There’s nothing like a writing contest to make audience a very real thing. Whether your students are 4th-6th grade TIPsters who can enter Duke TIP’s annual Writing Contest or whether they’re students interested in competing for prizes in another contest, a competition can add excitement, motivation, and challenge for students who love writing.
Students who are members of the Duke TIP 4th-6th Grade Talent Search may enter this contest (inspired by the image above). If you have a class of students who are not members of our Talent Search who would enjoy this contest prompt, or want to use this for a school-wide contest, be our guest, and consider our ideas on the art of prepping for a contest below.
Here are some tips for helping your students write excellent stories in ways that honor the rules of a contest.
Do you have tips for students when they enter writing contests?
In her book, Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, author and writing coach Lisa Cron talks about how to help students approach writing prompts and avoid stories that end up like grocery lists. (As a contest judge, I can tell you that those stories that are random collection of events– ” this happened, and then this happened”–quickly make your eyes glaze over.) Cron has seen too many prompts go awry where kids, overwhelmed by the range of directions where a story could go, end up making mixed-up stews of too many weird things cobbled together, to no real purpose.
An excellent story, Cron says, has a point. That point is driven by an internal struggle by a main character. When she’s worked with students as young as five, she’s advised students to figure out what theme matters to them most, that they want to share. Examples she suggests include
- Friends stick together when times are tough.
- Believe in yourself even when others don’t.
…All by themselves each of these very simple points suggests a potent internal story problem. To wit:
- A group of friends will face a tough problem sure to challenge their loyalty to each other, ultimately teaching them the hard-won benefits of sticking together (or not). Think Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
- A character will want to tackle something tough that she’s never done before, and when everyone tries to convince her that she can’t do it, instead of giving up, she’ll muster the inner courage to give her all (or not). Think Mulan.” (Cron 42-43)
You can help your students find their point with a quick theme generation exercise.
- For pre-work, have them bring to class a favorite family saying, a personal saying, and/or a line from a song lyric, a book, or a movie. Each of these lines should say something “true” for the student. You can give some examples to your students from your own life.
- When students bring their lines in the next day, they should meet in pairs to share lines and tell a brief anecdote (if they’re comfortable) about how they know this theme is true in their own lives. Clarify that anecdotes don’t have to be full, robust stories–just snapshots from their lives. They can also use each other’s lines to apply to their lives and give examples.
- Explain to students that the point of a story, or the theme, is like the hub of your story “wheel.” It’s the center point from which spans out the spokes, or the events of the story. (If students were crafting novels, I’d recommend they study Cron’s detailed process for story development–especially older gifted youth in high school with novelist aspirations. But for the purposes of a contest with 1,000 words or less for a prompt, the wheel metaphor can be enough.) As the wheel spins, those events happen in a certain order, all spanning and spinning from that central, driving node, the story’s reason for being.
- Then students can head off to their independent corners to draft a story outline based on this graphic organizer. Encourage kids to write all over this–write words near the dots on the wheel and the hub itself. Better yet, have those students who work well with visuals or drawing to redo this organizer to their own taste–build a bigger, better wheel–and fill in blanks, dots, and hubs accordingly. You’ll note that it’s not linear like a plot outline, or an arc like Freytag’s plot pyramid. Whatever visual students prefer, they should use.
- If you do writing conferences, you can invite students to talk through with you their character’s main struggle to discover the point. As they tell you their A leads to B leads to C events of the story, ask how these events apply to the point of the story. You can also remind students to re-read the contest prompt and make sure they’re including all required elements of the story while making this point.
Build the Bones
As a novelist I’ve had to learn the hard way how to build the bones of my novels and short stories. I used to think good plot just “happened” thanks to a friendly muse. Structure–tried-and-true archetypal, hero’s journey structures–are incredibly helpful. One of my favorite plot recipes that has given my meandering characters direction is Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder.
A quick mini-lesson on story structure using one of your favorite stories or novels can be very helpful. Because short stories such as the ones Duke TIP’s Writing Contest asks for don’t have the luxury of all plot points suggested by Snyder’s structure, I suggest you ask students to make sure their stories have at least these four elements:
- a Catalyst is a life-changing moment where the hero is pushed into action. It’s the first big happening of the story where the heroine has to make a choice.
- the Midpoint where the going gets tougher–or even suddenly easier for a moment–but either way, the action is more intense and the stakes get higher
- All Is Lost moment, where the character might lose everything (the old world) and be forced finally into the new world
- the resolution, which if you use the Snyder terms, is “Dark Night of the Soul” + “Break Into Three” (act three) + “Finale.”
