Don't Start Your Personal Essay with a Summary

Writing Tip: Don’t Begin Your Personal Essays with a Summary

While in grad school, I led a creative writing workshop for undergrads. I noticed that the young writers in my class had a habit of beginning their essays with a summary.

For example:

Last summer was the most difficult time of my life. I know that in life it’s not uncommon for your friends to betray you, but I didn’t know it would hurt so bad. And it was all over a boy.

I think there are a few reasons my students felt compelled to begin their essays this way:

  • To create suspense for what’s to come
  • A way to transport themselves into the past
  • An attempt at creating a “thesis” where none is needed

Resist the Summary!

Unfortunately, this is the type of scenario where it sounds like a good idea, but doesn’t transfer well to the page. Kicking your writing off with a recap actually weakens the essay because:

  • It comes off as melodramatic. If you tell the reader instead of showing them, you’re immediately inviting them to judge whether or not the events that transpired were actually as awful has you’ve hyped them up to be.
  • It’s not memorable. By the time your reader reaches the end of your essay, they are not going to remember summary you gave at the beginning, so why include it? If the writing isn’t memorable, it’s a good sign it should be cut from your piece.
  • It’s disembodied. The reader doesn’t know you and when you begin with a recap, you’re just a disembodied voice yammering at them. It’s the personal essay equivalent of the chatty stranger in line telling you bits of information about their life that you don’t care about because you don’t know this person.


So, How Should You Begin Your Essays?

As you grow in your craft, you’ll discover a variety of ways to enter an essay effectively. But when you’re starting out, I recommend the following formula to my students:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Action

Remember the example from above? Let’s try that again using the formula:

Last Tuesday afternoon, I walked into the campus dining hall and saw my best friend sitting in my boyfriend’s lap. He’d only been my boyfriend for a week, but she’d been my best friend since the third grade, troll dolls and calling crushes and hanging up the phone giggling.

Admittedly, neither of these examples are my best writing, but it’s easy to identify which example is the stronger of the two. Why do I recommend my students use this formula?

  • It grounds readers in time and place. You immediately invite them into the world of the essay.
  • It allows you to tell the reader so much more in up front. In example one, the most you know about the narrator is that they had a bad summer and have bad friends. But in example two, you know the narrator is on a college campus, you know they have a boyfriend and a best friend they care about deeply.
  • It gets you out of the narrator’s head. The action part is crucial because action tends to be more compelling than a series of thoughts. I want to see a narrator in an actual situation and then get their thoughts about the situation.

Your Turn

Comb through your computer files and find an essay that’s ready for revision. Cut the recap from the intro and replace it with my formula for grounding the reader in your essay. How does this tweak change your essay overall? Tell us on Twitter.

Got an essay or short story that needs the eye of an expert? Let our professional freelance editors at it. Upload your work to Penmob today.


Image credit: Gemma Evans

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