"The Personal Perspective Essay: The Chance to Sound Off"
by Johnie H. Scott, Assistant Professor
Pan African Studies Department -
California State University, Northridge
Northridge, California, June 19, 1996--- There are occasions when you as a writer get to sound off, to give an opinion that does not have to be supported, documented, or even explained. Some of the forms that Personal Perspective essays take are "Letters,"
editorials, guest columns, speeches, and special assignments when the writer is asked to respond to a particular issue, subject, or the like. Sometimes the personal perspective is important because of the writer, who may be a celebrity like Spike Lee or
Bill Cosby, a famous government official such as California Congresswoman Maxine Walters, or newsmaking personality like Reverend Jessie Jackson and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Sometime the personal viewpoint is important because the writer represents a
large or definite segment of society like National Urban League President John Jacobs or Brotherhood Crusade President Danny Bakewell and is, in effect, speaking for that constituency on a subject such as Black-Korean Relationships in Southcentral Los
Other times, the personal perspective is important because the writer is an editor of the magazine in which the piece appears like John Johnson of Ebony, Essence Magazine's Susan Taylor or San Francisco Sun-Reporter Publisher Carlton B. Goodlett, and the
personal viewpoint can give readers a fix on the slant of the newspaper or magazine itself. At other times, the personal viewpoint is important just because the writer has a real flair for writing like Alice Walker, or like Ishmael Reed is very amusing, or
so capable of saying what everybody is thinking but couldn't say so well such as Amiri Baraka.
A Personal Perspective essay has no particular form. It is, rather, the writer's opinion -- pure and simple. The writer does not have to explain carefully why he or she believes this particular thing or thinks this particular way, and the reader does not
have to do anything more than take the essay or leave it. Personal Perspective essays are usually very interesting to read, however, because they almost always carry the stamp of the writer's personality prominently.
There is a checklist for writing a Personal Perspective essay:
- Write about something that's been on your mind for a while. When you do this, then the subject typically will be something that you care about and have not been able to forget or simply file away. Perhaps you've been concerned about what you see
as the inequity between the way in which funding is done for affluent schools and the way that schools situated in poverty-stricken neighborhoods takes place. It's on your mind because the subject matters to you, and demands to be expressed.
- Carve out your own turf. Don't depend upon the thoughts, opinions, views, or positions of others. If the subject happens to be the Moral Majority taking a swipe at what is loosely called the "declining social values caused by an increase in the number
of single parent households" and you grew up in exactly that sort of household as did your brothers and sisters, all of whom went on to become positive, productive citizens despite harsh circumstances, then you don't have to go to the library to look up
and see what others have to say. Take your own stand, making it clear to your readers that this is what you believe in and stand for, that this is what you personally care about.
- Help the readers understand your point of view. You aren't simply writing to impress people, or toot your own horn. The purpose of writing always is to communicate with others. When you do so, the language chosen is deliberate given the audience (i.e.,
you don't use technical language to communicate with the general public and you don't come across as condescending when the subject is serious!). Sometimes young writers mistake this as an invitation to engage in slang or profanity. You should be cautioned
with the old proverb that, "Profanity is the mark of a lazy mind!" Remember that words are power, and you want to choose language that works for you and helps to tell the story, language that you would not be ashamed to be associated with no matter the
setting or listeners (in this case, readers!). Be engaging and entertaining where possible, invite the readers to join in this discussion with you.
- Find a style suited to your subject but distinctly in your own voice. Use the first person when writing this type of essay: I . Keep in mind that this is not a purely expository or objective essay. The Personal Perspective is exactly that, it is your
point of view about a particular subject or topic and the readers expect as much.
- Use lots of examples, illustrations, and details to involve your readers. Paint a word-picture, one that enables the readers to see what you are writing about, to feel what you are experiencing, to share in the emotions that have been carried around
within you long enough that you have had to come out and make a statement.
This leads to some critical concerns about your audience of readers:
- Make your readers sympathetic to your point of view. You should work hard to give them the sort of details that allow them to appreciate why it is that you feel as you do. Help them understand what it is like to be in (or to take) your position.
- Connect your particular opinion to related opinions readers might share. (For example, people who have been victimized by absentee landlords might better understand your outrage about slumlords who do little or nothing to improve properties but are
constantly raising rents.)
- Anticipate what your readers need to know. Try to give them numbers, statistics, dates, names, and facts as needed, brief descriptions of locales, and quick rundowns of relevant situations. Don't simply assume that the readers know where you're coming
- Remember that people like to read about other people. Give all the people in the essay
- including yourself -- an identity. Names and facts are important. Bring the characters to life in the essay you are writing. Stay away from excessive pronoun
Finally, one wants to keep in mind that all essays have a basic format although content and style will influence the shape the composition takes:
- The Introduction wherein your get the reader's attention and then present your thesis. For this type of essay, choosing something from the human drama of life, actual experience, is what works best and gets the audience's immediate attention.
People like knowing that what they are reading "actually happened" or "is happening right now!"
- The Body of the composition wherein you support the patterns indicated in your thesis statement. This is where you will want to expand upon the illustrations, examples, and facts; and finally,
- The Conclusion wherein you bring home to the reader the purpose for the composition, what it was that drove you to sit down and take the time to put this essay together in the first place. You always want to work for a conclusion that will be
thought-provoking. Don't limit yourself to a one-paragraph conclusion. It can be two or three paragraphs, whatever works most effectively.
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