This competition is now closed but you are still more than welcome to read the published writing!
A couple of years ago, the New York Times announced it was closing its Environment Beat and redistributing its team of environmental reporters to other areas, such as business and politics. It’s not that the environment isn’t important, the Times explained, but that it intersects with so many other disciplines that it can’t be teased out and treated in isolation. A story about fracking, for example, is also about economics, health, and industry. With this decision, the Times seemed to be telling their millions of global readers that the environment—a.k.a. the natural world—is a part of everything we do; the environment is a part of us.
Whether or not you agree with booting the Beat (critics say that environmental issues demand urgent and dedicated reporters), the matter brings to light how complex environmental writing is; how ingrained and important these subjects are to everyone, everywhere; and how difficult it is to precisely define this type of writing as a singular genre.
Which brings us, dear writers, to this month’s competition. No matter your interest, we’re asking you to think about our home (the world), and share with us something about the environment and how humans live in it. You might write about the plight of the polar bear, the approaching climate talks in Paris, or the impact of domestic cats on birdlife. Or perhaps, instead, you’ll investigate something more particular to your everyday experience, reflecting on how the environment you live in has shaped your life, your family, your perspective, your health, or your values—growing up in the desert, for example, or cutting fish from your diet, or the smog that closes your school.
Finding an Approach
The writer and activist Bill McKibben describes Environmental Writing as "the collision between people and the rest of the world." McKibben is referring to the intersection between humans and the natural world, which might be a helpful way to think about this genre. The word “collision,” though, connotes images of violent storms, tumult, and struggle; and suggests a before
and an after
—a time when us humans were separate from the environment vs. a time when we merged with the world around us.
Another writer and activist, Terry Tempest Williams, gives us a very different way of thinking about the environment: “To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”
Williams’ writing about the environment is lyrical and personal. But she is also a fierce advocate, her prose crafted with purpose. It is the act of storytelling, she says, that allows writers to “bypass rhetoric and pierce the heart.” In other words, writing about the connection between humans and their home has the power to cross political and social divides. This power is displayed in an anecdote Williams tells about flying over the Gulf Coast to see the devastation wreaked by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill: “Our eyes were burning and it was horrible. I asked the pilot what was the worst thing he had seen, and he said that the most moving thing he saw was when they had set fire to the ocean and were burning the surface oil to get rid of it, he had seen a line, a pod of dolphins, side by side by side, on the edge of the oil, watching.”
Williams did not cry at the sight of the oil-slicked sea, but at the beauty of the Gulf left unharmed. “It was the beauty that really broke us open,” she said. Writing with such rawness is what touches readers and guides them to act. “I think when we bear witness, it’s not a passive act. It’s an act of conscience and consciousness that I think does have consequence. I guess it’s a way of saying that unless we grieve what we’re losing, unless we honor the beauty, then we don’t find our way through to that place of action.”
There are so many ways to write about the environment—so many ways of grieving, honoring, exploring, critiquing, loving, and questioning. While the collision lens is certainly applicable to some stories (see the tsunami story in the Enviro. Lenses resource), Williams reminds us that it is just one method of many when it comes to investigating the relationship between humans and the natural world. We’ve collected some of our favorite approaches to serve as models. Each of the excerpts in this resource shows a different form of humans shaping or being shaped by their environment, and writers writing about it.
No Matter Your Approach
Regardless of your chosen beat (ethics or politics, technology or climate), chosen style (personal or journalistic essay), or topic (drought in your community, environmental justice, the neighbor’s pigs, wildfires, your patch of city garden, etc., etc.), keep in mind the following guidelines on how to reach your reader when writing about the environment:
- What's the Connection? Throughout the writing process, pause to ask yourself: How do we (I) affect the environment and how does it affect us (me)? This question can help you more clearly grasp the relationship you’re exploring through your writing.
- What are the Stakes? What is the impact of your topic? Who is being affected and why?
- What's the Context? What background info does the reader need in order to understand and care about your topic?
- What’s Out There? Researching your topic or reading other writing on similar subjects can help you craft your own unique angle. Interviewing other people can also help you generate new and exciting material.
- What’s the Scope? Whether you’re writing about a personal experience or an international issue, zeroing in and zeroing out can help you reach readers. Consider how your personal story relates to readers across the world, for example, or how a global problem is felt on a local level.
- What’s at the Heart? Writing with honesty and compassion will, as Williams says, allow you to “bypass the rhetoric and pierce the heart."
Jonathan Mingle’s writing on the environment, climate and development has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Boston Globe, and other publications. He is a former Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism, a recipient of the American Alpine Club’s Zack Martin Breaking Barriers Award, and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. He is the author of Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity, and Survival on the Roof of the World
. He lives in Vermont, US.
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 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 October 12th and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
October 5: Competition Opens
October 12: Submit draft for Expert Review (optional)
October 15:Reviews returned to Writers
October 20: Final Submissions
October 30: Winners Announced
November Competition: Novel Writing Opens Monday, Nov 2
Stay tuned for more details!