This year brought unexpected change to every corner of the globe. From the reach of the pandemic, to the voices rising up demanding social and environmental justice, 2020 will no doubt be the subject of countless history books. But this month, dear writers, we want to hear about your
year: a personal story that grounds 2020 in real life. We are also delighted to be partnering with Thrive Global on Campus
, who will be publishing the winner and runner up. Perhaps you’ll write about the impact of the pandemic on your neighborhood, or finding unexpected hope in lockdown, or a pivotal family conversation about racism.
What is creative nonfiction, you might be wondering. Often defined as a personal essay or personal narrative, this genre braids together storytelling and reflection. We want to hear about an experience in your life, rich with characters and description and conflict and scene… but we also want to hear how you make sense of this experience, how it sits with you, and why it has surfaced as writing. You may not address each of these points explicitly, but the answers should be somewhere in the fabric of your writing.
And remember, details that seem mundane to you can seem quite exotic to a reader on the other side of the country or world. Even the weather or description of setting, such as this evocative passage in Tula Singer’s piece, “The Rain in the Reverie”: I felt a great chill in my arms as a breeze flung the balcony doors open. Then the sky burst, and little blue bits started pelting the roof, the sidewalk, the trees, the people. Everybody went inside except the stray cats, dogs, and chickens, who hid beneath buildings and bushes.
Or this description of a family, from Amalia Costa’s “A Taken Seat at an Empty Table”: England has smoothed our edges, clipped our tongues. We act just like the Englishmen do with their families now. Like we're strangers.
To get a sense of what this creative nonfiction genre is all about, we encourage you to read “The Rain in the Reverie” and “A Taken Seat at an Empty Table” in full, and other memorable pieces from WtW’s archives, which you can find in the resource “Creative Nonfiction Exemplars.”
KNOW THE HEART OF YOUR NARRATIVE. Oftentimes we don’t know the “main point” when we start writing, and are instead guided by instinct. Something is telling us that a particular experience is significant and worth investigating. It is the process of writing itself that reveals to us the purpose for telling our story. So, although you don’t need to articulate a hypothesis or point or purpose before you start writing, at some stage it’s useful to step back and identify the following elements of your piece:
1) What is powerful about the experience?
2) What has it taught you?
3) How has it changed you?
You may not answer these questions directly in your final piece, but grappling with these questions will infuse your writing with significance.
WRITE TO YOUR AUDIENCE. Your audience for this narrative is a large, vibrant, supportive community… of mostly strangers! And strangers from across the world, no less, who don’t know what smog in India looks like, or how it feels to have chronic pain, or what the view is out your bedroom window. Make sure to give your readers all the details they need to understand your experience.
FIND A UNIVERSAL THREAD. Although you are telling a story that is personal in nature, are there elements you can develop to make it resonate with a broader audience? Here are some options to consider:
1) Appeal to your readers through emotion, allowing them to feel a particular experience.
2) Demonstrate how the subject you’re exploring also impacts others.
3) Demand the reader’s attention by expressing the urgency of an issue or problem.
4) Be particular. We naturally relate to a story when we can step inside the shoes of the main character or narrator. Report your story with attention to specific detail and nuance.
5) Show your foibles. Being honest about your weaknesses, insecurities, or mistakes cultivates empathy in readers.
BALANCE SCENE AND SUMMARY. As you develop your narrative, consider your methods of delivery. Scenes will draw in your reader, build tension, and offer telling details. A short piece of creative nonfiction will usually revolve around 1-3 key scenes. Summary and reflection are also important. Summary efficiently delivers information (and can set the stage for scenes), while reflection allows you to communicate significance to the readers, building their investment in your experience.
CONSIDER TIME AS FLUID. Do the events in your story unfold chronologically (the order in which they happened)? Or do they jump around in time, according to their connection to one another and their significance? Organizing your piece in a sequence that is not chronological can build suspense and a sense of purpose in our writing. For example, you might throw the reader into a dramatic scene in the opening paragraph, and then back up, filling in details to help ground the first scene in context. Jumping into the past is called “flashback” and into the future is called “flashforward”—two techniques to keep in your toolbox.
STEER CLEAR OF DIARY ENTRIES. Creative nonfiction is most powerful when it tells a story. Instead of treating this piece like a diary or confessional, focus on all the best elements of narrative—character and conflict, action, reflection and resolution.
Who is Eligible?
Young writers ages 13-18
Guest Judge Rachel Friedman
is the author of And Then We Grew Up
and The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost
. Her work has appeared in The Best Women’s Travel Writing
, The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals
, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction
, and The Chronicle of Higher Education
, among others.
Our Partner Thrive Global on Campus
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
- Best Entry: $100 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the winning piece, and an interview with the author will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Runner up: $50 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the piece will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Best Peer Review: $50 (Our guest judge’s commentary on the best peer review and an interview with the reviewer will be featured on Write the World’s blog)
- Prizes: The winning entrant will receive $100, and the runner-up and best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
- Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
- Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday, November 30 and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
- November 23: Competition Opens
- November 30: Submit draft for Expert Review (Optional. We will review the first 100 drafts submitted.)
- December 4: Reviews returned to Writers
- December 8: Final Submissions Due
- December 18: Winners Announced
Our Book Review Competition opens Monday, January 4th.
Stay tuned for more details!
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