Our 3rd annual personal narrative writing competition

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Below you will find answers to your questions about writing, judging, rules and teaching this competition. Please read them carefully and, if you still cannot find what you are looking for, post your query in the comments or email us at [email protected]

Writing questions

What is a personal story?

For this competition, we define a personal narrative as a short, powerful, and true story about a specific experience, event, or incident in your real life.

Because you are telling a story about a particular time rather than, say, summarizing your whole life or reflecting on your feelings on a topic, there should be a clear narrative arc – a beginning, a middle and an end – that is motivated by a conflict of some type that is ultimately resolved or that prompts an ongoing life change attempt.

Keep in mind, however, that any story can work. It is not necessarily the most dramatic thing that has ever happened to you; it could be more about baking brownies with your brother or a conversation you had on the bus ride to school on Tuesday. It’s all in the way you say it.

And a good personal story not only tells a story, but provides a reason for telling it, so that readers come away with an idea of ​​a broader meaning or a universal message that they can relate to. The best essays often do this in subtle ways and leave room for the reader’s own interpretation.

How do I make my essay stand out?

Above all, we are looking for good storytelling, as explained above. But we are also looking for lively and captivating writing. Some tips :

  • Engage your readers early on by letting them drop into the scene.

  • Write from your own perspective with your real voice. We want to see your personality show through on the page.

  • Follow the adage “show, don’t tell”. For example, don’t just say, “my brother was angry”. Instead, describe his clenched fists or flared nostrils. Such images elicit a more powerful response because readers can imagine the scenes you describe and feel what the narrator feels. But be careful to avoid overly ornate or complicated wordings that might detract from your story.

  • Try to avoid hasty conclusions, clichés and platitudes (like “it’s always the darkest before dawn”). A strong story will tell us its themes without having to state them openly.

I have no idea what to write. Where do I start?

Everyone has a story to tell. Read essays from The Times Personal Narrative Columns (linked below) or watch the winning essays from 2019 and 2020.


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