English teachers assign diagnostic essays at the beginning of courses to assess each student's writing skills and to offer suggestions for improving future essays. Most of the time, as at the Illinois Valley Community College, the essay does not count toward the student's final grade for the course. Diagnostic essays are often done in class, without much time to plan or organize and without access to resources.
The personal narrative form is a popular diagnostic essay assignment, along the lines of "How I Spent My Summer." If you find yourself stuck, staring at the blank page, the 123 Help Me website suggests writing the word "I." Beginning with "I saw," "I went" or "I never thought I would" may start the flow of words. Good personal narratives bring the reader into the experience with you through the use of descriptive language that connects with the senses. Starting with observations about the sky, birdsong and temperature of the day when an event you are relating happened can create interest.
Even in the case of an in-class essay, keep in mind the structure of a traditional essay: an introduction, a body comprised of three paragraphs and a conclusion. At the beginning of the paper, formulate a thesis statement. This may be a summary of the lesson learned from the experience you are describing. The optimal place for the thesis statement is at the end of the introductory paragraph, according to Purdue's Online Writing Lab. Preceding sentences in the opening paragraph may introduce your topic, create reader interest and provide any background information necessary for understanding the story.
Introductory Paragraph Tips
The Capital Community College Foundation outlines five elements of narrative introductions used by professional writers to create reader interest: historical review, anecdote, surprising statement, word or actions of a famous person and declarative. Providing an historical background or quoting a famous person may not be possible unless a student has the time and resources for research, but the other three elements can be used effectively in a classroom essay. Starting with an anecdote, or small story, might quickly illustrate your thesis. A surprising statement could be something you have observed about yourself that seems to go against your nature. Finally, a declarative beginning simply states the topic and proceeds into a description of the action.
Openings to Avoid
Tips on what not to say in an introductory paragraph are also provided by the same foundation. Avoid apologetic phrases, such as "in my humble opinion." Do not use extraneous words to announce your intentions: "My purpose in writing this essay..." Finally, (if you have access to a dictionary) never begin a paper with a dictionary definition of your topic.
- Illinois Valley Community College; In-Class Diagnostic Essay; Randy Rambo; June 2006
- 123 Help Me: How to Write a Personal Narrative Essay
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab; Introductions; Jaclyn M. Wells and Allen Brizee; March 2009
- Capital Community College Foundation; A Proper Introduction; Harry Livermore
- Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images