Online Course

Writing the Personal Essay

September 13 - November 21

Level Intermediate

Whether you’re a beginning or more experienced writer, learn how to tell your story with dialogue and detail while gaining a deeper understanding of form and structure.

Additional Information

In this class we’ll take a close look at the writing and research skills needed to write a memoir or personal essay, and refine them over the course of 10 weeks. We’ll discuss how to best use essential literary elements such as detail, dialogue, structure, and description, as well as how to collect information through interviews, research, and other methods.

You will complete three essays, and will also be given optional shorter exercises that can later be developed into longer works. There will be substantial time spent on revision, that magical process that takes a pleasant anecdote and turns it into a breathtaking essay. You will receive personal feedback on your work from the instructor and feedback from other class members. To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate in the class discussion at least once a week to receive instructor feedback on individual work.

Course Schedule

Week 1: The Ground Rules of Memoir

In this first week we’ll consider some of the questions that commonly arise while writing personal essays: What should you do when you can’t remember certain details from your past? How do you handle conflicting reports of the same event? How much can you embellish before your nonfiction becomes fiction? We’ll also discuss some practicalities, such as how to create a personal writing schedule and how to choose an essay topic for the class. You will complete a short writing assignment to share with the class.

Week 2: Detail and Description

This week we will jump into the writing process with a close look at the powers of detail and description in writing. We’ll discuss which types of details make the most impact on a reader, how to create descriptions that are accurate and evocative, and other skills. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 3: From Caricature to Human Being

Human emotions and interactions are at the heart of all personal essays, so there are few skills as important as being able to make the people in a personal essay seem real, unique, and worthy of the reader’s interest or compassion. We will discuss how to use dialogue, character description, and other techniques to pursue this goal. You will write an essay that uses the skills from the first three weeks and submit it to the instructor, and may also submit work to their classmates for Peer Critiques.

Week 4: Revision #1

During this week we will consider some first steps in the revision process: making sure that the essay has a strong narrative and/or structure, eliminating superfluous material, balancing emotional themes with narrative content, and more. You may complete an optional revision exercise.

Week 5: Researching Your Memories

Many people think of memoir as a type of writing that doesn’t require any research—one simply writes down one’s memories, and everything is taken care of. But research can be a crucial tool in filling in detail, clarifying doubts, or adding a new perspective to a personal essay. In this week we’ll discuss methods for finding information about events that are long past, interviewing friends and family who may have a different perspective, and other related topics. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 6: Point of View

We tend to think of personal essays as being written exclusively in the first person, but taking on a different point of view can be a way to bring fresh insight to a personal encounter. In this week we’ll discuss different points of view and how they can best be used to accomplish various writing goals. You will write an essay that uses the skills from Weeks 5 and 6, and submit it to the instructor.

Week 7: Compression and Expansion

Personal essays that deal with ongoing events or long spans of time can be particularly challenging because it’s difficult to know which episodes are most essential to the story. During this week we’ll consider how best to handle this dilemma, and also look at ways to compress several events—or several characters—into one. In addition, we’ll consider those instances where it pays to spend extra time on a particular scene, and how both expansion and compression fit into the larger narrative structure of an essay. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 8: Incorporating Information

Research can add authenticity and specificity to your personal essay, but gracefully incorporating factual information into a personal story is a skill all its own. During this week we’ll examine some writing techniques that make it possible to include research information without having it sound forced. You will have an optional writing exercise.

Week 9: Experimenting with Structure

Personal essays are often written with a straightforward narrative structure: a story is told, starting at the beginning and working toward the end. But experimenting with the chronology of events in an essay, or taking on an unusual form that reflects the essay’s main themes, can be a powerful tool for catching and holding the reader’s interest, or affecting the reader’s perception of the events being described. In this class we’ll explore several possibilities for structure. You will write an essay using the skills from Weeks 7, 8, and 9 and submit it to the instructor (and, if desired, for Peer Critiques).