After your mini-lesson, you might consider these activities.
- One way for students to connect with any of the first three elements is to ask students to respond to one or more of these as writing prompt. What’s a catalyst you’ve experienced–a life-changing moment when you had to make a choice? When did the going in your life get tougher and the stakes get higher? When did you feel you lost the old world of your life and began a new phase of your life?
- Some students may quickly grasp all four elements and have a ready-made personal story to share that even has a resolution.
- Remind students as they write their piece of fiction that the hero’s struggle is about discovering the point, or theme. So when the heroine thinks she’s lost it all, it’s actually putting her on the path to discover the point.
- Help students see these bones by returning to short stories and novels you’ve read as a class–or those they’ve done in independent reading–and asking them to find these moments. You can meet several English standard goals (Common Core in particular) doing literary analysis of these stories to find such moments in the plots.
- After students have written a first draft of their stories, arm them with four different color markers and ask them to find the places in their stories where they think these elements appear.
Have students read the rules of the contest with you, and then ask: Why all these rules?
Then ask, What do you think happens if you miss just one?
Explain to students that writing contests are just like any sport; if you step outside the lines of the football field, you’re out of bounds. If you come on the basketball court wearing the wrong clothes, you’ll be asked to leave. Likewise, if you choose not to follow one–even just one–of the rules, you won’t be given a choice. The judges don’t know you, and your paper that’s missing the right elements can argue for a second chance. It’s either right, or it’s not.
Students may ask for editorial support. Global feedback is always great, either from teachers or parents, since every contest is a learning opportunity. Global feedback is best delivered as questions. Questions about plot, character, setting, and theme are all valid, because as long as you don’t give answers, then the struggle is theirs. Local feedback–comments on core grammatical and mechanical errors–are fine if limited to a few most distracting ones. Circling these errors and pointing students to a grammar or mechanics text or site is a great way to encourage students to find the error. In particular
- comma splices
- missing punctuation
- missing capitalization
are worth noting. You don’t have to name these–just circle them–and point students to a resource.
Why these three? I personally think they “stop the presses.” Students can learn through copy editing how the greatest of stories can be stopped dead in their tracks by careless or missing punctuation and capitalization.
The other key strategy? Have students read their story aloud to someone, and every time they take a breath, check to see where the punctuation is. (This could lead to overuse of commas, but it can also make students aware of run-on sentences, as well as the power of fragments. An intentional fragment is a beautiful thing, which is why it’s not on my top three list.)
Emailing the above tips to parents never hurts, since most parents, not being English educators, might not know where the line is for coaching their child.
Collaborative work such as peer review is key to maintaining a strong English Language Arts community. How does partner and group work best function for contests, when writing is essentially an individual sport?
Use brainstorming exercises as the best way to harness group and partner thinking. Remind students that ideas are great sparks, and helpful to share at the early stages. Sharing ideas isn’t cheating because it’s the execution–the play-by-play moments of the story–that matter when it comes to a competition. Everyone will be writing a story about a certain subject and situation in a contest, so the core idea is the same. That’s something everyone will share but everyone’s version will be very different.
It’s also the word choice that matters. You should never borrow more than two words in a row from anyone–whether friend or professional, from any context.
- Ask students to work in partners, then share out with the larger group, five different ideas for ways to approach the prompt.
- Lead a class discussion where you weigh the pros and cons of each idea per the criteria discussed above–point and plot. Is this point a meaningful theme? (Would people relate to this theme?) Is that an effective plot? (Does it have the four elements?)
Process the Results
Before the contest results are released, you might have some visitors come through your class to talk about how to respond to the no, the rejection, and the supposed “fail.” As an author who has had her share of rejections and had to write over 100 query letters to get a literary agent, I could tell students a few things about picking yourself up again and reminding yourself you love writing too much to let go of it. Athletes, coaches, and other local professionals of any field where persistence is required can remind students that doing what you love means sticking with it. Grit is the real deal if you want to make something happen in life.
Every attempt we make teaches us something. Asking students to add their entry to their own writing portfolio with a reflection on what they accomplished can be helpful to their seeing individual progress.
- What did I do in this story that I’ve never done before? How did I surprise myself?
- What part of my story is most intriguing to me? Why?
- What part of my story was the hardest to craft? Why?
- What other things might I do with this story?
With these exercises your students can attempt a competition that provides some extrinsic motivation to write based on a theme, create a viable plot structure, and be professional and academically honest with their work.
Do you have tips for students when they enter writing contests? Share with us below!