Standing out is hard. Sometimes you just want to blend in and stick with whatever everybody else is doing. Creative writing competitions are not those times.
I’ve judged a lot of competitions for young writers, which means I’ve read through thousands of stories, each one trying to stand out. But so many of them fall into the same traps. So often I spot a promising story and wish I could give the writer just a couple of simple pointers that would take their writing above the competition.
Read the Short Story Week young writer competition 2015-winning The Promise
Here are the tips I find myself screaming into my hands as I read those entries. Each one is an understandable mistake, and most of them don’t come up in English lessons at school.
Standing out will still be hard, because it takes a little extra time and extra thought to create something original. But if you follow these tips, you’ll give yourself the best chance of finding a spark of something special. Good luck.
(Oh, and the most important one is number 6…)
1. Don’t start with the weather
It’s an easy way to start, isn’t it? A lovely warm-up for the mind and typing fingers to ease yourself into the story, like spewing out “once upon a time” yet again.
It was a bright, sunny day… It was a dark and stormy night… It was rather chilly with a brisk easterly and a 50% chance of precipitation…
Nobody cares. I don’t even pay attention to weather reports in my real life, let alone take an interest in what’s happening in the sky above fictional characters I haven’t met yet. Start with one of two things, and preferably both: People and conflict. Those two things are the essence of any story. People and conflict. That’s all the reader (your judge) cares about. People and conflict will drive your story forward, will be the essence of everything you write. So start with people and conflict.
Sophie McKenzie’s top tips for writing tight plots and building suspense
(The only possible reason to start with the weather is if your story is ABOUT the weather – perhaps it’s a disaster story about a big storm, or a survival story where extreme conditions threaten an expedition. But even if you think your story is about the weather, it’s really about the people, isn’t it? People in conflict with their environment. So don’t start with the weather.)
2. Cut your first paragraph
It’s amazing how many stories are instantly improved by simply covering up the first paragraph. Try it. Your first paragraph is probably about the weather, anyway.
Or your brain found some other way of warming up. Or you were so excited you just had to tell me some crucial information in the first few lines. Well, that information is not as crucial as you thought it was. It can wait. The right moment will come up later in your story for you to SHOW me that information about your world. Or, even better, I’ll have worked it out for myself from the way you’ve written everything else.
Readers are two things: bright but impatient. It’s OK to plunge us straight into your story without explaining – straight into the conflict (see point one). So once you think you’ve finished your story, go back and see what happens if you cover up your first paragraph. Or cover up your first two paragraphs. Or three. Or scan your first page looking for the most arresting opening line. It’s there somewhere. You might not have realised it was the perfect opening line when you wrote it, but you can find it now and cut everything that comes before it.
3. Don’t write a “spooky story”
Spooky stories are wonderful. But for a writing competition they give you a lot of problems. First, everybody thinks they can write them. But you should want to stand out. Second, it’s very hard to come up with anything spooky that hasn’t already been done a million times. So how can you make your story unpredictable?
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But the biggest problem is going to be your ending. Spooky things are usually spooky because they can’t be explained – the supernatural curse, the face at the window, the ghosts and ghouls from beyond our world… So once you reveal what’s behind the spooky stuff it feels like an anticlimax. And if you don’t reveal what’s behind your spooky stuff, what do you end with? You end with dot, dot, dot of course.
Almost two in three stories by young writers that I read for competitions are spooky stories that ‘end’ with a thrilling moment of danger and then… that’s it. No resolution, no explanation, no fun of seeing how the character fights back (or fails to) just the dreaded dot, dot, dot… I can usually guess from the first line whether a story is going to “end” with a dot, dot, dot.
Dot, dot dot is not an ending. It’s a beginning. If you really love the spooky situation you’ve come up with, start your story where you’ve written your dot, dot, dot. Develop it from there, then give me a wonderful, satisfying ending that I wasn’t expecting but which makes sense of everything that’s come before.
Setting up a spooky mystery is easy. I, your judge, will give you no credit for it. Setting up a spooky mystery unlike anything I’ve read before is a bit harder. I’ll still give you very little credit for it. I’m mean. Unravelling a mystery in a satisfying, surprising way… that’s hard. You’re going to need a brilliant twist. Try it if you dare…
4. Avoid celebrities or characters that already exist
Recently I was running a writing workshop for a group of students who had all written stories in preparation for the day with me. The first thing I did was to ask them to put up a hand if they’d written a story about a footballer. About a quarter of the room put their hands up. Then I asked them to keep their hands up if their stories were about either Ronaldo or Messi. All the hands stayed up.
