personal narrative in academic writing

The following is an amended version of a reflection I posted to a private blog I share contributing to with fellow writing tutors and student support staff at Ryerson University, but I felt the discussion was wide-ranging enough to share to a broad audience to add my voice to the conversation about academic writing and creativity.

I thought I would take a chance to reflect on some things I have been thinking about in my own work as well as my tutor practice. My gears started turning this morning upon reading a piece from the Tutor’s Column in The Writing Lab Newsletter, “From Symbols to Stories: Helping Students Make Personal Connections,” by Elizabeth Dellinger. Fair warning: I apologize in advance as this turned into a lengthy piece while I passed the time on my train to Ottawa.

Dellinger’s column and the sources she references touch on the complex process of encouraging students to explore their personal connections to their work to strengthen it. Personally (see what I did there?), I know that my own writing is drastically different depending on my investment in the topic. At every stage, my level of interest and personal connection to my topic influences my dedication to my argument, enjoyment of the writing process itself, and clarity of my thoughts. To be honest, whether I am able to make a connection to my own interests and experiences often has a direct correlation with the amount of hair-pulling that goes into my writing.

Dellinger suggests that our positions as coaches or tutors in a writing centre presents an opportunity to “challenge the idea that “academic” is code for impersonal, and to encourage students to consider exploring the value of their own connections with their subjects.” She offers several helpful suggestions:

– “[Exploring] this connection by asking students about the reasons why they chose their topic and what their experiences with it have been often results in giving students a much-needed new perspective on their writing.”

– “Even when it is inappropriate to include personal narrative or students decide against it, investigating that personal connection will often help them feel more connected to their subject.”

– “When coaches help students see the assignment as more than just an abstract exercise, they can lead the author to feel increased engagement with his or her own work.”

Early in my academic career (ie. first and second year undergrad) I hesitated to include personal anecdotes and the infamous “I” in my work; in fact I avoided this style of writing altogether, preferring a formal and impersonal argument. My writing was rigid, constrained to a style I neither enjoyed nor that depicted my creativity. Slowly, just as my knowledge expanded and I climbed the academic ladder (whose rungs never seem to end), so did my writing style. I think a lot of this had to do with being exposed to more and more styles of papers and research, as well as feeling more comfortable in the academic atmosphere and taking a few chances here and there. A sentence or two would creep into my writing that would be more confrontational, informal, and personal. Now, it is almost impossible for me not to include an anecdote or personal experience in my writing and connect it to the broader issues at hand. And yes, I use “I” and I’m proud of it.

The idea that we can use personal ideas or experiences in our academic papers seems to be stamped out during high school (one of many problems with the current approach to education, a system on which I have many thoughts and I hope to follow up with a dedicated post) and many students come to their undergrad extremely hesitant to “break the rules” they have so long been required to follow. I have started telling my students that it took me a long time to realize that you can take certain liberties in your writing and this makes it not only more interesting for yourself while writing but more interesting for your readers.

Another big difference, which I recognize, is that in undergraduate work you are often writing pieces within restrictive guidelines and at times about subjects that are unfamiliar or simply uninteresting to you. The specificity of our work and (hopefully) the level of interest are heightened in graduate school, which can make it much easier to include pieces of personal narrative in even the most academic of works. The question is, then, how can we foster that spark of passion in students so their writing not only improves but they enjoy the process itself? (Not to mention, again, the flaws of a system that forces certain requirements upon students).

When a student is particularly hesitant to include any personal narrative, I suggest baby steps; the introduction or conclusion is a great place to include a self-reflexive point, an anecdote about personal experience with the topic, or an example of a relevant situation. With practice, perhaps this student will go on to take chances in their writing and litter such examples throughout their arguments. The beauty of this is that we can communicate to our reader in an intriguing way that evokes a conversation as much as it does a strong argument. Works that include personal narratives and lived experiences form a relationship with their reader, and in the end is that not one of our main goals as writers?

Now, I certainly understand the complexities of telling students to use “I” or personal narratives when professors clearly write “Do not use I” on syllabi; the question of what is an “appropriate” personal narrative is also a tricky one to which I have no answer. Taking these chances can be scary and it is difficult to navigate a conflict between requirements and expectations on one hand and creativity in your writing on the other. Dellinger suggests this is a “chance to assist students to navigate, rather than simply avoid, these complex issues.” I think it is worth the conversation.

In a similar Writing Lab piece, Jennifer Howard suggests that “to be more creative, students may alter writing styles, change voices, incorporate literary devices, include anecdotes, or just find an unusual angle on a subject.” What tips and suggestions do you have for students looking to add that something extra to their writing?

Alternatively, if none of this rings true for you or your writing style I am curious to know why. I fully respect a keen avoidance of personal narrative like it’s the plague, but have you given it a try?

For me, the important revelation is that scholarly writing and creative, personal work do not have to be separate. However we put that into practice is up to us.


Dellinger, E. (2013, November-December). Tutor’s Column: From symbols to stories: Helping students make personal connections. Writing Lab Newsletter, 38: 3-4. Retrieved from

Howard, J. (2007, January 1). Unleashing the beast: creativity in academic writing. Writing Lab Newsletter, Retrieved from

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