ASSIGNMENT – Personal Narrative Audio Essay (lower division)

Below is an audio essay assignment I used in WRTG 1150 (First-Year Writing and Rhetoric) around 2010 and in WRTG 2090 (Writing for Digital Media) around 2011. I’ve since modified my approach to the audio essay and have adapted it to different classes, including my WRTG 3020 on the rhetoric of gender and sexuality through new media.

For resources to help students with audio essays, check out these category and tag archives:


You will write an essay that is designed to be delivered via an audio recording rather than via text on the page or screen (although you will also turn in a text version). The essay will follow the general principles of essay composition, but it will also make use of some of the principles of audio composition, including the strategic use of sound effects and silence to establish a mood or theme, convey transitions, inspire certain feelings, and so on. The final version will be an mp3 file that you can embed into your blog as well as share with others. The strongest audio essays may be featured on the Digital Students main site.


An audio essay is a particular mode of communication that works better for some types of messages than for others. The mode works particularly well for the genre of personal essay, which is what you’ll be working on regardless of which approach you take. A personal essay contributes to the readers’ or listeners’ understanding of a larger issue by drawing on the writer’s personal experiences and reflections rather than on facts, studies, or expert opinions.

Readers often enjoy reading personal essays because they use vivid examples from personal experience and tell stories the reader can relate to, but these essays become even more appealing when they’re delivered in an engaging audio style that allows the speaker’s personality to emerge in a way that entices listeners to keep listening.

Writers also often discover that they enjoy writing essays meant to be delivered out loud because hearing their own essays enables them to identify ways to improve them that are difficult to identify in print alone. When you listen to the first draft of your audio recording, you will most likely find it easy to recognize how you might revise in order to better incorporate familiar features of storytelling, such as foreshadowing, building suspense, offering vivid details about places and people, using dialogue, working up to a central conflict, resolving the conflict, and so on. Even students who at first strongly dislike hearing the sound of their voice often get over that quickly and go on to make projects they’re particularly proud of.

Within the mode of audio essay and genre of personal essay, you have two options for approaches: a “This I Believe” essay or a “Digital Literacy Narrative.” You may choose whatever topic most interests you, as long as it’s appropriate to the approach you select.


If you choose this option, you will follow the guidelines on NPR’s “This I Believe” web site, but your essay will need to be longer than what the guidelines call for, in order to meet the length requirement above. See these pages:

Rhetorical Situation: Your TIB essay will be directed to two primary audiences: the original audience for the TIB series (NPR listeners) as well as a specific target audience you will define, based on your topic and who you’d like to share the essay with. Your secondary audience will include your classmates and the instructor, but we should not be your only audience. The purpose of your TIB essay will be the same as what’s outlined on the NPR web site: to reflect on a specific belief.

Sample TIB Essays


If you choose this option, you will write an essay that is similar in concept to those showcased on the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives, but instead of writing about how you developed print-based literacy skills (reading and writing traditional alphabetic text), you will write about how you developed digital literacy skills.

“Digital literacy” refers to the ability to “read” and “write” in digital environments. I put those words in quotation marks to indicate how the nature of reading and writing in digital environments is notably different than in print environments. “Reading” includes figuring out how computers work, finding your way around new applications and web sites, and learning to find, evaluate, and interpret messages conveyed in hypertext as well as in audio, visual, or audiovisual modes. “Writing” includes inputting material into computer applications and web sites, communicating with others using a variety of digital tools, and composing messages in hypertext as well as audio, visual, or audiovisual modes.

Rhetorical Situation: Your Digital Literacy Narrative will be directed to whatever primary target audience you define, based on your topic and who you might like to share the essay with. One possible primary audience includes teachers, scholars, and technology experts who are curious to learn more about how today’s “digital natives” developed digital literacy skills as they were growing up. Your secondary audience will include your classmates and the instructor, but we should not be your only audience.

Topic Ideas: To explore possible ideas for a Digital Literacy Narrative, use the strategies describe on this handout on Discovery and Drafting Strategies. Here are some specific topics you might focus on as you engage in discovery activities:

  • You might brainstorm lists of “first time” experiences you’ve had with digital technology, like the first time you used a computer or cell phone, the first time you went online, the first time you sent an email or text message, the first time you created your own account on a web site, the first time you met a new person online, the first time you had an argument by email, and so on. These “first time” experiences might provide you with some interesting material to reflect on in your essay.
  • You might also brainstorm lists of notable or controversial events that happened in your family, community, school, or dorm. For example, maybe you or someone you know got in trouble for something posted online, maybe someone you know was the perpetrator or victim of cyberbullying, maybe someone in your school was the victim of an online “stalker,” or maybe you had an argument with your parents over your privacy.
  • You might also brainstorm some thoughts on how using computers and the internet has shaped your reading and writing skills and habits (which are a central part of what “literacy” refers to). You might even interview your parents about how they learned to read and write (presumably without computers or the internet), to see how their experiences compare and what kinds of observations you might draw about them.
  • Other possible topics to explore through brainstorming include your experiences with using technology in grade school, in summer jobs, in college, or for personal interests. You might also interview friends and family members to get their perspectives on their own digital literacy, which you could compare and contrast to your own (particularly across generations).