This is pretty typical. And it’s understandable too: it’s easy to plug in a celebrity or existing character to your story. Of course it is. You don’t have to do any of the work of creating a character from scratch. You know a bit about the person so you can imagine them in a story. The same applies to characters from fairy tales or from popular stories that already exist.
I was recently judging a creative writing competition for a big network of hundreds of international schools. Thousands of students from all over the world write stories for this competition every year, and every year the organisation compiles a list of the characters or character names that crop up over and over. Most popular this year: Cinderella. Closely followed by, guess who, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. There were superheroes on the list too, including Superman, Batman, The Hulk and One Direction (yes, of course they count as superheroes). James Bond was there, alongside, for some reason, the Tooth Fairy.
So think twice before grabbing an existing character or personality for your story. Fan fiction is great, and a wonderful way to start out as a writer. It can help you hone your skills and be a launchpad for your own imaginative journeys. But it’s not going to win a creative writing competition.
If you want to write about Harry Potter, or a footballer or superhero or celebrity, it doesn’t take that much extra time and imagination to use someone you’ve heard of as a starting point but then tweak it. Make it your own. Change the name. Change the situation. What are you really trying to say about that character? Try exaggerating an aspect of the personality to make your point bolder. Or, for a quick fix, mash two things together: a footballer superhero. A boy band that goes round after dark collecting people’s teeth. Suddenly, you’re in fresh territory and you won’t see your characters crop up on a list of what everybody else is writing.
5. Calm down. Keep it simple. Your words are giving me a headache.
When writing competitions are split into age categories, I see a really odd trend in the stories. Writers in the older age groups try to show me how well they can use fancy words. The younger writers are better at telling a story. Which do you think is more important? If you’re in the older age-group category, you might find that a tricky question. It isn’t. The story is ALWAYS more important.
Writing a good story is not the same thing as writing to get ticks from an English teacher. All those fancy words, the complicated constructions, the flowery images… cut them. Pretend you’re still a young kid who just wants to hear a story. Focus on that.
Want an easy way to work out whether you’re overwriting? Count your adjectives. Try to limit yourself to a couple per page. More than one per sentence is definitely not a good idea. Count your adverbs too. Then cut all of them.
There’s always a better way of SHOWING me your story than just TELLING me what to imagine by using an adjective or adverb. And the more syllables there are in your adjectives, the more they’re getting in the way of your story.
So calm down with your thesaurus. Nobody’s trying to break the English language into a new dimension. We just want to hear a story.
6. Write an ending
Remember why I warned you not to write a spooky story? Remember the dreaded dot, dot, dot…? Well, it turns out endings are difficult no matter what kind of story you’re writing. But remember this: if your story doesn’t have an ending, you haven’t written a story. At best, you’ve written a set-up. If you’re entering a story-writing competition, you’re going to need to write a story, and that means you need an ending.
Have you any idea how frustrating it is to read entry after entry, all of them setting up story situations, some of them excellent, but hardly any of them leading anywhere or giving me the satisfaction of a pay-off? Please, I’m begging you: give me that sense of completion that every story should promise – and deliver. Write an ending.
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If you’re finding it tough to work out an ending to your story: that’s the way it should feel. Endings are hard. But they’re worth it.
Here are a couple of hints to help you. The great film director Alexander Mackendrick said, “If you’ve got a beginning, but you don’t yet have an end, then you’re wrong. You don’t have the right beginning.” He also said, “There are no wrong endings, only wrong beginnings.”
I suggest you come up with your ending first. Plan that out, then plan how you’re going to get there.
How about writing just an ending? Remember up in point two, when I said you could cut your first few paragraphs? What if you cut the whole of the start of the story and just threw me, your reader, straight into a brilliant ending?
The writer Kurt Vonegut suggested something like that. One of his 8 tips on how to write a good short story is simply: “Start as close to the end as possible”
7. Get out of school
A quick one. A simple one. Most people hear about writing competitions in school. So they look around and they start writing a story set in a school. Break the mould. Think beyond the walls of the space you’re in.
