Is A Narrative Essay Written In First Person

Many times, high school students are told not to use first person (“I,” “we,” “my,” “us,” and so forth) in their essays. As a college student, you should realize that this is a rule that can and should be broken—at the right time, of course.

By now, you’ve probably written a personal essay, memoir, or narrative that used first person. After all, how could you write a personal essay about yourself, for instance, without using the dreaded “I” word?

However, academic essays differ from personal essays; they are typically researched and use a formal tone. Because of these differences, when students write an academic essay, they quickly shy away from first person because of what they have been told in high school or because they believe that first person feels too informal for an intellectual, researched text. Yet while first person can definitely be overused in academic essays (which is likely why your teachers tell you not to use it), there are moments in a paper when it is not only appropriate, but it is actually effective and/or persuasive to use first person. The following are a few instances in which it is appropriate to use first person in an academic essay:

  • Including a personal anecdote: You have more than likely been told that you need a strong “hook” to draw your readers in during an introduction. Sometimes, the best hook is a personal anecdote, or a short amusing story about yourself. In this situation, it would seem unnatural not to use first-person pronouns such as “I” and “myself.” Your readers will appreciate the personal touch and will want to keep reading! (For more information about incorporating personal anecdotes into your writing, see "Employing Narrative in an Essay.")

  • Establishing your credibility (ethos): Ethos is a term stemming back to Ancient Greece that essentially means “character” in the sense of trustworthiness or credibility. A writer can establish her ethos by convincing the reader that she is trustworthy source. Oftentimes, the best way to do that is to get personal—tell the reader a little bit about yourself. (For more information about ethos, see "Ethos.")

    For instance, let’s say you are writing an essay arguing that dance is a sport. Using the occasional personal pronoun to let your audience know that you, in fact, are a classically trained dancer—and have the muscles and scars to prove it—goes a long way in establishing your credibility and proving your argument. And this use of first person will not distract or annoy your readers because it is purposeful.

  • Clarifying passive constructions: Often, when writers try to avoid using first person in essays, they end up creating confusing, passive sentences.

    For instance, let’s say I am writing an essay about different word processing technologies, and I want to make the point that I am using Microsoft Word to write this essay. If I tried to avoid first-person pronouns, my sentence might read: “Right now, this essay is being written in Microsoft Word.” While this sentence is not wrong, it is what we call passive—the subject of the sentence is being acted upon because there is no one performing the action. To most people, this sentence sounds better: “Right now, I am writing this essay in Microsoft Word.” Do you see the difference? In this case, using first person makes your writing clearer.

  • Stating your position in relation to others: Sometimes, especially in an argumentative essay, it is necessary to state your opinion on the topic. Readers want to know where you stand, and it is sometimes helpful to assert yourself by putting your own opinions into the essay. You can imagine the passive sentences (see above) that might occur if you try to state your argument without using the word “I.” The key here is to use first person sparingly. Use personal pronouns enough to get your point across clearly without inundating your readers with this language.

Now, the above list is certainly not exhaustive. The best thing to do is to use your good judgment, and you can always check with your instructor if you are unsure of his or her perspective on the issue. Ultimately, if you feel that using first person has a purpose or will have a strategic effect on your audience, then it is probably fine to use first-person pronouns. Just be sure not to overuse this language, at the risk of sounding narcissistic, self-centered, or unaware of others’ opinions on a topic.

See also:

The First Person

Use the First Person

So, your professor just gave you a new assignment, and it looks like an interesting topic. The problem is you don’t know how to write a narrative essay.

Relax (but don’t procrastinate)! Narrative essays are actually pretty fun to write. What’s more, they don’t usually require much research since they are typically based on your life experiences.

All that said, there are some important rules to follow. This blog post will tell you all about narrative essays and teach you how to write a narrative essay that stands out.

What Is a Narrative Essay?

