Time

One of the most difficult problems of writing personal narratives is deciding how much time to spend on what. A common mistake is trying to cover some great expanse of time, often resulting in diluted generalizations: my summer job at McDonald's, all seventy-four days of it; or how I learned karate, starting with my life as a ninety-pound weakling. Instead of trying to cover such vast periods in a few pages, writers benefit when they focus sharply in time and space: Instead of trying to generalize about all summer at McDonald's, how about one hot day behind the hamburger grill? Or one afternoon? Or one hour?

Ironically, the tighter the focus in time, the more you find to say. You really can't say much about a generic day or generic hamburger grill, but you can say something substantial about that hot, humid Thursday in August when you worked the sizzling grill on your own for the first time.

Look again at the paragraphs describing the students' jobs, and you will notice how several begin quickly by putting you right there, at a specific spot on a specific day: in the battery factory, at the egg farm, on the judo mat. We reexperience these particular places with the writers and feel as if we're present, on the spot, glimpsing into a real and private world—that's what makes us read on. Strong narrative makes us relive an experience with a writer and adds to our own store of vicarious experiences. For most writers most of the time, specificity is the key to creating belief.

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