Week 10: Revision #2

During this final week we’ll consider revision on the micro level. How can we improve an essay sentence by sentence, or even word by word? How can we best identify our individual weaknesses as writers and address them? We will discuss specific techniques for producing more powerful and graceful prose, as well as ways to edit a piece of writing to fit a particular length requirement.

View Complete Syllabus

Course Instructor

Course Registration

$485.00

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Please Note

It is not uncommon for classes to fill up before the end of early registration, particularly in the last few days before the deadline. If you know for certain that you wish to take a particular class, we recommend registering early. If you'd like to be added to a waitlist for a sold-out class, please email our director of education, Sharla Yates, at [email protected].

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Education FAQs

  • How do I find my course archive?

    All course work is saved in Wet.Ink. When the course closes, you can find the archive by logging in to your account, and choosing “Past Classes.” Archives include course content (lectures, readings, writing prompts, etc.), your posts and writing submissions, and any feedback given on your writing. The course archive will not include your classmates’ writing submissions.

  • What do the course levels mean?

    FUNDAMENTALS—open to all levels.
    Our fundamentals courses are designed for those who are new to writing or new to creative nonfiction, as well as those who could benefit from a back-to-basics review on how to effectively and intentionally use elements of the writer’s craft.

    INTERMEDIATE—prerequisites suggested. 
    Our intermediate courses are designed for writers who have some experience either in the genre or CNF’s courses. Past course participation is not required, but we do recommend starting with one of our fundamentals courses, especially Foundations of Creative Nonfiction.

    ADVANCED—prerequisites for enrollment. 
    Our advanced courses are for writers who have completed two previous online courses (not including self-guided courses) with Creative Nonfiction (one must be an intermediate level course).

  • What makes CNF’s online courses different from other online programs?

    Flexibility
    Some online programs work on a “synchronous” model, which requires you to be online at an assigned time each week. The asynchronous model used in our classes means that you do not have to be online at any particular time of day, and can approach the class assignments at your own pace throughout the week based on your schedule. While some optional events, such as class video conferences, do take place at a specific time, the majority of class activities can be completed according to your schedule.

    Intimate Classes
    Classes are small—limited to 14 students per section—which means you’ll receive individual attention and feedback on your work.

    Experienced Instructors
    Good writing instructors not only need to be skilled writers, but also need to have experience in teaching what they know to others. That’s why all of our instructors are professional writers with extensive teaching experience.

    Substantial and Meaningful Writing Assignments
    Many online writing programs ask you to complete short writing exercises each week, and only near the end of the class are you invited to write a single essay or chapter. At Creative Nonfiction, we recognize the value of exercises, but also believe that completing an essay or chapter is the best way for developing writers to really explore how all the elements of creative nonfiction work together. Writing complete pieces also leaves you with a sense of accomplishment and with work that you can share when the class is completed. For this reason, in our classes you are invited to submit longer essays multiple times during a course. See course syllabus for more information.

    Sense of Connection
    We realize that it is difficult to find one’s writing community—which is why we now offer every new student membership to a Community Page where you can meet with other CNF students, during and after class.

  • What day and time is my online course?

    Our courses run asynchronously; meaning, you will NOT need to be online at any particular time. Assignments for CNF classes are given on a weekly basis; you should submit each assignment by a given deadline, but in most classes you will have at least an entire week to complete the assignment. We realize that our students live in many different areas and have different work schedules, so classes are designed to be flexible. Courses feature one live conference session, which does require that you be online at a particular time; however, participation in this session is completely optional, and instructors make an effort to offer times that can accommodate most students. This is scheduled by the instructor after class begins.If you are not able to participate in the live conference you will still be able to view a recording of it during the remaining weeks of the class. Please note that there are no video conferences in boot camp courses.

  • When do you offer courses? How long are they?

    Our terms include 5- and 10-week courses and run in fall (September-December), winter (January-March), and spring (April-June). In summer (July-August), we offer only 5-week courses.