5 strategies for teaching personal writing

As a teacher of English, getting the learners in my class involved in personal writing is never too far from my radar. Whether it’s a first year pupil writing me a short autobiography so I can get to know them quickly or an S6 student trying to upgrade their Higher result by delivering a more powerful folio, I feel as if I am never too far away from someone sharing their experiences with me on the page. I must say that I find it a privilege to have young people willing to tell me their personal stories, adventures and anecdotes (sometimes confessions too!).

As a genre I do find that most pupils discover personal writing a rewarding experience. I think the reason for this might be that it gives them the chance to show how important their lives and worlds are; that it is an extension of the fact that many of us just like a natter - whether boasting, gossiping, or reporting on something that has happened. Maybe they are used to speaking in their homes (“How was your day?”, “How did you get on at the dentist?”), and thus find writing about their lives a fairly accessible form.

There are plenty of reasons why personal writing is worthwhile.

There are plenty of reasons why personal writing is worthwhile other than the fact that most pupils quite enjoy it and think it is a relatively straightforward genre to get their teeth into. Of course, like any writing activity, it gives a chance for pupils to improve their literacy skills which as a teacher of English I look upon as a huge part of my core business. Writing from a personal viewpoint can also encourage creativity just as much as writing an imaginative story or response as the writer is challenged to manipulate language for effect to ensure that the reader is interested. In addition, there is a huge amount of emotional development that can take place in the personal writing process: youngsters are encouraged to reflect on their moral position and maturity in certain situations and grapple with their reactions to the thoughts and feelings of others.

Below are five aspects that I try to develop when approaching personal writing with pupils.

Settling on a topic

There is inspiration everywhere for personal writing and finding something to write about is not usually a problem. I am often asked, “Is it okay to write about ________?” for example 'My Holiday to Spain'. The answer to this is yes, but depending on the age of and stage of the pupil it might need refined a little. An essay submitted as part of a Higher folio is unlikely to receive much in the way of acclaim if it follows a simple linear structure: "On Monday we went to the airport and I was scared…On Tuesday we went to the beach… On Wednesday my dad fell downstairs… and then… and then…". Too often, then, the canvas is too broad and needs to be narrowed down. In the case of the holiday to Spain example it might be more fruitful to focus on the fear of flying or the incident of how dad fell down the stairs.

If there is a bit of a problem getting the pupil to come up with a memory to write about I find that getting pupils to reminisce about their childhoods is a goldmine of possible subjects. On a recent Arvon residential course with some of our S3 learners, award-winning writer Kate Clanchy did a fantastic little poetry exercise that not only got the pupils writing some great poems but offered an opportunity to mine memory banks for potentially golden recollections. Kate issued the budding writers three poems, A View of Things by Edwin Morgan, I Come From by Robert Seatter and I Remember by Joe Brainard.  Pupils then used these as stimulus for creating their own versions of these poems and it would not be difficult to drill down on any aspect raised in one of the poems to find a suitable topic for a fuller response.

Personal writing, just like writing a short story, usually benefits from the inclusion of some description and details.

Using description to show reaction to events

Personal writing, just like writing a short story, usually benefits from the inclusion of some description and details. A natural way to do this is, of course, to ask the readers to consider things in terms of their five senses and their emotions. A slightly more sophisticated way (or simply an extension to the description of the senses and emotions) is to use description to show reaction. One of the simplest ways of doing this is by slowing down or speeding up the event or incident. We have all had times in our lives when time flew because we were having fun or because it dragged due to a difficult or uncomfortable situation. The trick here is to use language to capture this speeding up or slowing down of language. Getting pupils to use a thesaurus (lots of kids nowadays have access to them on their phones) can help produce a bonanza of words and phrases that they can hang on their senses and emotions and captivate their reader.

Expressing thoughts and emotions

Short story writing is often taught using the maxim “show, don’t tell” and I think that this dictum applies itself nicely to personal writing. Feargal Keane in Letter to Daniel does not simply tell us he is delighted; he shows us through reflection and realisation: “We had wanted you and waited for you, imagined you and dreamed about you and now that you are here no dream can do justice to you.” In the same essay, Keane reveals to us his surprise and realisation, “Now, looking at your sleeping face, inches away from me, listening to your occasional sigh and gurgle, I wonder how I could have ever thought glory and prizes and praise were sweeter than life.” A good warm-up activity for personal writing is to take a list of thoughts and emotions and ask pupils to show us through writing a time when they thought or felt like this. Thoughts and feelings such as joy, anger, anticipation, trust, distrust, fear, and amusement are all good starting points.

Reflecting on events

Thoughts and feelings such as joy, anger, anticipation, trust, distrust, fear, and amusement are all good starting points.

As I have said already, many young people are quite comfortable getting involved with personal writing but often they find it a little more difficult to make the leap to creating work that is reflective. Writing reflectively is important because not only does it make the writing sound more mature and more self-aware, it actually encourages the writer to be more self-aware and mature. It can be a very liberating, gratifying and developmental activity for anyone to look at their role in a situation or event and criticise their behaviour, to ask themselves if they would behave in the same way now, or to question their motivation. This can be very difficult to convey expertly when writing but can be started, exploited and developed by allowing students to use some key phrases to help. Phrases such as:

If this happened again I would…because… 

Thinking about it now I realise…because…

This event/episode/experience helped shape me because…

I realise/understand/wish now that …

I am happy/unhappy this happened because…

Drafting/redrafting

I like to encourage my pupils to think of this process as refining rather than redrafting. Refining to learners suggests taking something of value and making it even better whereas redrafting carries connotations of making wholesale changes. Pupils have often gone out of their way to share something very important to them with you so riding roughshod across their work can be very detrimental to growing a trusting working relationship with them.

Refining of the personal essay can come from several different angles. One effective way of looking for improvements is to read the piece aloud. Have the pupil read it themselves and point out bits that don’t quite sound right. Repeat this process but have the teacher read it and the pupil to listen for aspects that they think could be improved upon.

Another way is to include some self- or peer-assessment. Perhaps presenting a small series of questions to encourage ideas for improving the piece:

  • Is there anything that needs made clearer?
  • Anything that a reader doesn’t understand?
  • Which part did they like and why?
  • Which part did they not like so much and why?
  • Can they readily identify thoughts, emotions, description, reaction, reflection?
  • Any suggestions for improvement?

Entire books have been written on the importance of personal writing but I hope have helped show in this short article that it is a great way to encourage confidence, inspire creativity in a simple and yet very effective way, and promote pupils’ self-realisation and awareness of others around about them too. 

Gordon Fisher

Gordon Fisher is the Principal Teacher of English at Lochend Community High School.