Tips for Writing a Personal Essay

Journalists fear the “I” word, maybe even more than a libel suit. Writing about yourself is often difficult for reporters and editors whose work lives focus on others. But writing about yourself, honestly, even painfully, will make you a better reporter and editor: more empathetic, more skilled, better able to spot the universal truth in the individual story. Personal writing also generates enormous reader response. (And who knows, you might even be able to make some money!)

I. Finding Your Subject – How do I decide what to write about?

Writers in search of a subject might ask themselves these questions suggested by Boston Globe columnist and writing coach Don Murray:

  • What are you thinking about when you’re not thinking?
  • What makes you mad?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What past events were turning points in your life that you’d like to understand?
  • What do you know you should write about but have been afraid to?

II. Discovering Your Story: How do I get started?

As you think about topics and begin to write, consider these comments from two deft personal essayists:

“You can’t write a personal column without going to some very deep place inside yourself, even if it’s only for four hours. It’s almost like psychotherapy, except you’re doing it on your own. You have to pull something out of yourself and give away some important part of yourself…It’s a gift you have to give to the reader, even if it’s the most light-hearted piece in the world.”

Jennifer Allen, The New York Times

“Feeling is at the basis of everything. When I was asked to consider becoming a full-time columnist, part of my hesitation was that I knew I could not pretend to be this dispassionate, all-knowing, authoritarian voice on high. I couldn’t do that. That would be a lie….For me, it’s like The Godfather. Everything is personal.”

Donna Britt, The Washington Post

Write every day.

Writing is a process of discovery. You will discover what you want to say and how to say it in just one way: by writing. “You don’t know the story until you’ve written it,” Murray says.

Begin, as Cynthia Gorney described the beginnings of her powerful pieces for The Washington Post, with babble. Surprise yourself, as she does, by discovering the story you want to write halfway down the page.

Lower your standards.
Ignore the voice that says “This stinks” – The first step to producing copy
on deadline in time for revision that storytelling demands.
The first draft contains the promise of the final one.

III. Learning to self-edit: How do I get published?

“You write to discover what you want to say,” Murray says. “You rewrite to discover what you have said and then rewrite to make it clear to other people.”


Don’t give up

The Last Word

The personal essay assignment demands the critical thinking, communication, and collaborative skills required of today’s journalist. This is not about therapy; it’s about craft. Memoir, the writer Patricia Hampl says, is about exploration, not revelation. Like all good journalism, that requires solid reporting, critical thinking, careful editing, the skills we all hope to improve.

How To Write A Dissertation – The General Idea

So, you are preparing to write a Ph.D. dissertation in an experimental area of Computer Science. Unless you have written many formal documents before, you are in for a surprise: it’s difficult!

There are two possible paths to success:

Planning Ahead.

Few take this path. The few who do leave the University so quickly that they are hardly noticed. If you want to make a lasting impression and have a long career as a graduate student, do not choose it.


All you really have to do is outlast your doctoral committee. The good news is that they are much older than you, so you can guess who will eventually expire first. The bad news is that they are more practiced at this game (after all, they persevered in the face of their doctoral committee, didn’t they?).

Here are a few guidelines that may help you when you finally get serious about writing. The list goes on forever; you probably won’t want to read it all at once. But, please read it before you write anything.

  • A thesis is a hypothesis or conjecture.
  • A PhD dissertation is a lengthy, formal document that argues in defense of a particular thesis. (So many people use the term “thesis” to refer to the document that a current dictionary now includes it as the third meaning of “thesis”).
  • Two important adjectives used to describe a dissertation are “original” and “substantial.” The research performed to support a thesis must be both, and the dissertation must show it to be so. In particular, a dissertation highlights original contributions.
  • The scientific method means starting with a hypothesis and then collecting evidence to support or deny it. Before one can write a dissertation defending a particular thesis, one must collect evidence that supports it. Thus, the most difficult aspect of writing a dissertation consists of organizing the evidence and associated discussions into a coherent form.
  • The essence of a dissertation is critical thinking, not experimental data. Analysis and concepts form the heart of the work.
  • A dissertation concentrates on principles: it states the lessons learned, and not merely the facts behind them.
  • In general, every statement in a dissertation must be supported either by a reference to published scientific literature or by original work. Moreover, a dissertation does not repeat the details of critical thinking and analysis found in published sources; it uses the results as fact and refers the reader to the source for further details.
  • Each sentence in a dissertation must be complete and correct in a grammatical sense. Moreover, a dissertation must satisfy the stringent rules of formal grammar (e.g., no contractions, no colloquialisms, no slurs, no undefined technical jargon, no hidden jokes, and no slang, even when such terms or phrases are in common use in the spoken language). Indeed, the writing in a dissertaton must be crystal clear. Shades of meaning matter; the terminology and prose must make fine distinctions. The words must convey exactly the meaning intended, nothing more and nothing less.
  • Each statement in a dissertation must be correct and defensible in a logical and scientific sense. Moreover, the discussions in a dissertation must satisfy the most stringent rules of logic applied to mathematics and science.

