist with students, to help them make observations about essays written by other authors as a way to get them thinking critically and creatively about their own. In the meantime, I’ll apply this checklist to my work.