8. Write from an adult’s point of view
Remember I suggested you think beyond the walls around you and write something that isn’t set in a school? How about getting beyond the body you’re in too? Try writing something with an adult as the main character, or from an adult’s point of view. Why not? It might seem difficult at first, but if I can write books starring a genetically-engineered assassin who’s only 12, you can make the leap into an adult’s existence.
Try it. Trust me: nobody else in the competition is doing it.
Pete Kalu’s top tips for writing non-cliched multicultural characters
9. Challenge every word
The best stories are the most re-written stories. It’s that simple. And the more you re-write, the more you’ll stand out from every other entry in a creative writing competition. Find the best bits of your story and hone them to make them better. Change what’s around them to show them off. Find the weaker parts – cut them. Cut and rewrite furiously. Are there sections where you’re rushing? Slapping down too much information at once? Are you explaining when you could be showing?
I could write a whole new piece on how to rewrite. I love rewriting. I don’t write a message in a birthday card without a rough draft I can tear apart and reconstruct into something better.
But it all boils down to this:
Make every line count – for the story, not for its own beauty.
Challenge every word.
Every. Single. Word.
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Honestly, throughout most of high school and college, I was a mediocre essay writer.
Every once in a while, I would write a really good essay, but mostly I skated by with B’s and A-minuses.
I know personally how boring writing an essay can be, and also, how hard it can be to write a good one.
Writing an essay? Don’t pull your hair out. Here are 10 tips to write a great essay. Photo by Stuart Pilbrow (Creative Commons)
However, toward the end of my time as a student, I made a breakthrough. I figured out how to not only write a great essay, I learned how to have fun while doing it.
That’s right. Fun.
Why Writing an Essay Is So Hard?
Here are a few reasons:
- You’d rather be scrolling through Facebook.
- You’re trying to write something your teacher or professor will like.
- You’re trying to get an A instead of writing something that’s actually good.
- You want to do the least amount of work possible.
The biggest reason writing an essay is so hard is because we mostly focus on those external rewards like getting a passing grade or our teacher’s approval. The problem is that when you focus on external approval it not only makes writing much less fun, it also makes it significantly harder.
Because when you focus on external approval, you shut down your subconscious, and the subconscious is the source of your creativity. What this means practically is that when you’re trying to write that perfect, A-plus-worthy sentence, you’re turning off most of your best resources.
Just stop. Stop trying to write a good essay (or even a “good-enough” essay). Instead, write an interesting essay, write an essay you think is fascinating. And when you’re finished, go back and edit it until it’s “good” according to your teacher’s standards.
Yes, you need to follow the guidelines in your assignment. If your teacher tells you to write a five-paragraph essay, then write a five-paragraph essay! However, within those guidelines, find room to express something that is uniquely you.
I can’t guarantee you’ll get a higher grade (although, you almost certainly will), but I can absolutely promise you’ll have a lot more fun writing.
10 Tips to Writing a Great Essay
Ready to get writing? Here are my ten best tips for having fun while writing an essay that earns you the top grade!
1. Your essay is just a story.
Every story is about conflict and change, and the truth is that essays are about conflict and change, too! The difference is that in an essay, the conflict is between different ideas, the change is in the way we should perceive those ideas.
That means that the best essays are about surprise, “You probably think it’s one way, but in reality, you should think of it this other way.” See tip #3 for more on this.
2. Before you start writing, ask yourself, “How can I have the most fun writing this?”
It’s normal to feel unmotivated when writing an essay. I’m a writer, and honestly, I feel unmotivated to write all the time. But I have a super-ninja, judo-mind trick I like to use to help motivate myself.
Here’s the secret trick: One of the interesting things about your subconscious is that it will answer any question you ask yourself. So whenever you feel unmotivated to write your essay, ask yourself the following question:
How much fun can I have writing this?”
Your subconscious will immediately start thinking of strategies to make the writing process more fun. Here’s another sneaky question to ask yourself when you really don’t want to write:
How can I finish this as quickly as possible?
Give it a try!
3. As you research, ask yourself, “What surprises me about this subject?”
The temptation, when you’re writing an essay, is to write what you think your teacher or professor wants to read. Don’t do this. Instead, ask yourself, “What do I find interesting about this subject? What surprises me?”
If you can’t think of anything that surprises you, anything you find interesting, then you’re not searching well enough, because history, science, and literature are all brimmingover with surprises. When you look at how great ideas actually happen, the story is always, “We used to think the world was this way. We found out we were completely wrong, and that the world is actually quite different from what we thought.”
