Education

Our 3rd Annual Personal Narrative Writing Contest

Below are answers to your questions about writing, judging, the rules and teaching with this contest. Please read these thoroughly and, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, post your query in the comments or write to us at LNFeedback@nytimes.com.

Questions About Writing

What is a personal narrative?

For this contest, we’re defining a personal narrative as a short, powerful, true story about a specific experience, event or incident from your real life.

Because you’re telling a story about a particular moment rather than, say, summarizing your whole life or reflecting on your feelings about a topic, there should be a clear narrative arc — a beginning, middle and end — that is driven by a conflict of some kind that is eventually resolved or spurs an attempt at an ongoing life change.

Keep in mind, however, that any story can work. It doesn’t have to be the most dramatic thing that ever happened to you; it can, instead, be about baking brownies with your brother, or a conversation you had on Tuesday’s bus ride to school. It’s all in how you tell it.

And a good personal narrative not only tells a story but supplies a reason for telling it, so that readers come away with a sense of some larger meaning or a universal message they can relate to. The best essays often do this subtly and leave room for the reader’s own interpretation.

How can I make my essay stand out?

We are primarily looking for good storytelling, as explained above. But we’re also looking for writing that is vivid and engrossing. A few tips:

  • Hook your readers right from the start by dropping them into the scene.

  • Write from your own point of view in your real voice. We want to see your personality come through on the page.

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

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

I have no idea what to write about. Where should I start?

Everyone has a story to tell. Read essays from the Times’s personal narrative columns (linked below) or look at winning essays from 2019 and 2020.

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