A reflective paper asks students to delve into the personal. Instead of building an argument with evidence and authorities, the personal essay relies on the author's feelings and thinking. The topic can range widely, from politics to sport to entertainment, as long as the writer uses personal experience and reasoning to structure the paper.
An author's voice establishes credibility as well as sets the tone for the reader's experience. This is especially true for the reflective essay. Since the reflective essay relies on personal experience to carry the argument, it will not succeed if the author does not quickly establish an open, trustworthy and authoritative voice. When reading autobiographical pieces, readers expect an extra degree of honesty. Authors should avoid jargon, stilted prose or even cliché. The reflective essay demands that authors honestly discuss a topic from a personal point of view; that point of view will seem hollow if the person espousing it does not come off as genuine. Authors need not reveal personal secrets, but they do need to reflect an honest persona influenced by particular experiences.
What largely distinguishes a reflective paper from other types of essays is the amount of emphasis the author puts on personal experience. A reflective essay makes use of personal narrative to shape the essay and give it originality. Writers of reflective essays need not have professional experience in a subject; they need only to use personal experience, no matter how seemingly insignificant, to connect to a larger issue or question. If a reflective essay asks students to consider what they learned in a particular class, as the Lynchburg College example does, then students should develop an essay detailing their experience while juxtaposing that experience with the larger roles and expectations of students in that classroom. A reflective paper is not just autobiography. It asks authors to reflect on a personal position, experience or frustration in relation to larger narratives. Without that quality, the reader may not connect to the piece.
As George Mason University suggests, a reflective essay's purpose must be clear and the points must be organized to help the reader follow the argument. Just because it's personal doesn't mean it should meander like our thoughts. For a piece to be rhetorically persuasive and satisfying, it must have a clear structure, with a beginning introducing the topic and an end concluding it. Authors often believe that if an essay is personal, it does not need an argument. To the contrary, for an essay to work, reflective or not, the author must be able to identify what the essay is about and what it hopes to accomplish. Organization is the greatest tool in communicating that purpose and making it effective. Many authors rely on a chronological scheme to organize the paper, but many other methods of organization are possible and may help make the topic richer and more memorable.
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