Personal Essay: “Words of the Wiser”

In literature, the “Words of the Wiser” signpost reveals a “scene in which a wiser and often older character offers a life lesson of some sort to the protagonist” (Beers and Probst 72).  In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim reminds Gilgamesh that in life, there is no permanence—that when the gods created man, they kept eternal life for themselves. Instead, Gilgamesh must learn to make his life meaningful not in quantity but in quality, thus eventually becoming a good—and wise—king.


For your first personal “signpost” essay, consider the role of “wise words” in your own life. Choose one of the following prompts to guide you:

  1. Write about the best advice you have ever received: Who did it come from? Why was it given? How was it useful? What did you learn?
  2. Describe an important role model in your life—a “wise person”—from whom you’ve learned something significant.
  3. Find “wise words” from something you have read or seen (book or film) and explain how these words hold true in your own life.


Clearly identify the lesson (the “words of wisdom”) or what makes the person wise. Be sure that the lesson or words of wisdom are specific. For example, let’s say you are writing about your grandfather’s advice to “be a good person.” What does it mean to be a “good person”? Define “good.”

Speaking of being specific… make sure that you SHOW and not just tell. In other words, you may tell the reader the advice you received (“Always be honest”) but you should give examples that show what this lesson looks like in your life (a story about how you were caught cheating on a test by your 5th grade teacher) or other examples in society (a story from the news or about a public figure, i.e. how Lance Armstrong was caught cheating or “Deflate-gate” and the New England Patriots).

Review the writing you have done in your notebook—many of our quickwrites in class represent your initial thinking about any one of the topics above.  For example, in our notebooks we wrote a list of advice we’ve been given and how that advice has affected us. We also listed people—real, historical, or fictional—whom we considered “wise and knowledgeable” and wrote about what made the “wise figures.” We also responded to some of the advice given in the article, “Life Advice from my 99-year-old Grandpa” as well as the Epic Reads video “Words of Wisdom from YA Books.” We thought about what we learned at different points in our lives and from whom. Any one of these quickwrites could form the basis of your first draft.

Use the mentor texts as your guide. Review the essays distributed in class (there are seven total).

  • What did these writers do well? What strategies do they use to express their ideas? What examples do they include and how? What specific details do they include and what do these details show?
  • Note the way the mentor texts essays are organized. How do they start? How do they end? What’s in the middle?
  • What types of sentences do the writers use? How are the paragraphs structured and organized?
  • Take one or more things that the writers did well and make it your own.
  • Remember that unlike more structured literary analysis essays, there is no one right way to write a personal essay. The “right” way is the way that best expresses your ideas and presents those ideas in a meaningful, logical way.

We will have some time in class to write and revise. Your first draft is due Wednesday, October 14. Typed and double-spaced. Be prepared to share.


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