Breaking the blank page: Personal narrative guide


Narrative Writing is unique in that no two professors teach it the same way. Because of this, the specifics of this type of writing will vary. The information in this guide is meant to help you approach personal narrative in a general way, but always refer to your professor’s assignment sheet and ask them if you have any questions.

What is Narrative Writing?

A narrative is a piece of writing that tells some sort of story. This writing often will be reflective and/or experiential in nature. You will serve as the narrator, the person who tells the story, in order to talk about an experience that you’ve had. You may then be asked to reflect on that experience to explore the effect it had on you and others.

Why is this project assigned?

Some VCU classes, like Focused Inquiry, use a shared curriculum that focuses on specific educational goals, including improving your writing process. The following are the skills around which the curriculum is centered:

  • Communicative Fluency
  • Ethical Reasoning
  • Problem Solving (Critical and Creative)
  • Information Literacy
  • Global and Cultural Awareness and Responsiveness

A personal narrative project will strengthen several of the above skills as you craft a narrative using your own experiences, draw meaning from those experiences, organize your thoughts about a particular topic, and evaluate situations in which you’ve been

A narrative assignment is likely your first piece of major writing of the semester. Often, it’s not only a graded assignment, but also an introduction to your professor, both of yourself and of your written work.

Choosing a Subject

Ideally, the narrative you write will be both compelling and important to read. Why does what you’re writing about matter?

You may be invited or asked to share part or all of your narrative with others-- for example, in a one-on-one peer review session or a presentation. Keep this in mind if sharing personal or potentially sensitive information with someone other than your professor, such as other students, concerns you.

Techniques of Narrative Storytelling

Sequencing. Make sure your story is told in order (with a beginning, middle, and end), and that any background information needed to understand the story is told first. Who are your characters and what are their names? How are they related to you? Where is the story taking place? When? How old were you?

Dialogue. Something like, "Marie was really mad and yelled at me" sounds a lot better if you flesh out the moment with dialogue:

Marie turned completely red and started to shake. “Why would you do that?” she yelled.

Semantics. Consider the meaning of the words you use. A good rule of thumb is to be as specific as possible with your descriptions. You can use a thesaurus to find more exact words-- for instance, rather than saying someone “went” somewhere, you can describe how they went-- did they walk, jog, run, limp, scurry?

Sensory details. Sensory details provide information about the event that comes from the senses, including smells, sounds, colors, expressions, and even feelings. Vivid details help bring the reader into the moment you’re describing. “We got in the car” has quite a different feel than, for instance, “We climbed into the rust-red, oil-stained Toyota Camry”.

More Tips

  • Unless your professor has clearly stated that you should not use the personal “I” in your writing, you are free to do so!
  • There is no required structure unless your professor asks for one. You don’t have to write a certain number of paragraphs or follow any rules about the number of sentences that each paragraph has.
  • A personal narrative, unless required by your professor, does not need to be researched (you shouldn’t have to cite any sources or look anything up online).
  • After you finish drafting your narrative, it may help to read out loud to catch anything you might have missed.
  • Are you a planner or a doer? Some students learn better by writing everything out all at once, while others prefer planning their paper out extensively before they actually start to write. There is no real “correct” way to plan a paper.