From Christiansen’s book From Inside Out
Check Lists for Personal Experience Paper
How to Use the Check Lists
When you have found a topic, tried freewriting on it, and are read to write a rough draft, the next step is to go over the following check list for ideas and to return to the check list at various stages of your writing for further help. The shortened form of the list summarizes points already made and includes suggestions to help you avoid problems and produce a better final product.
Scan the list before you write your first draft. If some point needs further clarification, read the extended discussion of it in the expanded version of the check list. After you have written your paper and let it “cool” for a period of time, go back and reread the checklist. Rereading it should help you find still more ways to expand, edit, polish, and reshape your paper as you continue working it into its more effective form.
Remember that all check lists In this book are intended for guidance purposes only. Most good writers break guidelines or rules at some time or another, but you should break a rule only when you gain more than you lose by doing so. Make sure that what you purchase in effect is not costing too much in clarity. Break rules intentionally, never out of ignorance.
Each list in this book is geared to help you with a specific type of writing. The approaches and suggestions given in the list for subjective personal experience writing will differ and at times contradict the suggestions given in a later list for more objective analytical writing.
While some aspects of good writing (clarity and specificity, for example) remain constant for all types of material, other techniques (whether to focus on or away from telling the event in the first person, the “I,” for example) change according to your purpose.
Check List for Personal Experience Writing
1. Choose a topic that moves you, one that you can recall in specific detail.
2. Use an “I” point of view.
4. Show, don’t tell; create, don’t dictate.
5. Create mini-scenes.
6. Use all five senses.
7. Use colorful verbs.
8. Add dialogue, if you can reproduce it naturally.
9. Identify your speakers with “tag lines” and punctuate dialogue correctly.
10. Stick-to one tense; usually past tense is easiest to maintain.
11. Don’t call attention to the act of writing the paper, announce your writing plans, or flash ahead to information the reader learns at a later time.
12. Eliminate clichés whenever possible; replace them with specifics.
13. Avoid adopting a forced flippant tone or limiting the paper to a conversation with yourself.
14. Paragraph to clarify the focus of your paper.
15. Vary your sentence structure to avoid a monotonous or choppy effect.
16. Check for unnecessary fragments and run-on sentences.
17. Don’t withhold information to create a false surprise ending.
18. End on a tension-release point.
Expanded Check List for Personal Experience Writing with Explanations, Examples, and Referrals to Related Material
1. Choose a topic that moves you, one that you can recall in specific detail: (Review sections on “Purpose of Personal Experience Writing,” “Successful Topics,” “Association Technique for Finding Topics,” and “Further Topic Ideas” for help in finding suitable topics.)
A good personal experience topic is one that you experienced firsthand and felt strongly about. You can remember it in enough detail to be able to recapture what you said, thought, observed, heard, and felt as you experienced it. A good topic re-creates itself as you write it. As you investigate your topic, be aware of the power of a specific effective detail. Good details make your writing appealing. Look for the odd or unusual detail you associate with an event. Does your dentist have hairy fingers? Did you wear your track suit backwards to the championship meet? Is the image you retain of a plane’s forced landing the hideous turquoise blue seat in front of you? Was death a heavy straight black line on a heart monitor? Were you lost in reverie with one eyelash on, the other looking like a centipede in your damp palm? Is craziness wearing green house slippers to your analyst’s office? Each of these details appeared in different students’ papers and helped make those papers interesting and unique. Details are the stuff life is made of.
2. Use an “I” point of view.
Point of view: Whose head you’re inside of in viewing an event; the person whose mind re-creates an event.
While you may have been told in the past to avoid focusing on yourself in writing, in personal experience writing, the “I” is usually the preferred focus. Stick consistently to “I” and avoid switching to a “we” or “you” approach. You can know what is going on in your own head, but if you use a “we” approach, you risk remaining too general since you can’t always tell what the “we” is thinking or feeling. For example, compare the following “we” telling of an event to the “I” telling that follows it.
Last weekend, Emmy, Molly, and I were driving home from a movie when we noticed that a car was following us too closely using its high beams. This made us angry, so we started to flash our lights and step on our brakes to warn him. He not only persisted but started to ram us at intervals from behind. We got more frightened and speeded up.
I was driving my friends, Emmy and Molly, home from a movie last weekend, when a car started following me too closely using its high beams. His lights reflected off my rear-view mirror with a blinding effect.
