On Writing an “On” Essay

UPDATE 12/19:

Bring in at least one paper copy of your rough draft. Please double or 1.5-space this draft in order to give you room to write in-between and around your words. You’ll use need this paper copy in order to read your essay to your peer response group and to take your own revision notes.

However, you may want to also print out 3 single-spaced, double-sided copies of your essay so that your group members will each have a copy to reference as you read your essay (the visual can help, but it is not necessary).


Choose a topic you know well and write a personal essay that reflects, explores,  and explains this topic.

What makes an effective “On” Essay?

Writing in a variety of modes, the essays we read succeed because they explore complex topics in a very relatable way. They explain, define, and describe; they use anecdotes and allusions. They feature both insight and curiosity. They zoom in and zoom out.

Consider the “on” essays that we read in class together; these serve as our mentor texts. For your convenience, below is a list. Review them carefully, reflect on our conversations, and revisit your annotations.

  • “On Keeping a Notebook” (Didion)
  • On Compassion” (Asher)
  • “On Running After One’s Hat” (Chesterton)
  • On Being a Cripple” (Mairs) <–READ FOR MONDAY, 12/14
  • On Dumpster Diving” (Eighner) <–READ FOR WEDNESDAY, 12/16
  • The Jacket” (Soto) and other short pieces read earlier this year
  • Individual stories/chapters from TTTC

Below is a handful of exemplar essays from former students. As you read their writing, consider the strengths of each one. (If it matters, scores ranged from 7 to 9 on these essays.)

Writing Your Own “On” Essay

Review your notebook as you narrow down to your topic. Ask yourself: What do you need to explain to your reader? What descriptions would be interesting and valuable? What ideas or terms need definition? What comparisons or references could you make to connect with your reader? Where could you slow time? Where should you speed it up?

Yes, it’s a lot to think about–which is why we will do at least 2 drafts for each essay. You will have the opportunity to meet in small reading groups that will act as a writers’ workshop. Keep this in mind when you compose your essay. You will be reading them to a group of 2-3 students for immediate feedback.

The requirements
  • 750-1200 words
  • A narrow focus indicated by your title (“On…)
  • Evidence of different modes of writing (red rhetorical modes quarter sheet in your notebook)
  • Clear organization
  • Sentence variety
  • Strong diction (verbs especially)
  • Awareness of audience

First draft due MONDAY, 12/21, paper copy to class.

I will use a modified 9-point AP rubric, available here. See updated rubric in newer post above. They will be worth 60 points. Questions or concerns, come talk to me.

View my own “On” essay in progress here. UPDATE: I’ve changed my topic. Feel free to view here. And feel free to comment (just don’t change any text).


IN SUMMARY, SOME GENERAL CLASS UPDATES (especially for 2nd period, whom I haven’t seen in two days!

  • Monday, 12/14: WAR #8 due (remember to use a Graff Template, typed or filled in), read “On Being a Cripple” (link above)
  • Tuesday, 12/15: Vocab Quiz (they will be on Tuesdays from now on)
  • Wednesday, 12/16: read “On Dumpster Diving” (link above, handout will be given in class)
  • Monday, 12/21: First draft of On Essay