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This mini-lesson on prewriting strategies is designed to help you generate ideas for a personal narrative essay in which you tell a story about a real-life experience. Prewriting is particularly important because it helps you plan how to start the narrative essay and think about the details to include. The four strategies covered in this lesson (using sentence starters, freewriting, listing, and mind mapping) can help you select which personal experiences have the most significance for you. If you feel a strong connection to your topic, then it will be easier for you to convey a message and write an effective narrative essay.

Sentence starters are a technique that helps you understand the need to focus on a personal experience and can help you frame the initial sentences of your essay. Freewriting helps you get started without overthinking, which can cause more anxiety and sometimes lead to writer’s block. Freewriting helps you write continuously for a set period of time to get your initial thoughts on paper. Listing and mind mapping are brainstorming techniques that are both helpful in generating essay topics, themes, and supporting details.

Throughout the lesson, you can practice each technique so that by the end of the lesson, you can begin writing the first paragraph of your personal narrative essay.

Prewriting Strategies for a Personal Narrative

The purpose behind freewriting is to generate ideas based on personal experiences and to begin writing a personal story focused on one particular moment in one’s life.

For this, you’ll need paper, pen or pencil, or a computer or mobile device with word processor software or application

In order to write a personal narrative, you must choose a personal experience to write about. There are many different ways to choose the focus of your essay. Once you have selected a significant moment in your life, you must recall important information about the experience and then organize the details to make a lasting impression. Prewriting strategies are writing techniques that help you generate and clarify ideas. In this lesson, we will explore four prewriting strategies that can help you choose an experience for your personal narrative essay and help you organize information before you write your first draft.

Using Story Starters Can Help You Jump Start Your Thoughts

Often the hardest part of writing a personal narrative essay is choosing what to write about. Unless you are given a very specific prompt, such as write about the most important person in your life and how they have impacted your growth, it can be challenging to choose an experience. Try using a few of the following sentence starters or all of them to generate a list of personal experiences you could describe in your essay. Once you generate a list of topics, choose the experience that is most interesting to you.

  1. My best day ever… or My worst day ever…
  2. The day my best friend and I met each other…
  3. My life was almost ruined when…
  4. My most embarrassing moment happened when…
  5. A neighbor helped me… or I helped a neighbor…
  6. I remember a time I overcame a challenge and…
  7. When I was born…
  8. I told a secret, and… or My secret was revealed…
  9. I was afraid, but…
  10. The most exciting thing that has ever happened to me is…

Choose one of these sentence starters to begin your personal narrative, or if you have another experience in mind, start by freewriting for five to ten minutes or longer.


Once you write the first sentence, you can use freewriting to generate more information about that chosen moment in your life. The key to freewriting is to continue writing continuously for a set amount of time. I recommend using a timer, so you don’t need to look at a clock as you write. Write, even if specific details don’t come to mind at first.

Here’s my example:

When I was bornActually, I don’t  remember much about when I was born, but my parents told me that I was born a month early.  I was premature according to my folks and my birth records confirm I weighed 4 lbs,. 2 oz.  My lungs were slightly underdeveloped and I had difficulty breathing.  I remained in the hospital until I gained weight.  Once I was ovr seven pounds, my parents were allowed to take me home.  The had to build a tent around my crib and keep a humidifier on inside th tent to help my breathe easier  Later, I was diagnosed with asthma.

Freewriting is also known as stream-of-consciousness writing. The important part is to keep writing, even if some of the details of a moment in your life come from what others have told you about the experience. Writing about those details may trigger your own memories. Also, do not worry about grammar, spelling, or the mechanics of writing at this prewriting stage.  Just write! The goal is to write down as much as you can remember about the experience from your own memories or from the details others have shared with you.


Brainstorming is when you freely write down all ideas about your topic in the order in which the thoughts come to you. After you choose an experience, complete your first sentence using a sentence starter and/or freely write about the experience for a few minutes; you can use brainstorming techniques to write down more information about any moment in your life. There are several brainstorming techniques. Listing, clustering, and mind mapping are three popular methods of brainstorming.

Listing is a helpful technique to use when your topic is broad. Your personal life experience is a very broad topic, and you need to narrow the topic to a memorable experience that made a lasting impression. To make a list of possible experiences, start by making a list of your life experiences that brought you the most joy, experiences that brought you pain (physical, emotional, or social), experiences that helped you grow, and experiences that changed your perspective. You can either keep writing your narrative about the experience generated from the sentence starter or you can choose a more impactful experience for the listing exercise. Never be afraid to throw out the first idea for your essay for a better, more interesting idea.

Practice Exercise:  Make a list of at least ten experiences that have contributed to your personal growth and development. Here’s my shortlist:

  1. Receiving my first journal as a birthday gift in second grade and beginning to write poems
  2. Baking chocolate chip cookies with my tutor to learn about fractions and ratios
  3. Traveling to another country for the first time while I was in h.s. and staying with a host family
  4. Being an NC Teaching Fellow, Honors Student, Black Student Union President, and UNC Charlotte
  5. Becoming a disciple of Jesus and deeply studying the Word of God
  6. Being a member of the Bouncing Bulldogs International Jump Rope Team
  7. Moving to Florida and becoming a title processor, working in the real estate industry
  8. Teaching at Children’s Comprehensive Services of Charlotte and PACE Academy
  9. Joining the Visioneers Toastmasters Club and participating regularly in club meetings
  10. Giving birth to my son at the age of 38

Most of these experiences are still too broad for a personal narrative essay since I have multiple stories I can share for each.  Listing can also be used to narrow the focus for a particular experience.  Here’s a demonstration:

Selected experience:  Traveling to another country for the first time while in h.s. and staying with a host family

A list of how I matured through the experience:

  • I traveled with a team, so I learned how to work cooperatively with others to share our skills.
  • I was a junior in high school, and I was paired with an elementary school student to stay with two different host families during the week-long trip.  So, I learned to be responsible for guiding a younger student, set a positive example, and be flexible.  I also learned to trust others outside of my family.
  • I learned to enjoy and appreciate other cultures as we attended cultural events and dwelled with two families living on the island of Bermuda.

I could narrow this list of experiences that occurred on the island of Bermuda to focus on a particular event. For example:  I traveled with a team to Bermuda when I was a junior in high school to share our skills by:

  • turning Double Dutch and traveler for members of the Bouncing Bulldogs and Double Dutch Forces teams during school performances for Diabetes Awareness Week on the island
  • teaching primary school students jump rope skills during workshops throughout the week
  • developing new routines that members of both teams could perform for members of the island community

You can keep creating more focused lists (sub-lists) until you have enough specific details to write the initial draft of your personal narrative.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a more visual brainstorming technique. It can help you think about a particular personal experience more deeply and organize details into main topics and subtopics.

You can create a mind map in three easy steps:

  1. Start in the middle of a blank page, writing or drawing (a picture of) the personal experience you intend to write your essay about.
  2. Write down the related subtopics around the central experience, connecting each of them with a line.
  3. Repeat the same process for the subtopics, generating leveled subtopics and connecting each of those supporting details to the corresponding subtopic.

Once you have applied one or two of these prewriting strategies, use your list(s) and/or mind map to begin writing the first paragraph of your personal narrative essay.  Look for themes present in your list or in the topics presented on your mind map, which can help you formulate your thesis.