21W.036 | Spring 2022 | Undergraduate

Science Writing and New Media: Writing and the Environment

Narrative Essay: Kernel and Motive

Think about your reactions to the assigned readings. Perhaps there is an experience in your own past that has shaped your feelings about the natural environment or about environmental science? Or perhaps some experience set you on the path to the specific field that interests you now? Whatever experience you choose to explore in your personal narrative, be sure to help your readers enter into the experience; do not give us a grand overview. Make clear why it matters to you. Don’t feel that you need to write about some dramatic, inspiring event. There may be more to discover in an experience that left you confused or uneasy.

You may choose to write about experiences from your high school years, but you should probably steer away from the events of the past year. (Carolyn Ross explains the challenges of writing about recent events in “Rhetoric: Writing about Personal Experience.”) If, however, you draw a blank when presented with so much freedom, I would be happy to provide additional guidance.

Remember that most of your fellow students know little about the circumstances of your childhood and education. Draw upon concrete details as you reconstruct the specific experience that intrigues you. Concentrate initially on bringing your story to life. Let us in on the thoughts and feelings of that time. Eventually, you can explore the larger meaning of the experience, but do so with a light touch. Do not paste a neat moral onto your story.

You may find it useful to think of yourself as a storyteller sitting with a group of MIT friends late at night, summoning up a world that these new friends can know only through you.

A successful essay cannot, however, simply record a series of events or feelings. An essay is not a platter of mental food to be handed over to the reader. You need to take an active role in reflecting upon your experience. Taken literally, the term “personal narrative” can be misleading. The essay should not sound like an overgrown journal entry. The material that you draw upon can grow and change shape as you craft your essay. You should develop the most revealing details and omit those that are distracting or unproductive. Make sure that you have read Carolyn Ross’s chapter on “Writing about Personal Experience” and thought about its implications for your particular subject.

Preparation for Narrative Essay

Describe the kernel and motive for the narrative essay due next week. The “kernel” is the image, event, or individual that forms the starting point or seed of your narrative essay. The “motive” is the question or insight that you want to get at in your narrative essay. Remember—this idea need not take the form of an argument. A narrative essay often generates more questions than answers. You should write at least two sentences about each element, but you should feel free to write much more. If you have any questions about how you might build upon these basic elements, feel free to include those questions in your exercise. 

First Version

The first version of this essay should be at least 1000 words long. The revised essay should be at least 1250 words long. Make the first version as complete as possible. It should not be a rough draft. Proofread and edit your essay.

Once you have finished the first version of your essay, write a letter to your readers commenting on the state of your essay. Let your readers know something about your plans for revision. Point your readers to the issues that concern you.

Peer Review

Guidelines for comments and workshop discussions:

Begin by reading your partners’ essays for pleasure. Then, take a look at the list of questions provided here and reread the essays with these questions in mind and write out your comments. Use each question as the point of departure for a thoughtful response (“yes” and “no” answers are of little value to your partners). Your finished comments on each essay should add at least one and half pages (400 words) to the guideline document.

Remember that your comments are intended to help the writer create a more compelling version of his or her essay. Be tactful and complete. I have not asked you to comment on the writer’s grammatical or mechanical errors. I will take care of those problems myself. Thank you in advance for your thoughtful comments.

I will announce partner assignments just before you begin work on this peer-review assignment. I will reorganize workshop groups throughout the semester so that you will have a chance to work with different students each time. I will try to ensure that each of you is in the largest group only once. 

Questions to consider in your comments on the narrative essay.
  1. Introduction: Do the first few paragraphs draw you into the narrative essay? Do they point you in the right direction? If not, can you suggest minor revisions or additions that would make the introduction more engaging and effective?
  2. Background information (setting and context): What kind of background information does the author provide? Do we know enough to appreciate the narrative? Suggestions for additions or changes?
  3. Use of detail: Does the author provide sufficient detail? Which details seem particularly revealing? Can you visualize the setting and the actions?
  4. Link between narrator and reader: Does the writer draw you into his or her own perspective? What kinds of small changes would help you enter into the writer’s experience?
  5. Continuity and coherence: Are there significant gaps in the narrative? Do you want more information or description? Does any of the material within the narrative seem extraneous?
  6. Central insight: Does the essay lead up to a central insight? How would you characterize the main idea or focal point of this essay?
  7. Balancing narration and reflection: Does the author achieve a natural balance between narration and reflection? (Does the author miss out on opportunities to reflect on the story? Does the story have a life of its own or is it merely a prelude to the author’s conclusions? )
  8. Conclusion: Does the essay come to a natural end? Does it invite you to draw some conclusions about the writer’s experience? Can you see the connection between the starting point and the ending point of this essay? Suggestions?
  9. Generalizations: Does the author present conclusions that reach beyond the scope of the narrative? Identify any unwarranted generalizations. How might the writer get at these insights without generalizing?
  10. Major strengths: What do you see as the major strengths of this essay?
  11. Opportunities for revision: What aspects of the essay should be reconsidered or revised? Where does it need attention? (If you have already covered #10 in your responses to earlier questions, you may skip it.)

Revised Version

See instructions for the first version of the essay. The revised essay should be at least 1250 words long.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2022