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Descriptive Essay Self Portrait

Effective Hints For An Essay About My Self Portrait

Most students will have to write a self-portrait essay at least once in their school career. However, this can be a rather intimidating paper to write. While you do know yourself better than anybody else, it is still nearly impossible to figure out what to write. Fortunately, if you know the following tips, writing your paper will be a breeze.

Tip #1: Take a Moment to Reflect on Yourself and Form a Thesis

Before you even consider your topic, take a moment to be alone with yourself. Go to an environment with no distractions, close your eyes, and breathe deeply for a few moments. Once you have reached a state of calm, think about your personality, the goals that you have in life, and who and what is near and dear to your heart. Once you have thought of something that appeals to you, branch out. For example, if you struggle with anxiety, you may think of the people close to you and how hard you try to form friendships (and have succeeded) despite your anxiety. This would go on to be your thesis statement, which you would reflect on throughout your entire paper.

Tip #2: Introducing Yourself

In order for you to catch your reader’s attention, you must introduce yourself in a way that sparks interest. While you should include basic information like who you live with or what you look like, you should not do this as if you were answering questions. Instead of telling readers that you are 16, state that you moved to the area 2 years ago when you were 14. Also, as an alternative to describing your physical attributes, you may be able to include a picture.

Tip #3: Narrow Your Body Paragraphs to a Few Main Events

In order to keep your essay in line with the typical guidelines expected from a self-portrait paper, use the body to explain 2-3 major events in your life that reflect the ideas in your thesis. Using the same example about overcoming anxiety to create friendships, you could write about three of your friends and how you reached out to them. Keep the events brief, but not so brief that they do not reflect your thesis.

Keep the above hints in mind as you compose your self-portrait essay. It may seem like a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be!

To prepare for this week’s post, I took a look at my notes from the Cheryl Strayed retreat I attended a few weeks ago.  I shared what I learned here and here and here. Thankfully, I was able to find a few more gems—and writing prompts.

Today’s topic? Character portraits.

1. Character Portraits Reveal Relationship

A portrait is a description of a person or a group of people.

From Cheryl Strayed, however, I learned portraits also reveal the relationship between a person and the writer (in memoir) or another character (fiction).

For example, a person might describe his father using terms like “looming,” “powerful,” and “spoke with a deep voice.” In addition to providing a physical description, these words evoke some of that fear or intimidation a child may have for his parent.

Another person (his wife, for example) may use completely different words to describe the same man.

So ask yourself, does your portrait reflect the person’s relationship to the speaker?

2. Character Portraits Are About More than the Physical

Cheryl read us a paragraph from a writer about his mother—but he didn’t use a single physical description.

Instead, he wrote, “She was the type of woman who was charming and beloved by strangers, but all of us close to her couldn’t help but walk on egg shells.”

I made this example up because I couldn’t remember the exact paragraph. However, I do remember the author wrote about his mother’s actions, how she made people feel, and what she said, while completely avoiding describing her physical appearance.

You don’t have to eliminate physical description. Rather, I encourage you to consider how you might create an image of a character if you couldn’t describe his or her appearance.

3. Character Portraits Can Be Made for Groups of People

When Cheryl was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in her memoir Wild, she kept running into a certain type of hiker. This group of hikers spoke a certain way, wore certain gear, and were all hiking for similar reasons. To portray this group, Cheryl decided to combine all of them into one, single character.

In cases where you want to depict a certain type of person, she said, you can choose to either combine those people into a single character, like she did  (in memoir, I might add), or you can literally write a portrait of the group.

For example, “The women of Logan Circle wear Lululemon yoga pants, racer-back tank tops, and yoga mats strapped across their backs.”  That’s how I would describe certain people in Logan Circle, D.C.  It’s not a portrait of one woman, but a type of woman that I always see there.

I understand the fear of stereotyping by describing groups this way.  My suggestion is to try to be accurate and fair, but also to  not be afraid to lean into your character’s subjectivity.

The real question is how the character would see these people.  Would he or she really have a nuanced perspective?

4. When Writing Character Portraits, Follow the HEAT

I wrote down this quote from Cheryl:

When someone you know well does something they always do, that’s a point of heat and interest, and when someone does something they never do, it’s also a place of heat and interest.

In other words, follow the heat.

I think this advice is particularly helpful in memoir.  Is there something someone in your life always does?  Is it in your description of him or her? If not, it should be!

What about a time when someone did something they never do?  Why did they do it? Let us know in the comments!


I have a couple of related writing prompts for you today:

  1. Write a portrait of someone without describing him or her physically.
  2. Write a portrait of a group or category of people (or type of person).
  3. Write a portrait of yourself at your best or your worst.

Choose one of the writing prompts and write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share your writing in the comments section. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Happy writing!

Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

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