Essay Shakedown: Personal Versus Reported

by Amy Paturel

In almost every personal essay class, I get the question: “What is a reported essay?” And it’s a great question, particularly since publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic are increasingly shying away from personal essays in favor of reported essays. So what’s the difference between the two? Read on!

The Personal
Personal essays delve into a deeply personal experience that may only be relevant to you (i.e., you may be the only person who experienced this particular “thing”). But you tell the story in such a way that anyone can relate to the over-arching message or theme. The key here: You have to have that universal theme or take-home message.

The personal focuses exclusively on your experience with a sort of three-legged stool approach:

  • Scene (sensory details, dialogue, showing)
  • Story (narrative and plot movement, i.e., what’s happening)
  • Reflection (your musings about the experience)

Some examples:

The Reported
With a reported essay, your reader may enthusiastically say, “yes, me, too!” It gives you the opportunity to reflect on your personal experience while recognizing that other people have probably experienced it, too. The way to achieve that end: Statistics. If you can show that INSERT NUMBER OF people also suffer from “you name the experience,” you have the basic scaffolding for a reported essay.

Then, you get to research the who, what, why, when and how, behind the experience and (hopefully) help other people in the process. Here are a few examples:

So what steps do you need to take to craft a pitch for a reported essay?

  • Do some research: Get statistics that prove you’re not alone in the experience.
  • Identify the experts: Search for diverse expert sources who can speak to your experience. Maybe you consult the authors of the studies you uncovered in step 1. Or maybe you search for the top physicians, researchers, and “on-the-ground” experts who can speak to the issue you experienced. The key is to identify the best people to speak to your issue.
  • Craft a pitch for a reported essay. A hint: You should be able to explain what the story is about in two sentences or less.

Now it’s your turn: Craft a pitch for a reported essay. Research the topic or issue you want to explore in a personal essay. Struggling with sibling rivalry in your home? Review the latest psychology research about what sibling rivalry is, why it happens, and how to build a more harmonious home. Want to quit smoking, but can’t seem to commit? Try acupuncture, meditation, or guided imagery, then write a reported essay pitch about what you learned.

Your pitch should include the following:

  • A compelling opening anecdote, similar to what you might craft for a narrative essay.
  • Data, statistics, and/or recent research findings.
  • Three or four experts you would like to interview for the story.

Copyright © 2021 by Amy Paturel. First published in slightly different form at

Learn reported essays from Amy! “Writing and Pitching the Reported Essay” is online via Zoom, two Sundays, July 30 and August 6, 1:00-4:00 p.m. Info