TIPS – Improving audio essays

I wrote this handout for students in my 2010 sections of WRTG 1150 as well as my Spring 2011 section of WRTG 2090, to help them with the digital literacy narratives they produced. While some info below is relevant only to that topic, the rest might be helpful for any audio essay.

When you write a rhetorical analysis of the final version of your audio essay, you will be asked to explain which of the tips below you applied as you revised and developed your final essay. Revising is the most important part of the composing process.


  • Improve the overall structure, so that the essay has a clear sense of a beginning, middle, and end
  • Improve your body paragraph structure, so that each body paragraph stays focused on making a point, describing a detail, or expressing an idea
  • Revise sentences so that they draw on more concrete examples and vivid language
  • Make stronger emotional and logical connections with your listeners
  • Incorporate elements of storytelling, such as plot, characterization, setting, and dialogue
  • Clarify your overall main point or central idea and make sure everything in the essay stays focused on it


I wrote the following tips for improving content to help my previous students with their digital literacy narratives, but the tips also apply to other kinds of personal essays.

Consider your rhetorical situation

Carefully consider these questions, regardless of which topic you’re working on: Who is your target audience? How might you revise your essay to better meet the needs and expectations of your audience? What is your purpose for sharing your ideas and stories in a personal audio essay? How might you revise your essay to better achieve this purpose?

If you’re working on a digital literacy narrative, your target audience includes teachers, scholars, and technology experts who are curious to learn more about how today’s “digital natives” learned digital literacy skills when they were growing up. The purpose of your essay is to offer these listeners some concrete examples from your own experience as well as your analysis of them.

A personal essay contributes to a conversation by drawing on the writer’s personal experiences and reflections rather than facts, studies, or expert opinions. An audio essay delivers the material in a manner well suited to listening, which means both that the audio should be clear and easy to hear and also that the speaker should deliver the essay in an engaging style that entices listeners to keep listening. Your personality will come through the audio essay much more vividly than it would via print, which will allow you to more effectively connect with your audience.

Focus both on storytelling AND analysis

Your essay should include vivid and detailed stories about how you learned specific digital literacy skills, as well as analysis and reflection on what you learned. The analysis might be woven into your discussion of each experience or presented towards the end of the essay, as you step back from the experiences and reflect on them from your new perspective as a student in this class.

Emphasize specific skills you’ve learned

Imagine that a listener is taking notes while listening to your essay, in order to record the specific digital literacy skills you’ve learned. While listening to your essay, what would the listener write down? How easily would the listener be able to identify those skills, based on how you’ve organized your essay and developed your body paragraphs? Can you easily identify the skills in the text version of your essay by highlighting them in yellow?

Create a mental movie in the minds of your listeners

As you tell each story, use vivid details that help listeners imagine the scenario in their minds, as though they were watching a video recording of the events you’re describing. The following techniques from creative non-fiction can help you with this:

  • Use details that appeal to the senses, such as sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch
  • Describe not only what happens but where it happens and who’s involved
  • Use dialogue to capture important bits of conversations
  • Hint at something important early on but holding off on revealing it until later
  • Create a plot for your stories, with a narrative arc that builds tension and leads towards conflict and then resolution

Avoid making claims you can’t support

In a personal essay, take care to only make claims that you can support with your personal experience. For example, you can claim that digital literacy skills have been important to your own success in school thus far, but you can’t really know if that’s true for other students in general. If you do want to make broader claims about the role of digital literacy in education or careers or something along those lines, you might want to find a source to cite.


The following tips for improving structure to help my previous students with their digital literacy narratives, but the tips also apply to other kinds of personal essays.

Overall Structure

Your narrative should be divided into three distinct parts: an introduction that prepares listeners for the purpose and scope of your essay, a body that focuses on examples of how you learned to become digitally literate, and a conclusion that reflects on the “big picture” implications of your topic, such as how your level of digital literacy will help you succeed in college or the workplace, how digital literacy is similar to or different from other kinds of literacy, or something along those lines. This is a customary structure for most types of writing.

You can check your overall structure several ways, including those described on this handout: Strategies for Improving the Structure of Your Papers. In particular I recommend that you try the mind map and color coding strategies. These strategies will help you make sure your paper focuses on presenting and analyzing examples of how you’ve developed specific digital literacy skills.


The introduction section might span several paragraphs, particularly if you want to open with a story or concrete example before you step back and introduce the paper by conveying its scope and purpose.

The introduction should end in a thesis that makes it clear to listeners what the rest of the essay will be about in terms of content and overall structure. The structure the thesis predicts should be recognizable and logical, such as by time period in your life (elementary school, middle school, high school, and college), by the specific digital literacy skills you’ve learned (how to become familiar with a new software application, how to navigate the computer, how to navigate new online spaces, how to find and evaluate information online, how to communicate with others using digital tools, and so on). You should be able to identify the parts of your thesis that preview the structure of your essay by putting them in different colors.

Overall Body Structure

The body of the essay should follow the pattern of organization predicted by the thesis. In other words, each section (which might span several paragraphs) should focus on a specific topic previewed in the thesis. You should be able to mark the opening sentence of each section with the same color you used for that topic in the thesis.

(For more information about using color coding to check your structure and for other purposes, see this handout: Strategies for Improving the Structure of Your Papers.)

Each body section should also follow a coherent organizational pattern, with a clear sense of a beginning, middle, and end to the section. The beginning might be introductory, the middle might provide detailed examples, and the end might briefly sum up the main idea of that section. You might find it helpful to image the structure of each section as an hourglass.

Body Paragraph Structure

The body paragraphs within each section should stay focused on a specific purpose or topic and should be organized in recognizable pattern, such as general to specific, specific to general, chronological, descriptive, and so on. In particular, avoid moving back and forth between general and specific within the same paragraph, as that makes it hard for listeners to follow your point. In other words, carefully frame your discussion of each example, rather than leaving it in the form it first came out through freewriting or sketch drafting.

You should be able to highlight or change the color of a sentence in each body paragraph that conveys the main point of the paragraph. In most cases the main point should appear within the first or second sentences of the paragraph, although it may occasionally appear as the last sentence. These are the locations where readers subconsciously expect to find the writer’s main point, and they will assume that whatever appears in these locations is what the writer intended to emphasize as the main point, even if that’s not what you intended. Research shows that readers put the most emphasis on whatever comes first in a paragraph, the second most emphasis on what comes last, and the least emphasis on what comes in the middle, so keep that in mind as you organize your writing.

As you discuss examples from that illustrate specific digital literacy skills you’ve learned, you might want to alternate between examples and analysis or you might want to save analysis until later. Just make sure that at some point, even if not until the conclusion, you take a step back from describing experiences and analyze their meaning.


Readers and listeners should be able to easily identify the start of the conclusion section, although not by the words “in conclusion.” You might instead start the conclusion with something like: As I reflect back over the process of becoming a digital native, I realize…. The conclusion should take a step back from the examples you described in the body of the paper and offer some analysis of what it all means, why it was important that you develop digital literacy skills and so on. The conclusion is where you should leave listeners with the “take home” message of your essay: whatever it is you want your listeners to realize, learn, or remember as a result of having listened to your essay.