Online Course

Writing the Personal Essay

September 12 - November 20, 2022

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.

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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].

Hear from our Students

Creative Nonfiction’s online writing classes have helped more than 3,000 writers tell their stories better.

Read Success Stories


I enjoyed reading other peoples work and getting feedback about my own work– the handouts/video links and class lessons were also very informative and relevantly paced to the give structural guidelines.

Catherine O’Neill