Narration is writing that tells a story. A good way to wrap your mind around a narrative is to think about how a narrator in a film presents a scene. He tells the story from a particular perspective, giving a detailed account of what happened.

Consider the narration in this clip from How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

So, how is the narrator’s recounting of the Grinch’s failure to steal Christmas related to learning how to write a narrative essay?

As the narrator in your essay, you set the scene and tell the story from your viewpoint, giving a detailed report of events.

Chances are, you narrate stories every day. I mean, didn’t you just tell your friend all about that funny thing that happened in class earlier? You know how to narrate. So, writing a narrative essay should be easy, right?

Well, hold on, it’s not that simple. One of the challenges with writing narrative essays is that you often have to distill a complex story into a limited (and to-the-point) number of words. At the same time, you have to garner enough interest to keep the reader engaged in your story.

Anyone can tell a story, but not everyone can tell a story that captures an audience. It’s important to keep some rules in mind as you learn how to write a narrative essay.

Sample Narrative Essay

The best way to learn how to write a narrative essay is to see an example. I’m going to pretend that I’m the character Rudy (from the 1993 film Rudy), and I’m going to write a narrative essay about something that happened in my (Rudy’s) life.

First, watch this clip from the film:

Now, I will write a sample narrative essay, as if this clip were based on my experience. Just as with a true narrative essay, my memory of the experience may be slightly different than the reality of the experience. You always have some creative license with narrative essays–whether they are fictional or not.

Read this sample essay first, and then I’ll break it down into its elements:

     A janitor changed my life. I was at a low point, ready to quit everything–even when I had it all. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. At 5 foot nothing, 100 and nothing pounds, I was hardly your typical football player. But, that didn’t stop me from believing that I could play for Notre Dame. It turns out, the most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.

After two years of trying hard to prove that I was worthy of playing, I found out that I hadn’t made the dress list for our kickoff game.After fighting to be on the team and sweating through every practice, I was going to sit on the bench…again.

So, I decided to call it quits. Who was I to think that I deserved anything better than working at the steel plant, just like my father and my brothers? If that life was good enough for them, why wasn’t it good enough for me?

As I stood there in section five, staring out at the empty stadium, I thought of how proud my dad would have been to see me out there on the field playing for the team we both loved so much. I felt so stupid. I wasn’t a football player. I was a bench warmer… nothing more. That’s when the team janitor found me standing there.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t you have to be at practice?”

“Not anymore,” I said, annoyed. “I quit.”

“Why’d you quit? You don’t seem like the quitting type.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t see the point anymore.”

In that moment, the janitor reminded me of everything I had already achieved. Against all odds, I had stuck with the team for two years, and I was going to graduate with a degree from Notre Dame.

What he said next drove his point home. He said, “In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody except yourself.”

He had a point. I had already proven myself to everyone except for me. If I didn’t believe in myself… who would ever believe in me? Thanks to the janitor’s wisdom, I eventually played my first–and only–game that season, and I proved to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

Okay, now let’s pick this thing apart. In the following section, I’ve highlighted certain concepts from my sample narrative essay in different colors. Their explanations follow.

First Paragraph:

A janitor changed my life.I was at a low point, ready to quit everything–even when I had it all. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. At 5 foot nothing, 100 and nothing pounds, I was hardly your typical football player. But, that didn’t stop me from believing that I could play for Notre Dame. It turns out, the most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.

Let’s break it down.

  • Start with a strong hook. Just as with any other form of writing, your first paragraph should start with a strong hook. The sentence, “a janitor changed my life,” sets up the story with a bold statement meant to capture the attention of my readers. The goal is to make readers ask, “How did a janitor change your life? What happened?”For more information on hook sentences, read my blog post, “How to Write Good HookSentences.”
  • Set the scene. In this section of my first paragraph, I set the scene. I give the reader some context for my story (I was at a low point. I was a struggling football player for Notre Dame… etc.).
  • Define the purpose. Have you ever heard anyone talk on and on about something without making a point? This is a common trap for writers attempting a narrative essay. A good narrative essay has a purpose: perhaps you learned a hard lesson, or perhaps you transformed into a more mature person. Whatever the case, that purpose should be stated in the first paragraph. In the example narrative, my purpose is to make the point that “the most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.”

