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How to Write a College Narrative Essay

by Jan Archer

Writing a narrative essay requires descriptive writing skills and an open mind. Unlike an argumentative essay or expository essay, a narrative essay tells a story rather than persuading the reader to agree with a point. A narrative is personal, and your goal is to create an experience for a reader by writing from your own point of view. But just because you're not creating arguments doesn't mean that your essay doesn't have a position or purpose. You'll still need a thesis and main ideas to organize your narrative.

Build an Outline

Starting with an outline helps you organize your thoughts. Unorganized thoughts are no good to the reader, because you leave the work of connecting the ideas up to the person reading the essay. Instead, build a narrative story by outlining your main idea and a progression of paragraphs that give a complete picture. For example, perhaps your topic is bullying in grade school, and your narrative essay topic asks you to examine a time when you were bullied or intimidated. Rather than just telling the story, you want to outline your main idea first and build the story around it. Perhaps your main idea is that you grew up to become a person who advocates for bullying victims. Your following paragraphs supply the story behind your passion. Each one, then, should lead back to the general idea that bullying should be stopped. For example, you might write an introductory paragraph like this: "Last week, as I drove past a middle school, I saw students outside in their winter parkas. One particular girl looked upset, and two girls nearby were laughing and pointing at her. I was immediately taken back through time to my own sixth-grade year when classmates bullied me because I looked different. Although that was a decade ago, it feels like yesterday."

Write the Story in Paragraphs

Use paragraphs to develop the details of the story in chronological order. For example, you might begin your second paragraph with descriptions of your time in middle school and the reasons why you looked different from other kids. Then, dive into the concrete details of the bullying -- remember that you want the reader to experience what you did and therefore feel motivated or moved by your narrative writing. So, skip any emotional abstractions like "lost" or "lonely" and include concrete details that the reader can experience such as dialogue, colors, actions and objects. For example, "A classmate broke into my locker and stole my textbooks. Then, she and her friends wrote nasty messages to me like 'loser' and 'ugly foreigner' in the pages of my book." These details are powerful because they show the story rather than telling it.

Wrap up the Story

Once you have detailed the story of what happened, start a closing paragraph that broadens the topic and begins to point toward a resolution. This is where you will return to your thesis and conclude the essay, showing the reader what has changed or been learned from the experience. For example, in your final paragraph, you might write, "It wasn't until I stood up to a bully by calling her names right back that I realized how insecure she was. I was suddenly enlightened that the reason for her bullying was her own low self-esteem. It seems that self-esteem is the problem administrators should target in bullying reform, since this is the common denominator that drives bullying behavior." The end of the narrative should give the reader some sense of resolution, closure or purpose.

Revise

All writers revise, whether they're penning novels or reporting for a national newspaper. Your narrative essay deserves a thorough revision, which is more than just a proofread. Read each sentence and determine whether it could be improved with sharper details, stronger verbs or rearrangement. For example, the sentence, "She ran away when I stood up for myself," is active, but it is not as strong as the revision, "Only after I looked up and said, 'I won't put up with your behavior anymore,' did she look at me with an expression of fear and retreat quickly back to the table where her friends sat waiting." This revision gives a clearer picture of what happened and allows the reader to experience the scene. Revise your whole narrative essay several times before you hand it in to a professor. Even consider having a friend, tutor or family member read it over and offer suggestions.

About the Author

Jan Archer holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a master's degree in creative writing. Roth has written trade books for Books-a-Million and has published articles on green living, wellness and education topics. She taught business writing, literature, creative writing and English composition at the college level for five years.

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