Top 10 Proofreading Tips

There’s no foolproof formula for perfect proofreading every time. As Twain realized, it’s just too tempting to see what we meant to write rather than the words that actually appear on the page or screen. But these 10 tips should help you see (or hear) your errors before anybody else does.

Give it a rest.

If time allows, set your text aside for a few hours (or days) after you’ve finished composing, and then proofread it with fresh eyes. Rather than remember the perfect paper you meant to write, you’re more likely to see what you’ve actually written.

Look for one type of problem at a time.

Read through your text several times, concentrating first on sentence structures, then word choice, then spelling, and finally punctuation. As the saying goes, if you look for trouble, you’re likely to find it.

Double-check facts, figures, and proper names.

In addition to reviewing for correct spelling and usage, make sure that all the information in your text is accurate.

Review a hard copy.

Print out your text and review it line by line: rereading your work in a different format may help you catch errors that you previously missed.

Read your text aloud.

Or better yet, ask a friend or colleague to read it aloud. You may hear a problem (a faulty verb ending, for example, or a missing word) that you haven’t been able to see.

Use a spellchecker.

The spellchecker can help you catch repeated words, reversed letters, and many other common errors–but it’s certainly not goofproof.

Trust your dictionary.

Your spellchecker can tell you only if a word is a word, not if it’s the right word. For instance, if you’re not sure whether sand is in a desert or a dessert, visit the dictionary (or our Glossary of Commonly Confused Words).

Read your text backward.

Another way to catch spelling errors is to read backward, from right to left, starting with the last word in your text. Doing this will help you focus on individual words rather than sentences.

Create your own proofreading checklist.

Keep a list of the types of mistakes you commonly make, and then refer to that list each time you proofread.

Ask for help.

Invite someone else to proofread your text after you have reviewed it. A new set of eyes may immediately spot errors that you’ve overlooked.

How to Close an Informative Essay

An informative essay, also known as an expository essay, contains factual information based on detailed research. However, a successful essay should also give your readers a fresh perspective on a subject — a well-thought-out conclusion helps you to do this more effectively. Rather than simply summarizing what you’ve already said, your conclusion should leave a lasting impression. You can do this by adding new information or insights that back up the information you’ve already presented, or ending your essay on a surprising or provocative note that gives your reader more food for thought.

Step 1

Echo your introduction. This adds an elegant touch, bringing your essay full circle and creating a sense of cohesion in your reader’s mind. If, for example, you begin an informative essay about a famous poet’s birthplace with a detailed description of the ivy-covered cottage where he grew up, you would end it by giving your reader a fresh perspective on the original scene. You could say something like: “As night fell and the last tourists headed for home, a stray cat nestled against the sheltering ivy and I couldn’t help but muse on the irony that this particular poet loved cats but loathed uninvited human guests.”

Step 2

Challenge your readers. End your essay on a provocative note to engage your reader’s attention. An essay about the effects of global warming might, for example, conclude with a quotation from an environmental expert about how people need to stop being complacent about the earth’s resources and adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Step 3

Focus on the future. Point your reader toward long-term implications of your essay’s findings. An essay about falling educational standards might end by discussing briefly the personal and economic implications for future generations.

Step 4

Pose a question. A pertinent question encourages readers to explore your essay’s key themes from a different angle and possibly conduct further research. An essay about social networking, for example, could ask whether online relationships bring people together or promote social alienation. Include two quotes that express opposing viewpoints to balance the essay and let the reader make up his own mind.

How long should an essay or research paper be?

These tips on how long an essay, research paper or writing assignment will help you make good grades and take your papers and essays from just ok to an A+ paper. Keep reading to finds some tips on essay writing such as how long an essay should be and how to make your essay longer or how make a research paper shorter.

How do you know how long an essay should be?

Many times an instructor will tell you how long an essay or a research paper should be or give you a page number range, such as saying the paper should be between 5-7 pages. If you don’t have a page range, the length of your essay can depend on a lot of things. When in doubt, ask for guidance. If you can’t get help, you’ll have to guess.