As you research your essay topic, search for this story of surprise, and don’t start writing until you can find it.
(By the way, what sources should you use for research? Check out tip #10 below.)
4. Overwhelmed? Just write five original sentences.
The standard three-point essay is really made up of just five original sentences, surrounded by supporting paragraphs that back up those five sentences. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just write five sentences. Here’s what they might look like:
- Thesis: While most students consider writing an essay a boring task, with the right mindset, it can actually be an enjoyable experience.
- Body #1: Most students think writing an essay is tedious because they focus on external rewards.
- Body #2: Students should instead focus on internal fulfillment when writing an essay.
- Body #3: Not only will focusing on internal fulfillment allow students to have more fun, they will write better essays.
- Conclusion: Writing an essay doesn’t have to be simply a way to earn a good grade. Instead, it can be a means of finding fulfillment.
After you write your five sentences, it’s easy to fill in the paragraphs they will find themselves in.
Now, you give it a shot!
5. Be “source heavy.”
In college, I discovered a trick that helped me go from a B-average student to an A-student, but before I explain how it works, let me warn you. This technique is powerful, but it might not work for all teachers or professors. Use with caution.
As I was writing a paper for a literature class, I realized that the articles and books I was reading said what I was trying to say much better than I ever could. So what did I do? I just quoted them liberally throughout my paper. When I wasn’t quoting, I re-phrased what they said in my own words, giving proper credit, of course. I found that not only did this formula create a well-written essay, it took about half the time to write.
When I used this technique, my professors sometimes mentioned that my papers were very “source” heavy. However, at the same time, they always gave me A’s. Like the five sentence trick, this technique makes the writing process simpler. Instead of putting the main focus on writing well, it instead forces you to research well, which some students find easier.
6. Write the body first, the introduction second, and the conclusion last.
Introductions are often the hardest part to write because you’re trying to summarize your entire essay before you’ve even written it yet. Instead, try writing your introduction last, giving yourself the body of the paper to figure out the main point of your essay.
7. Most essays answer the question, “What?” Good essays answer the “Why?” The best essays answer the “How?”
If you get stuck trying to make your argument, or you’re struggling to reach the required word count, try focusing on the question, “How?” For example:
- How did J.D. Salinger convey the theme of inauthenticity in The Catcher In the Rye?
- How did Napoleon restore stability in France after the French Revolution?
- How does the research prove girls really do rule and boys really do drool?
If you focus on how, you’ll always have enough to write about.
8. Don’t be afraid to jump around.
Essay writing can be a dance. You don’t have to stay in one place and write from beginning to end. Give yourself the freedom to write as if you’re circling around your topic rather than making a single, straightforward argument. Then, when you edit, you can make sure everything lines up correctly.
9. Here are some words and phrases you don’t want to use.
- You (You’ll notice I use a lot of you’s, which is great for a blog post. However, in an essay, it’s better to omit the second-person.)
- To Be verbs
Don’t have time to edit? Here’s a lightning-quick editing technique.
A note about “I”: Some teachers say you shouldn’t use “I” statements in your writing, but the truth is that professional, academic papers often use phrases like “I believe” and “in my opinion,” especially in their introductions.
10. It’s okay to use Wikipedia, if…
Wikipedia isn’t just one of the top 5 websites in the world, it can be a great tool for research. However, most teachers and professors don’t consider Wikipedia a valid source for use in essays. However, here are two ways you can use Wikipedia in your essay writing:
- Background research. If you don’t know enough about your topic, Wikipedia can be a great resource to quickly learn everything you need to know to get started.
- Find sources. Check the reference section of Wikipedia’s articles on your topic. While you may not be able to cite Wikipedia itself, you can often find those original sources and site them.
The thing I regret most about high school and college is that I treated it like something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.
The truth is, education is an opportunity many people in the world don’t have access to. It’s a gift, not just something that makes your life more difficult. I don’t want you to make the mistake of just “getting by” through school, waiting desperately for summer breaks and, eventually, graduation.
How would your life be better if you actively enjoyed writing an essay? What would school look like if you wanted to suck it dry of all the gifts it has to give you?
All I’m saying is, don’t miss out!
How about you? Do you have any tips for writing an essay?
Use tip #4 and write five original sentences that could be turned into an essay.
When you’re finished, share your five sentences in the comments section.
And remember, have fun!
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