Let’s Get Personal: The Art and Craft of the Personal Essay

with Margo Perin


Have you had life experiences or unique perspectives that you’re compelled to share with others? In this 8 week course, you will learn how to write publishable personal essays that have the power to reach a wide audience. Through weekly instruction on literary techniques specific to the personal essay, you will explore topics you wish to write about and create your own personal essays. Topics can include travel, love, health, family, childhood, work, friendship and other relationships, the body, or any other subjects of interest to you.

You will learn about the strengths of your writing and receive detailed instruction on further development through weekly constructive, in-depth instructor and student feedback. We’ll look at a range of personal essays by critically acclaimed authors and discuss the literary techniques that make them successful. By the end of the course, you will have discovered how to access the power and strength of your essay writing skills and give voice to your unique perspective(s) on life and other matters. Included are strategies on how to become your own best editor.

Margo had great feedback, and all her responses to students’ writing were thorough, positive, and extremely helpful. She was encouraging and kind during all interactions, and all her comments were very meaningful.
—Rebecca Schechter

Learning Objectives for Students

– To understand and be familiar with personal essay writing as a process

– To critique writing (one’s own and that of others)

– To develop an authentic, individual voice

– To understand basic elements of successful personal essays

– To apply the tools of the workshop in editing and revision

– To cultivate and explore ideas in personal essays with greater assurance and precision

Instructional Methods

The course will be taught through instruction on craft, the examination of a range of personal essays, class discussion, weekly writing assignments, and critique of student manuscripts.

Week One: Structure of the Personal Essay and the Creative Process

We’ll look at what makes a piece of nonfiction writing a “personal essay” and explore different techniques to help you write the best you can.

Week Two: Voice and Point of View

What is your narrative “personality”? What makes your writing most authentic to your own individual sensibility and aesthetic? We’ll also be looking at the ways you can use different points of view in the personal essay.

Week Three: Imagery and Exposition

When to “tell” and when to “show” in a personal essay, and how to strike the most effective balance between the two.

Week Four: Characterization

The people you write about, as well as yourself, are multilayered characters. We’ll discuss how to present them in a nutshell and reveal enough to make the “whole” of them real and engaging to your readers.

Week Five: When to Include Conversation, and Not

A discussion of authentic dialogue and the importance of including what your characters don’t say.

Week Six: The Importance of Setting

We’ll explore how the time and place in which the experience(s) you describe provide vital context, reflection, and “grounding.”

Week Seven: “Real” vs. “Story” Time

This week we’ll be examining a variety of “time” used in the personal essay, including “real” time, and the ways in which is time is compressed and/or lengthened to heighten drama.

Week Eight: Theme/Premise, Beginnings and Endings

We end the course with a focus on the importance of conveying meaning in the personal essay, and how to create the most impactful beginnings and endings.

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Student Feedback for Margo Perin:

Margo is a fantastic teacher!  She gave so much attention to every single piece of writing including all the critiques.  I was extremely satisfied with the class content. I was sorry to see the workshop come to an end. I would absolutely recommend it. Madlyn Springston

This was an excellent class and one that gave me a weekly opportunity to flesh out ideas and get real-time responses. Margo is knowledgeable and compassionate, with a keen eye for strengths and areas of growth. Tom Lorio

Margo was attentive and understanding as an instructor. She provided useful critiques and wise guidance. She was also kind in giving criticism, a skill not mastered by all instructors. All the lessons were adequately described and the lecture notes and supplemental readings were very detailed and clear. The assignments were challenging and interesting... I would and I have recommended your classes to many friends... Your attention to and care for your students is admirable. I am very happy to have found your website. Sia Corrina Durocher

Margo had great feedback, and all her responses to students' writing were thorough, positive, and extremely helpful. She was encouraging and kind during all interactions, and all her comments were very meaningful. Rebecca Schechter

I found Margo to be highly sensitive to our abilities, both in terms of our gifts as well as challenges as writers.  I really appreciated her attention to subtle but powerful details.  Her suggestion of what seemed like a simple one-word change were profound and helped me see my writing process in new, advanced ways. Terilee Wunderman

I was very happy with the class content. Margo gave truly helpful comments and was extremely supportive.I would and have extolled this program to many people. I got exactly what I'd hoped for, and I think it's a really high-quality operation. Molly Cheek

Margo is an excellent teacher, great critiques, motivational and sincere in her feedback. I found this class a perfect fit for me to assist me with my short story writing. The assignments were spot on, the plot, point of view and scene building assignments were eye opening to me. Also, the online classroom was great. I will take another class.  Mike Karpinski

[Margo] has a way of bringing out the best in each of the writers. She always provided constructive feedback. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say and learned a lot from her feedback, not just for me but for everyone. I thought the class lectures and assignments really helped me think about what I wanted to say and how I should say it. They were the right mix of challenging but not overwhelming. I am impressed the course offerings provided by Writers.com. I am currently taking another class and plan to take others.  Abigail Aguirre

Margo Perin


Margo Perin’s publications include The Opposite of Hollywood, Only the Dead Can Kill: Stories from JailPlexiglass, and How I Learned to Cook & Other Writings on Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships. She is the poet of San Francisco’s permanent memorial Spiral of Gratitude. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize, she has been featured in numerous national and international media, including Heyday/PEN’s Fightin’ WordsThe San Francisco Chronicle Sunday MagazineO, The Oprah Magazine, Mexico’s El Petit Journal, Holland’s PsycologieKRON 4 TVNPR’s Talk of the Nation, and KALW, KPFA, and WAMC. Her passions are teaching and writing, especially memoir and autobiographical fiction and poetry. She has taught for more than thirty years, including M.F.A. and M.A. Creative Writing at USF and New College, at UC Berkeley Extension, California Poets in the Schools, and in the U.K., Mexico, and Italy. She is pleased to be back at Writers.com after a hiatus when she focused on teaching personal narrative to adults and youth incarcerated in California jails and prisons. Please visit her at www.margoperin.com and see her work at www.margoperin.com/essays–poetry.html, and view her Writers.com interview on autobiographical writing.