– Personal essay checklist

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).

  1. 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?
  2. Is there sufficient description of events and people?
  3. Does the essay convey the author’s mood or feelings?
  4. Has the author responded to all of the questions in the assignment?
  5. Is the style personal? (Usually includes the personal pronoun “I,” descriptive adjectives, and conversational language.)
  6. 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.

6 thoughts on “– Personal essay checklist

  1. Actually, I’m teaching a course in ethnographic writing this semester, and this same list would be ideal for that kind of work as well. I’m going to shamelessly cut and paste that list into a handout! And I’ll have to track down that book, as well. Thanks, Jane.

  2. Interesting list. I could use it in my peer education course and use it for myself.

    The only part of it I don’t find helpful–that annoys me even–is number six. The wording is vague. Are mechanics important, or is this question just tacked on to calm grammarians’ nerves? What does she mean by “correct”? I like the placement of the question; I think it’s the last thing a writer should consider. But I also believe mechanics are important enough to deserve a clearer guideline. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to make sure the use of language doesn’t distract. I’d revise it this way: “Do mechanics the writer’s ideas to be effectively communicated?”

  3. Oops. I meant to write, “Do the mechanics allow the writer’s ideas to be effectively communicated?” For the end of my last comment, the answer would be a big “not so much.” 🙂

  4. j3 — I agree that the last item is appropriately placed in the hierarchy and also vaguely worded. Perhaps it would seem less vague if I had provided some context for this list: it was developed by the LaSalle writing center for its tutors to use in tutorials. I think the last item reminds tutors and students to consider mechanics and, if they have been provided, to refer to the assigning professor’s requirements for the personal essay when it comes to punctuation, spelling, citations, etc. I have a feeling that the item is deliberately terse (and therefore vague) so that tutors and students respect but don’t slavishly attend to mechanics.

    Your wording is better, and gives more control to the writer. It could also lead to some interesting discussions about mechanics and choices between a tutor and writer, and also, if a prof would make room for it, between a prof and his/her students.

  5. As a student I have bookmarked this checklist and will make use of it.

    As for mechanics, my prof’s attitude goes something like this: know the rule, and know why you are breaking it.

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