“Hey, what’s that guy trying to prove,” Molly squeaked in the high voice she always uses when she is nervous. I tried to hide my own irritation when I said in my “calming Molly down voice,” “I don’t know, but it sure makes it hard to see.”
Emmy, who was sitting next to me, turned around but turned back quickly when the lights hit her.
“Boy, those lights are really bright,” she said in a voice that seemed to imply I should do something about it.
I started to flash my lights and step on my brakes to catch the guy’s attention, when suddenly I felt the car jolted from the rear.
He was actually ramming my car. I flashed hot with anger, but my next reaction was to step on the gas and run for it. Whoever he was, I had no desire to meet
Notice how the “I” telling is longer—and more detailed than the “we” version. In a “we” telling, the reactions of separate individuals are lost by combining them in one “we” reaction. Using the “I” approach, you can differentiate each person, tell what he or she does and says, and give your interpretation and reactions to each one. By focusing the reader’s attention on your reactions, you re-create the incident’s impact on you.
A “you” approach is used to directly address your audience. In personal experience writing, however, it can break the ongoing illusion of an incident and should be used sparingly. At its worst, it can lapse into a lazy style that substitutes the expression “you know what I mean” for the hard work of actually creating the desired effect.
Using a “you” or “we” approach also increases the tendency to switch pronouns, to hop from “you” to “I” to “we,” creating confusion for your reader. For flexibility, consistency, and clarity, in personal experience writing, the “I’s” definitely have it.
3. Focus on a
Don’t dilute your paper’s effect by trying to cover too many incidents. It’s better to see a series of incidents as separate topic possibilities than to try to cram them all into one short paper.
Focus your paper on one high point of an experience (for example, the last stretch of a climb rather than an entire hiking trip, the last part of a ball game rather than all nine innings), or on one central feeling or reaction a person evokes in you and detail several scenes that explain why. (See the student example paper “Jackie” [p. 32], which uses multiple scenes to reinforce a single-reaction.
Begin in the midst of what you’re
doing, identifying briefly what you’re doing, where, and with whom, then build
directly to the
4. Show, don’t tell; create, don’t dictate. Portray a word before you use it. Make your reader feel your fear, sense your nervousness, experience your embarrassment, rather than tell him you felt that way. “Tell” words on the following list dictate emotions to your reader; avoid them:
Make your details earn the response on their own. Instead of saying something general like “the beauty of the scene influenced us,” the student in the paragraph below created the effect with careful choice of detail:
Margie and I were slowly trolling
in the waterway which connects
A student searching for a hotel in an unknown European city reproduces her exhaustion for us in the following scene:
Chris, who is five tall and fairly weak, couldn’t carry her suitcase any more, and now I was carrying both suitcases. My arms were shaking from the weight; I stooped over because my back wouldn’t hold up any longer, and my sweaty, stiff hands felt like they had been born gripping suitcase handles.
In the student example paper “Licorice” at the end of the chapter, the author writes an entire episode re-creating the effect of guilt without once mentioning the word itself.
Good writing makes details speak. (See “Replacing “Tell” Words Exercise” at the end of the chapter.)
5. Create mini-scenes. To show an event effectively, reproduce if either in one continuous scene or in a series of mini-scenes. Personal experience writing is like presenting a dramatic presentation. Your reader needs to see the setting, hear the dialogue, and picture the movement and action taking place. Scan the example papers at the end of this chapter and notice the prevalence of mini-scenes in the writing. “Licorice” takes you from the store to the sidewalk to the tree with filter-specked ground at the end. “My Last Autopsy” centers on the scene with the towel-draped figure on a metal table. “Jackie” builds effect by using a series of scenes from being edged off a porch to being splattered with beans across a lunchroom table. In the longer professional example, “Not Another Word,” Richard Thurman shows Paul’s reactions to Robert through a series of scenes: Paul’s admiring Robert’s courageous breakfast report before the gluttonous teacher, his helping Robert get “Buddy,” the dog, drunk, his falling in love with Robert’s mother who baked good things and openly showed affection, his showing-off his sled-load of Christmas gifts only to end up coveting Robert’s gyroscope and Chinese-beheading sword, and ending with his fighting Robert to deny the plain facts about Robert’s parents’ naps. Each writer creates his event by detailing effective scenes.
6. Use all five senses. Seeing is just one of your senses. You also hear, feel, smell, and taste. When you re-create any event, try to involve all your sensory reactors.
