This section of the book is about personal writing. Many writing programs begin with personal writing. There are a number of reasons for this, but most of them rest on a few basic assumptions. For example, personal writing seems a little more accessible to most beginning writers because we are very familiar with the subject (which is ourselves, what we think, how we feel, our experiences, etc.). We are also very familiar with the narrative form. There is a long tradition, originating in our culture with the ancient Greeks, that begins language training with storytelling and forms of narrative – with “us” as the central focus. It also seems natural to begin with personal narrative because almost anyone, starting at a very young age, can tell stories about himself or herself. Because of these and other assumptions, it is thought that practicing with personal writing and “progressing” to analytical and argumentative writing helps writers acclimate themselves to an academic writing environment.
You might have noticed that this book ends with personal writing rather than the other way around. This is because our assumptions are different. First of all, many academic writing communities do not place as high a value on personal writing as they do on non-personal writing. Instead, they value analysis and argument and those ancillary skills that come with these kinds of writing. Many students ask questions like, “If we are supposed to write differently for the rest of the school, why are we practicing personal writing in this class?” This is a good question. We feel you should practice the kinds of writing most valued from the beginning. Secondly, we do not believe that you necessarily know more about yourself than any other subject, or that you are necessarily more interested in yourself than any other subject. We think that you are able to value the same subjects as the university, that you are just as interested in those subjects as the university, and that you can learn about them and about writing at the same time – otherwise you would not be here.
We also believe that those patterns that appear most frequently in personal writing are not necessarily more accessible than other kinds of writing. Narrative and other patterns in personal writing can be very difficult to pull off in writing, which can frustrate writers who are able to pull it off beautifully in speech. This frustration can sometimes lead us to think, “If this is the simple stuff, I won’t have much luck with the hard stuff!” Rest assured that personal writing can be very valuable (much literature is made up of the same patterns as personal writing) and very difficult. We once heard a teacher say that children’s parables are simple and easy to understand, and so beginning writers should start with parables. Have you ever been able to create a parable? We challenge you to go to a nearby street corner and begin creating parables and telling them (you don’t even have to write them down!) and see how long you can sustain the presentation. We only know of one person who ever did that consistently, and he is held in extremely high esteem in Christian cultures. For these reasons, we wait until you have had practice in writing that tends to be more highly valued in academic environments and might even be easier to learn before we help you create what is commonly called personal writing.
Many people also assume that personal writing is simply “what comes from inside.” This may or may not be true, but some writing conventions must be present so the reader can understand what you are saying. There is also a common idea that what comes out of us “naturally” is somehow purer or more indicative of us as humans. Again, this may be true to some extent, but, as former parents of young children, we have seen firsthand that some of what comes out of us “naturally” may indeed be pure and human, but not necessarily attractive.
Something to note about personal writing: you will have to change your perspective completely from analysis and argument. You will not be analyzing an object, which requires an “objective” perspective, nor will you be arguing, which requires making a claim. You will not analyze or argue for the patterns in this section; you will create them and arrange them.
“Effective” Personal Writing
As writers, we always have control over the degree to which we share what is inside us with others. For academic purposes, personal writing should appeal to something personal in the reader as well in the writer. In other words, if we want to share some emotion like anger or anxiety, then that should be the effect of our writing. We should write in such a way that our readers feel what we feel. Look at the following:
I am thrilled and excited by her cobalt blue eyes.
This is good in the sense that it reveals how the writer feels about a woman’s blue eyes. Better, however, is writing that involves the reader and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about blue eyes:
I see the cobalt sky reflected in your eyes.
Notice in the second example that we, as readers, are not being “told” how to feel by a third party; we are instead looking through the eyes of the writer and speaking directly to the object of our vision. As a result of reporting literally what both the reader and the writer see – rather than only how the writer feels – readers may put themselves in the writer’s place – and so feel something the writer feels. In other words, the effect of the second statement (thrill and excitement) is only described in the first statement.
Be careful of the trap in thinking that says something like, “Since my writing all comes from inside me, and I am a good person, it must all be good.” Remember parenthood; it is not necessarily all good. Instead, you should probably think more along the lines of “How can I make the reader feel the same way I feel?” In that way, practicing patterns – patterns that at first may seem disconnected from feelings and the effects of revealing our “selves” – will eventually become tools with which to put the reader right where we want him or her.
Here is the way this section is laid out. First, you will declare a topic, but it must follow the criteria in “Topic.” Once you have the topic more or less identified, you will then practice personal writing “patterns” that help you express what you want to say, but in a way that brings about some desired effect in your readers. Once you perfect these patterns, you will then arrange your patterns – or parts of your patterns – in a way that further heightens that effect. The arrangement process is controlled by the writer using design principles.
Most Common Question: “How will I connect different patterns; how will I make them flow without transitions between patterns?”
Assuming you WANT to make your essay “flow” (you will not know this until you develop design or arrangement principles at the end), more often than not you will not need transitions between elements. The reason for this is because it is the transition words and phrases within a pattern that gives us clues how to read it. We generally know when someone is telling us a story or arguing with us because the transition words already inside those patterns give it away. Also, we generally don’t need to be told in so many words that “I have been discussing this by describing it. I am about to switch over to an analogy.” Most hearers or readers recognize these patterns, at least subconsciously, without needing transitions between them.
Think about transitions as markers for the pattern you are using rather than a “bridge” between patterns.
In the following pages, you will practice developing the patterns for a long personal writing. You will begin with a pre-planning writing, a topic writing, which will not be a part of the essay but will be a guide for the other patterns. You will then construct the following patterns:
- Cause and Effect
Once all of the patterns are constructed, you will then arrange the patterns according to a design principle.