* This competition is now closed but you are welcome to write to the prompt, and read through the published writing and blog posts. *
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you,” Maya Angelou wrote in her famous memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
. A personal narrative is simply this—a story inside of you that needs to see the light of day. Although the personal narrative genre is often defined as an essay, think of it instead as storytelling braided with 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 know how you make sense of this experience now, 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 there in some form, shouted boldly or whispered tenderly. Open a window into your life and invite your readers to enter.
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 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 to your piece:
- What is powerful about the experience?
- What has it taught you?
- How has it changed you?
You may not answer these questions directly in your final piece, but thinking about 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 the view is out your bedroom window, or the cadence of your father’s voice, or the way your best friend shuffles when he walks. 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:
- Appeal to your readers through emotion, allowing them to feel a particular experience.
- Demonstrate how the subject you’re exploring also impacts others: “This is larger than one story/one life!”
- Demand the reader’s attention by expressing the urgency of an issue or problem.
- 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.
- 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. Usually a personal narrative will 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 personal narrative 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 us 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.
ACTIVATE YOUR VERBS. After you’ve written a first draft, follow these steps:
Who is Eligible?
- Print out a hard copy.
- With a pen or pencil, circle every “to be” verb (am, are, was, is, were, been, being).
- Now see if you can replace some of these words with verbs that are more interesting and revealing. As action words, verbs have the power to tell the reader much about a person or situation.
Young writers ages 13-18
600 – 1,000 words
Wesley Leon Aroozoo
Best Entry: $100 (winning piece + author interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
Runner up: $50
Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
Prizes: The winning entrant(s) will receive $100, and the 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 August 13th and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
August 6: Competition Opens
August 13: Submit draft for Expert Review (Optional. We will review the first 100 drafts submitted.)
August 17: Reviews returned to Writers
August 21: Final Submissions Due
August 31: Winners Announced
Our Environmental Writing Competition opens Monday, September 3rd.
Stay tuned for more details!