Good writers have keen sensory
recall. The student example papers at
the end of this chapter evoke a variety of sensory reactions. Nobuko Sasaki’s first reaction to the
Say you are standing by the seashore. The experience is more than simply watching breakers roll onto shore. You also hear the water as it crashes and recedes, you take in the sounds of people, dogs, and seagulls along the beach. You feel the salt spray stinging your face and the hot sand oozing between your toes. A pungent smell of kelp, wet logs, and mud flats mixes with a salty coolness you can almost taste. If you concentrated on only one sense in the above scene to the exclusion of all others, you’d blunt its effect and deprive your reader of the wealth of details actually present.
In his book, I’m OK—You’re OK: A Practical Guide to Transactional Analysis, Dr. Thomas A. Harris describes Dr. Wilder Penfield’s research on the human brain and how it remembers an event. Using a local anesthetic and electrodes, Dr. Penfield stimulated a patient’s brain at a specific point in the cerebral cortex. While the point was being stimulated, the patient actually relived an experience from his past with complete sensory recall.
One patient re-experienced walking down a specific street and identified the buildings on the street as the Seven-Up Bottling Company and the Harrison Bakery, places from his past. Another hummed and sang along with the song “Oh, Marie, Oh, Marie” he was hearing on a radio station. When the electrode stimulus was removed, the patient’s re-experiencing stopped. Under questioning, however, the patient could usually identify the scenes experienced as a part of his past.
Dr. Harris summarized Penfield’s findings by comparing the human brain to a high fidelity tape recorder that stored memories complete with sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste tracks. The brain not only stored past events in detail but also the feelings those events evoked.
The significance of these findings for you as a writer is what they reveal about how your brain stores memories. Your brain has recorded sensory detail plus feeling as part of the memory of an event. To communicate that event fully, this same detail must be restored. When you say in frustration, “I know how it was, but I just can’t explain it in words,” it may be that you are leaving out part or all of the sensory detail stored in your memory bank. Draw upon the bank; it pays large dividends in writing effectiveness and reader interest. For further help, see the “Use All Five Senses” exercise at the end of this chapter.
7. Use colorful verbs. Strong verbs enrich and enliven your writing. Verbs appeal to the senses and produce instant images. Verbs like splash, sparkle, flutter, glimmer, glisten, twinkle, crash, scurry, bluster, and bellow convey image, sound, action, and emotion. A good verb is your most economical way to create an effect.
Experiment with the verbs in the final draft of your paper. Try to find verbs that reproduce the effect of what you’re describing. Have old ladies clump from stores, buses chug to a stop, electric doors hiss open, outdoor engines thump-whine their way home. Let verb choice reflect the intensity and pitch of a vocal response.
Personify your body parts and use verbs to express their response to physical strain. In describing his first ride on a hydroplane, a student wrote, “My teeth shook, my back ached; and my liver cried.” Let your body speak for itself. (See the verb exercises at the end of this chapter for further help in developing verb awareness.)
8. Add dialogue, if you can reproduce it naturally. Dialogue can pump life into a scene. If people are present in an event, they usually speak. If you can capture how they speak, their inflections, word choice, gestures, and tone, you are that much closer to making the scene real.
Good dialogue can recapture a
personality or provide the
Effective dialogue sounds natural. Practice reading your paper out loud to see if the dialogue reads easily and sounds right. Forced dialogue can make a paper sound artificial or stilted and ruin your intended effect. If you have a poor ear for dialogue, it’s better to leave it out.
9. Identify your speaker with “tag lines” and punctuate dialogue correctly.
Tag line The identification of who is speaking or thinking in a direct quotation, indicated by expressions such as “I said,” “he replied,” “I thought to myself.”
Be sure your reader knows who is speaking in a conversation and whether quoted material is said out loud or is part of your thoughts. Experiment with using tag lines that go beyond “he said” or “she said.” Use descriptive verbs to indicate the voice inflection, volume, tone, or mood of your speaker.
You don’t have to have a tag line for every quotation, if you’re sure it’s obvious to your reader who is speaking. A tag line for every speaker in short conversation can sound choppy and repetitious. Paragraph to show each change in speaker in dialogue give and take, even if it means reparagraphing every other line.