As you can see, the first paragraph is critical to setting up a good story. Now, let’s talk about what goes on in your body paragraphs.

Body Paragraphs:

After two years of trying hard to prove that I was worthy of playing, I found out that I hadn’t made the dress list for our kickoff game. After fighting to be on the team and sweating through every practice, I was going to sit on the bench…again. So, I decided to call it quits. Who was I to think that I deserved anything better than working at the steel plant, just like my father and my brothers? If that life was good enough for them, why wasn’t it good enough for me?
      As I stood there in section five, staring out at the empty stadium, I thought of how proud my dad would have been to see me out there on the field playing for the team we both loved so much. I felt so stupid. I wasn’t a football player. I was a bench warmer… nothing more. That’s when the team janitor found me standing there.
      “Hey,” he said. “Don’t you have to be at practice?”
      “Not anymore,” I said,annoyed. “I quit.”
“Why’d you quit? You don’t seem like the quitting type.”
      “I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t see the point anymore.”
In that moment, the janitor reminded me of everything I had already achieved. Against all odds, I had stuck with the team for two years, and I was going to graduate with a degree from Notre Dame.
      What he said next drove his point home. He said, “In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody except yourself.”

Let’s break it down.

  • Use vivid and appropriate detail. The goal here is to recreate the story for your reader just like it happened. Make the story vivid and full of detail. Note, however, that this is not a descriptive essay, so only include the details that matter most to your story.
  • Use dialogue. Sometimes, a great story can’t be told without dialogue. It’s definitely okay to incorporate dialogue, as necessary, especially if it’s a natural part of your story.In my sample essay, the conversation with the janitor is critical to the story, so including the dialogue from this interaction is appropriate.
  • Write chronologically. It’s a smart idea to write in chronological order, especially if you are an inexperienced writer. What happened first, next, and last?This will help you to stay true to your story and not wander. In this sample, I focus on the sequence of events that led me to my moment of truth, how the janitor talked me into staying on the team, and how this changed my perspective on life.
  • Maintain consistency in narration. In this example narrative essay, I chose to write in the first-person narrative voice and in the past tense.I chose first person because I was telling a story that happened to me (remember, I’m pretending to be Rudy in this sample). I chose past tense because I’m telling a story that happened in the past.Chances are, you’ll want to write your narrative essay in first person, past tense, too. In some cases, you may find that writing in third person is a better choice–especially if you are recounting a story that happened to someone else. But, whatever you choose, keep it consistent throughout.

Okay! Let’s move on to the last paragraph.

Closing Paragraph:

He had a point. I had already proven myself to everyone except for me. If I didn’t believe in myself… who would ever believe in me? Thanks to the janitor’s wisdom, I eventually played my first–and only–game that season, and I proved to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

Let’s break it down.

  • Restate your purpose. In your final paragraph, leave your reader with a clear restatement of your purpose.Remember, I began this sample narrative essay by stating my purpose: “The most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.” In the final paragraph, I closed with a restatement of this same point: “I proved to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.”

Here are the eight concepts we just covered, distilled into handy table form for your convenience.

Final Thoughts on How to Write a Narrative Essay

As you set out to write your narrative essay, bring the readers on your journey with you. Give them a reason to listen to your story.

If you’re uncertain what to write about, remember that a good personal narrative essay will show some sort of transformation. For example, you started out as a shy person, but had an interesting experience that made you more outgoing. Find a story of transformation, and then write about what happened.

If you need more ideas, check out these example narrative essays.

Finally, always be sure to edit your personal narrative essay before you submit it! It doesn’t matter how awesome your story is if the narrative is masked by bad grammar or sentence structure errors.

Good luck!

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