During an essay test, usually one or two paragraphs will answer short essay questions.

For big essay tests, where there is only 1 question for a whole hour-long test, you will be expected to compose an entire essay. In that case, write 5 paragraphs including all the parts of a composition of between 1-2 written pages.

For high school papers, usually teachers want normal essays or research papers to be between 3-5 pages, and they expect more like 5-7 pages for final papers. In middle school or junior high school, normal papers will probably be 1-2 pages in length and final paper 2-4. Naturally, you should go by what your teacher tells you and only use this as a guide if you don’t have more information.

In college, it depends on what level the class is and the level of importance of an assignment. Early in the semester or to review reading assignments, you will only have to write maybe 1-3 pages, or 5-7 for more important tasks.

For an final paper in an intro or 100-level college class, professors don’t usually ask for more than 10-12 pages. For a final research paper at a 300-400 level or upper level course, you can be expected to produce papers of 15-20 pages. Naturally, this depends on the university you’re attending, the professors’ preferences and your field of study. Math majors will not have to write long papers. History majors will write lots of lengthy papers.

How long is each part of an essay?

If you are wondering how long each part of an essay (the introduction, the body and the conclusion) should be, here are some ideas of how to balance the length. The overall length of an essay will often depends on how big the topic is.

The list below will give you a rough idea, but the main point is that each part should be in proportion to the other parts. As an essay gets longer, the body should become longer than the corresponding introduction. The below outlines can give you a rough idea. Most teachers will not fault you for going too long, but they will dock your grade for writing too short of an essay, so err on the side of too long if you have to go one way.

How long should each section of a paper be?

As an essay gets longer, each part must get longer to balance. Your introduction and conclusion will always be the shortest parts, and should be similar in length. They will ALWAYS be shorter than the body of the paper. Every essay needs an intro, a body and a conclusion.

For a 1 page essay or to write an answer to a long essay test, make each section one paragraph.

1. Introduction with thesis statement, 1 paragraph
2. Body point A, 1 paragraph
3. Body point B, 1 paragraph
4. Body point C, 1 paragraph
5. Conclusion, 1 paragraph

For a 5 page essay:

1. Introduction, about 3/4 to 1 page
2. Body point A, about 1 page
3. Body point B, about 1 page
4. Body point C, about 1 page
5. Conclusion, about 3/4 to 1 page

For a 10 page paper:

1. Introduction, about 1 page or 1 and a 1/2 pages
2. Body point A, about 2 and a 1/2 pages
3. Body point B, about 2 and a 1/2 pages
4. Body point C, about 2 and a 1/2 pages
5. Conclusion, 1 page or 1 and a 1/2 pages

For a 15 page paper:

1. Introduction, about 1 and a 1/2 or 2 pages
2. Body point A, about 4 pages
3. Body point B, about 4 pages
4. Body point C, about 4 pages
5. Conclusion, about 1 and a 1/2 or 2 pages

What is a thesis defense?

What is a thesis defense?

A thesis defense has two parts: a thesis and a defense. The second mistake many students make is not knowing what their thesis is. The third mistake is not knowing how to defend it. (The first mistake is describe later.)

What is a thesis?

Your thesis is not your dissertation. Neither is it a one liner about what you are doing. Your thesis is “a position or proposition that a person (as a candidate for scholastic honors) advances and offers to maintain by argument.” [Webster's 7th New Collegiate Dictionary]. “I looked at how people play chess” is not a thesis; ” people adapt memories of old games to play new games” is. Similarly, “I wrote a program to play chess” is not a thesis; “playing chess requires a database of actual games” is. A thesis has to claim something.

There are many kinds of theses, especially in computer science, but most of them can be lumped into one of the following classes:

  • process X is a feasible way to do task Y
  • process X is a better way to do task Y than any previously known method
  • task Y requires process X
  • people use process X to do task Y
  • process X is a terrible way to do Y
  • people don’t use process X

Feel free to substitute “process X” with “memory organization X” or what ever else might make one theory different from another. Make sure you clearly specify the class of tasks Y to which your thesis applies.

Besides being a proposition, a thesis has to have another property: it must say something new. “Understanding natural language requires context” is not a thesis (except maybe in a linguistics department); “process X is a feasible mechanism for adding context sensitivity to natural language understanders” is, as is “context is not required for visual understanding.

What is a defense?