If you’re not sure how to punctuate direct quotations, scan the following rules and examples for a quick review:
Rules for Punctuating Quoted Material
He said, “My tooth hurts.”
tag line direct speech
He said that his tooth hurt.
“My tooth hurts,” he wailed
He wailed, “My tooth hurts.”
Constantly complaining, he wailed, “My tooth hurts”; it was enough to make you want to hit him.
“My tooth hurts”: this cry was all we heard from him.
“Does your tooth hurt?” he asked.
inside because it refers to the quoted material.
Did he say, “My tooth hurts”?
outside because it refers to the sentence as a whole.
Did he say, “Are you hungry?”
technically the sentence would have two question marks; use only the first one.
“I’m sick of his always saying ‘My tooth hurts,’” Jack said.
10. Stick to one tense; usually the past tense is easiest to maintain.
Verb tense Any of the forms of a verb that show the time of its action: English has six tenses: present, past, future, perfect, past perfect, and future perfect.
Use verb tense consistently. Change verb tense only to indicate actual time distinctions (whether an event is completed, ongoing, or about to happen), otherwise choose one tense and stick to it.
Writing an entire paper in the present tense can be difficult to maintain and often increases the danger of your switching tenses in midstream, thus breaking your continuity. Usually the past tense is easier to maintain. You don’t have to write in the present tense to achieve the effect of reliving an event as it happened.
The following example takes a present tense telling and rewrites it in past tense. Notice how the immediacy and flow of the incident are retained in the past tense example:
I walk into the room and look around. Not seeing anyone that looks familiar, I go to the back row, and find a seat where I can be relatively anonymous.
I sit back and wait for the teacher to come in, wondering what she or he will be like. All I have is the name Christiansen to go by.
I walked into the room and looked around. Not seeing anyone that looked familiar, I went to the back row, and found a seat where I could be relatively anonymous.
I sat back and waited for the teacher to come in, wondering what she or he would be like. All I had was the name Christiansen to go by.
11. Don’t call attention to the act of writing the paper, announce your writing plans, or flash ahead to information the reader learns at a later time. To sustain the illusion of experiencing an event from inside your skin, refrain from comments that take a reader’s attention away from the immediate event and focus it on the act of writing the paper instead. Avoid statements like “I am going to write about the most exciting event in my life.” Start with the event itself. Also avoid statements like “as I was soon to discover” or “as I found out later.” They destroy the tension a reader experiences in reliving an event with you and break the illusion of immediacy. By breaking tension, you lose the powerful grip a paper can have on your reader’s attention and interest.
12. Eliminate clichés whenever possible; replace them with specifics.
Cliché A worn-out expression that has lost its originality, specificity, and impact through overuse.
A cliché is an expression that has been used so often, it has lost all freshness and uniqueness for your reader. If you start an expression like “deep sigh of…” and your reader can finish it for you automatically, you have probably written a cliché.
Clichés are catchall expressions that can be applied to almost any situation. They are “dead-weight” in your paper since they add no new thought or original detail. Clichés are appropriate if they are part of someone’s directly quoted speech or if your intention is to characterize or satirize your speaker’s lack of imagination. If your paper is nothing more than a collection of clichés, however, you should review your approach.
Usually a cliché detracts more than it adds to your paper. Scan your paper for possible clichés, and if you find any, try one of the following options.
a. Throw it out.
b. Retain the information part, but change the overused word pattern. (For example, “broke into a cold sweat” becomes “I started to sweat.”)
c. Replace the cliché with specifics. (For example, I was “in sad shape” become “My hair was in tangles; my arms were bleeding; my clothes were torn and wrinkled.”)
d. Replace it was a comparison unique to your own past experience. (Thus, “Empty feeling in my stomach” becomes “I felt like I did the time my mother told me my dog, Jeff, had died.”)
(See the cliché exercise at the end of this chapter for more practice in recognizing and reworking clichés out of your writing.)
13. Avoid adopting a flippant tone or limiting
the paper to a conversation with yourself.
A writer who like “Mr. Cool” and who writes mainly in slang, clichés,
and current “in” expressions risks sounding forced and artificial. A paper that begins “Last weekend my buddies
and I boogied down to
In a self-talk approach, the writer talks to himself during an event rather than describing it and re-creating it. As a result, the writer often leaves out what is actually seen, done, and reacted to, being too wrapped up in his own personal conversation to notice.
