Guide to writing a personal reflective essay
Plan your essay.
- Do some research. Read newspapers – the ‘comments’ or ‘opinion’ sections are often personal – or magazines, or watch debate programmes such as The Big Question.
- Edit your work. Your first attempt is never going to be your best draft. Rework it. Reflect on each paragraph if you have to.
- Jot down ideas, feelings, memories or opinions as they come into your head, and think about why you feel like that.
Topic: You need to introduce your topic early on. Grasp your reader's attention. You can do this in a number of ways:
- A small anecdote.
- A quote.
- Starting with end of the story and working backwards.
- A flashback.
Interest: The main body of the essay needs to be interesting. Some pupils spend so much time on the introduction that the main essay becomes boring and flat.
Motif: Have a motif or symbol running through your essay. For example:
“The dark patterned armchair in the corner of the living room is always there. It holds her and her worries. It holds the pain that is still blatantly apparent. It holds my mum and as I gaze into her frail weak eyes- I still feel the torture she endures on a daily basis. Her eyes dart back and forth yet I know she hides her pain. She's crumbling inside and will not be healed- just like the tatty hole in the arm chair in which she picks and picks until no more foam can be found. She picks and picks at her brain- blaming herself "Why us?”, “Why my baby?" circulating her thoughts at every turn. There are no answers and although I thought things will never be the same again... I now know that they never will.
Tone: Make sure your tone and personality are shining through.
Anecdotes: Use anecdotes to engage your reader. For example:
“I have always wanted to be an actress. It is my main ambition. I have always wanted to be an actress”…
“Acting: it has been my sole ambition ever since the day I met David Tennant on a plane coming back from holiday. We sat for hours chatting and planning my next step in my soon to be startling career… Well no, not really, but this is what acting is all about - pretending to be someone else for day, an hour, a while.
Use sophisticated vocabulary. Think of word choice and the effect you want.
- A wide range of adjectives or descriptions is essential for personal reflective writing.
- Try not to use adjectives such as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ or ‘nice’ or ‘good’ or ‘OK’, they don't really tell us how you felt about something, and they do not reflect your personality.
- Successful personal writing also uses a wide range of verbs. Verbs help you to describe to the reader exactly how you did something and how you felt while you were doing it.
- Try not to use verbs that are over-used, such as ‘said’ or ‘went’ or ‘walked’ or ‘laughed’ or ‘cried’.
- Some people come right out and say how they feel.
- Other people imply (through some of the techniques we've discussed) how they feel.
- For any piece of writing you have looked at, use one colour to highlight the explicit feelings and a second colour to highlight implicit feelings.
Punctuation: Use a variety. Everything that you see in a Close Reading paper should be present in an essay: colon, parenthesis, ellipsis, semi-colon, dash etc.
Imagery: Use a variety of imagery to describe your emotions. Compare your sadness, tears, happiness, excitement, nerves, panic etc. to something else.
Turning point: Every personal experience has to have a turning point. This is a point in which your line of thought or perspective changes.
Reflection: Perhaps the most vital element. You need to think about how the experience has changed you or others. Look back at the turning point and think:
- What have you learned about yourself?
- How have you changed?
- What could you have done differently?
After reading Holes, use these questions to start a discussion with your students about the book. You can also use any of these questions as writing prompts.
- In what ways is the saying "You can't judge a book by its cover" a good one for this story? For example, what do you expect Camp Green Lake to be like based on its name? What is it really like?
- What do you think the title Holes means? What might be another reason other than the holes the boys dig in the lake? What hole (or holes) is in Stanley's life when he first arrives at Camp Green Lake? Are the holes still there when he leaves?
- Stanley's father, an inventor, says, "I learn from failure." What do you think this means? In what ways have you learned from failure?
- Why do the boys call Mr. Pendanski "Mom"? How does this name fit his personality? In what ways is it not a good name for him?
- What do the boys' nicknames tell about each of their personalities? Do you think a name changes the way others see a person and the way the person sees him- or herself?
- Why do you think Stanley lies to his parents in his letters home? Would you do the same?
- Stanley and his family half-jokingly blame their misfortunes on Stanley's "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." Do you believe in fate — that people are lucky or unlucky — or do you believe, as Mr. Pendanski tells the boys, that we are all responsible for our selves and our destinies?
- As Stanley becomes stronger and his skin becomes tougher from digging the holes, how is he changing inside? What are the causes of those changes?
- Why do you think Stanley gives X-Ray the lipstick tube? What would you have done if you were in Stanley's place?
- Why do you think Stanley lies and says he stole Mr. Sir's sunflower seeds? If you were in Stanley's position, what would you have done?
- At home, Stanley did not have friends. But at Camp Green Lake, he forms a special friendship with Zero. How did Zero and Stanley prove their friendship to each other? In what way does Zero fill a hole in Stanley's life?
- How is Stanley's friendship with Zero similar to Kate Barlow's friendship with Sam? In each case why don't people approve of the friendship?
- Why don't the other boys like Stanley and Zero's agreement that Zero will help Stanley dig and Stanley will help Zero read? Do you think it is fair to both Stanley and Zero? Do you think it is fair to the other campers?
- Holes is really three stories tied together. One is about Camp Green Lake. The second is the tale of Stanley's great-great-grandfather and the "curse" put on him by Madame Zeroni. The third story is of Kissin' Kate Barlow, the outlaw who robbed Stanley's great-grandfather. How do these three stories fit together within the larger story of Holes?
- Stanley always seems to find humor even in the worst situations. He laughs on the bus to Camp Green Lake thinking about his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather." While walking across the hot, dry lake, he laughs at the sight of the boat, Mary Lou. Climbing Big Thumb, he even makes Zero laugh. What does this say about Stanley? How does his attitude help him?
- What is the significance of Stanley's name being a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same way forward and backward?
- Where does Stanley find the strength to carry Zero up the mountain? Why did he do it even though he didn't know what he'd find at the top? Describe something you've done that at first seemed impossible. What did you learn from the experience?
- Even though his fate is uncertain, Stanley is suddenly very happy as he lies awake on the top of the mountain, staring at the stars. Why does he feel this way? How has his life changed from the start of the story?
- Why do you think Stanley starts to call Zero by his real name, Hector?
- When Hattie Parker sees Katherine and Sam kiss, she says, "God will punish you!" Based on the events later in the book, whom do you think God punished?
Some questions are adapted from Scholastic BookFiles: A Reading Guide to Holes. You can download the reading guide for free.