A defense presents evidence for a thesis. What kind of evidence is apprpropriate depends on what kind of thesis is being defended.

Thesis: process X is a feasible way to do task Y

One defense for this kind of claim is an analysis of the complexity, or completeness, or whatever, of the theoretical algorithm. In computer science, the more common defense is based on empirical results from running an experiment. A good defense here means more than one example, and answers to questions such as the following. What are the capabilities and limits of your experiment? How often do the things that your experiment does come up in the real world? What’s involved in extending it? If it’s easy to extend, why haven’t you? If your example is a piece of a larger system, how realistic are your assumptions about input and output?

Thesis: process X is a better way to do task Y than any previously known method

The same kind of defense applies here as in the previous case, but now serious comparisons with previous systems are required. Can your result do the same examples the previous results did, or can you make them do yours? Can you prove they couldn’t do your examples? If you claim to be more efficient, what are you measuring?

Thesis: task Y requires process X

This is usually defended by a logical argument. It is usually very tough to do, even if the argument doesn’t have to be formalized.

Thesis: people use process X to do task Y

Many students make the mistake of picking this kind of thesis to defend. It requires serious experimental evidence to defend, unless your real thesis is of the previous form, i.e., only process X is possible. Selected excerpts from protocols and surveys of your officemates are not psychological evidence, no matter how much they might have inspired your work.

Thesis: process X is a terrible way to do Y, or people don’t use process X

This is a reasonable thesis if process X is a serious contender. The defense would be an analysis of the limits of process X, i.e., things it can’t do, or things it does wrong, along with evidence that those things matter.

So You’re Defending Your Dissertation Tomorrow!

Dearest ATS,

Congratulations: It’s a BOOK!

Your 273-page volume–the weighty, serious, mighty tome–is sitting in the center of my cluttered desk. Since it’s bigger than everything else around it (how small and slight those 20-page student papers look in comparison!), I can’t miss it. It’ll be there tomorrow when we all meet to perform the one-to-two-hour ritual during which you “defend” your work to your advisers, your committee members, and your colleagues.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, photocopied and given away to friends and students so often over the years I no longer have a version, was of a woman reaching across a seminar table and socking a guy in the eye in front of six well-dressed adults, with one of them commenting to the group “Excellent defense. Let’s give her the doctorate!”

It won’t be like that tomorrow, I promise. You’ve already won this race; now there’s nothing to do but enjoy the scenery as you cross the finish line. As your adviser, you know I would have counseled you to postpone if I thought you weren’t ready. But you’re ready. In fact, because you are almost comically ready, the following five pieces of advice are the only ones I can offer:

1. Wear comfortable clothes. We’ll be sitting in fairly uncomfortable chairs for at least an hour and a half and you don’t want to be pulling, tugging, worrying, or adjusting. The last thing you want to think about as you’re answering an intriguing question about the theoretical implications of revising your work for a wider audience is whether your Spanx is crawling up above your waistline and will, when moving towards your mid-section, be in danger of actually cutting off your oxygen-supply.

2. Remember that you’ve earned the right to be considered the expert in the room. When you started writing about this topic, I knew more about it than you did. Now you know more than I do. That’s exactly how it’s meant to work: Because of the research, the scholarship, the thinking, the writing, and the time you’ve put into your dissertation, you are the one person who can answer with authority the questions we’ll ask. Show everybody in the room evidence of that authority. Enjoy the sense of mastery; let us see how at ease you are with your subject.

3. Bring water. Brings lots of water. Your mouth will go dry. You’ll be the focus of all attention and it’ll be amazed how depleted you can become merely from turning your head one side of the room to the other–even when you are at ease with your subject.

4. Remember that part of what will happen during the defense will have more to do with the personalities of the faculty who attend the session than it will have to do with you, your dissertation, or your subject area. People will use questions to draw attention to their own peeves or pet theories; they might pose questions having almost nothing to do with anything you’re talking about simply in order to make themselves heard; they might–on rare occasions–want to impress someone else in the room. If you can’t address their question directly, see if you can rephrase it in such a way that it draws you back to an argument you’d like to make concerning your work. It’s part of your adviser’s job to make sure nobody else steals the show from you, so I’ll try to make sure nothing goes too far off course.

5. It’ll be over before you know it and I bet your big regret will be that you didn’t get to say half of what you’d hoped to say. Don’t worry: That’s what the next three or four decades of your successful career will allow you to do.

And that’s why awarding you the Ph.D. tomorrow will be a celebration of the beginning of things. You’ll be fine.

Go get ‘em.

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