14. Paragraph to clarify idea focus. Paragraphing is the equivalent of “thought punctuation.” Just as a period indicates the end of a sentence, so should a paragraph indicate the end of one thought or emphasis and the beginning of another. When you attention switches to a new idea, person, or thought, paragraph to show the change.
In many cases paragraphing can be a matter of opinion, but be sure to avoid the extremes either of writing large blocks of material with no paragraphs or of stringing together pages of one or two sentence paragraphs. While one-sentence paragraphs are needed to show change of speaker in dialogue, in most writing they should be used sparingly and saved for situations where you want to emphasize an idea by making it stand alone. If you write a series of short paragraphs, check each one carefully to see if it can be combined with other material, expanded by adding support details, or simply thrown out.
Accurate paragraphing reflects your control of your material. If you have difficulty paragraphing, chances are you need to clarify your focus.
15. Varying your sentence structure to avoid a monotonous or choppy effect. Overreliance on one-sentence patterns can be monotonous. Use a variety of lengths and vary your pattern so you don’t have a series of all long or all short sentences. Notice the improvement the writer gained by rewriting the following sentences.
Example using too many short sentences of the same pattern:
I woke up. I rolled over. I fumbled to turn off the alarm. It was raining outside. I wondered what Mom would make for breakfast. I stuck one foot out of bed to test the floor temperature.
Same example rewritten to achieve sentence variety:
Hearing the alarm, I woke up, rolled over, and fumbled to turn it off. It was raining outside. I wondered what Mom would make for breakfast as I stuck one foot out of bed to test the floor temperature.
16. Check for unnecessary fragments and run-on sentences.
Fragment Part of a sentence written as if it were a complete sentence.
Run-on Two or more sentences written as one.
Personal experience writing gives you a lot of license to break grammatical rules and write in fragments, since it often reflects or quotes spoken language in which fragments are quite acceptable. They are an effective way to capture a confused or emotional state of mind. Be careful, however, to avoid overusing them, especially in straight descriptions. Since fragments are incomplete statements, they leave your reader hanging in the air and can interfere with clarity. Make sure your sentences have clear subjects and verbs. Attach descriptions of actions to a person or an object for greater clarity.
Skiing furiously down the hill, unaware of my surroundings, or other people on the slope.
Corrected fragment example:
Skiing furiously down the hill, unaware of my surroundings or other people on the slope, I collided suddenly with a large man in a blue parka.
Run-ons or “fused sentences” are largely a matter of punctuation oversight. Be sure to check your quoted material and separate the sentences in it must as you would if they were written outside the quotation marks.
Example of a run-on in dialogue:
“I waited and waited, he never showed up, he just left me,” she wailed.
Corrected run-on example:
“I waited and waited; he never showed up; he just left me,” she wailed.
17. Don’t’ withhold information to create a false surprise ending. In personal experience writing, you aim to have your reader relive an incident with you. To achieve this effect, you must give your reader all the information you were reacting to during the event. Your reader can’t experience your reactions unless he or she knows clearly who you are, where you are, why you’re there, what you’re doing, and how you feel about it. When you withhold significant information, your reader is more apt to be irritated than intrigued.
18. End on a tension-release point. Composing a paper is similar to composing music; both use tension and release points. Music builds tension by moving away from basic tonal centers and resolves tension by returning to its home chords. A piece sounds unfinished until the tension is resolved. The same is true of writing. A tension point is created in writing whenever participants are unsure of the situation or face a real or imagined danger or problem. Musically speaking, they are “away from their tonal centers,” off home base. Knowing the outcome, whether it be positive or negative, resolves the tension by returning your reader to the known.
An incident can have one main tension or focal point or build a series of tension points as it goes. Imagine that your paper re-creates a serious ski injury that required surgery. The accident and your injury create the paper’s major tension, and successful surgery provides its final resolution. However, you may find that retelling an entire event up to this ending would create too long a paper for your purposes. The next thing to explore would be minor tension-release points within the incident, any one of which could be developed into a possible ending.
Minor tension-release points in the ski incident could include being found by the ski patrol after the accident, being carried down the hill successfully in the rescue toboggan, having your friends come to comfort you in the ski patrol hut, completing the ride into the hospital and meeting the emergency doctor, or finally waking up from the completed operation.
Any time one of these tension-release points is reached, the paper has a potential stopping place. You can manipulate the length of your paper by deciding how many release points you want to include, but you must end on some release point if your paper is to sound finished.