Sample Digital Literacy Narratives


Regardless of which topic you choose, your essay should meet the following criteria:

  • Length: Between 600-1400 words (with a target of around 800-1000 words). That translates to about five to eight minutes of recorded audio narration without any sound effects, or up to a maximum length of ten minutes with sound effects.
  • Structure: The essay should have three distinct parts: an introduction that prepares listeners for the purpose and scope of your essay; a body that focuses on the details or examples that help to illustrate your overall main point; and a conclusion that brings closure to your essay.
  • Storytelling Techniques: The essay should make use of the principles of storytelling, as we discussed in class.
  • Text File Format: The text version of your draft, revision, and final essay should be in Word or Google Docs format and should follow the standard principles of how to format college papers.
  • Text File Name: For the final version, use this file name format: Lastname audio essay final for a document created in Google Docs) or Lastname-audio-essay-final.docx for a document created in Word or exported in Word format out of Pages or OpenOffice. For earlier versions, replace “final” with “draft” or “revision,” as appropriate.
  • Audio File Format: Regardless of what application you use to record and edit your audio essay, the final version must be in mp3 format. Both Audacity and GarageBand can export files in mp3 format, but if you use other applications, you may need to also use a converter to convert the file into mp3 format.
  • Audio File Name: For the final version, use this file name format: Lastname-audio-essay-final.mp3 For earlier versions, replace “final” with “draft” or “revision,” as appropriate. (This is the same file format as for the text version, but the extension .mp3 will distinguish this file as an audio rather than text file.)

For more information on structure, storytelling techniques, and other aspects relevant to this essay, see the file titled Developing Your Personal Essay, which is in the Amy’s Handouts folder in our class collection on Google Docs.


Below is an overview of the kind of structure typical of personal essays, regardless of topic.


The introduction might span more than one paragraph, particularly if you decide to open with a story or example. But by the end of the intro section, readers should understand the scope and purpose of your paper. In other words, they should understand that they’re about to read (or listen to) a personal narrative that explores a particular topic (as opposed to some other kind of paper). Double check your intro to see if it fulfills that purpose.

Readers will assume that whatever comes last in your intro is what you meant to be your thesis, or main point. If the last sentence contains several points, readers will assume that’s a preview of the points you plan to cover in the body. Double check the last sentence of your intro to see if it accurately presents your thesis. If the sentence would mislead readers about the point of your essay, revise it.


The body section should be organized into sections that cover specific ideas or examples that illustrate your thesis. Each section should span as many paragraphs as you need to develop the idea or example. Use sub-headers or a clear topic sentence to help readers identify the start of a new section.

Paragraphs should stay focused on one idea each. When you start to explore a new idea, start a new paragraph.

In most cases, readers should be able to tell what the main point of a paragraph will be within the first few sentences, even if the main point is simply to describe an example. In some cases, the main point might not appear until the end of the paragraph. The main point should not appear in the middle or readers will miss it.

When you give examples from your own experience, consider that your readers weren’t there at the time, so give them plenty of context and detail. Slow down and tell a story, rather than rushing through the example. Give readers details about the people involved, the setting, the equipment, the time period, and anything else that might be relevant.

Also offer some analysis of your examples, to help readers see how the examples and details relate back to your thesis. In other words, what does the example suggest about what you believe in or how you developed digital literacy? Or how does it relate to your larger point? Your analysis will help readers see how your examples are all connected, so that they don’t seem to be a random collection of memories.


The conclusion should wrap up your discussion by offering closing thoughts on the issues you raised. You might put the issues into a larger context or comment on how they relate to where you are right now or something along those lines. Be careful not to make generalizations that can’t be supported based only on your own experience.

Readers should be able to tell from the opening sentence of your conclusion that you’re moving into your closing thoughts, but avoid using the overused phrase “in conclusion” for this purpose. Here are a few ideas for alternatives: As I look back over ___, I find it particularly interesting that… or A common theme in all of my stories about ___ is… or Ultimately, the most important thing I learned is…