Having just announced the winners of our annual statewide contests — and having just had a department-wide talk about (among other things) the pros and cons of contest success in the life of any young writer — it strikes me that it might be useful to reveal a (the?) “secret” to success in writing contests for teenagers, and what that success might really mean in the long run.
First, though, what’s not a secret. It’s not a secret that contest judging is inherently subjective. What one judge loves another will ignore or even hate. That’s just the plain fact of the matter, and it’s why it’s not a good idea to put too much stock in contest results, at any age, in any context.
Now for the “secret” — and it’s not really a secret, either; it’s just a sense impression I now have, based on a decade and a half of observation and experience. The “secret” is this: judges of teen-writing contests seem to be most impressed with what I’ll call “precocious sophistication” in one or both of the following areas:
- Language: “Precociously sophisticated” language is NOT (necessarily) laden with SAT words. It’s NOT chock-full of labyrinthine sentences (necessarily). It’s not even NECESSARILY grammatically correct. It’s a mastery of the language that is beyond the writer’s years. Vocabulary, syntax, sentence structure, rhythm — the confident and seemingly effortless (and therefore artful) manipulation of these things. There’s no formula for it. It’s hard to describe or define; it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it sort of thing, and in a slush pile of teen writing, it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. It’s what separates the straight-A Language Arts student from the honest-to-goodness writer. It’s not so much taught as it is attained (obtained?), and the only way I know to attain/obtain it is to read a variety of masterfully manipulated language. Lots of it. Particularly work by writers of contemporary adult literature. Which leads to…
- Subject Matter: What I mean by this is the deft, nuanced handling of material that speaks to social and/or personal tensions that are more often considered adult in nature. It would be misleading to refer to this as “mature themes” because that has become shorthand for provocative, “R-rated” content that might be considered taboo, especially for teenagers. In fact, a red flag for the teen-writing contest judge is the poseur story or poem that’s graphically sexual or violent (or otherwise “counterculture”) but comes off as inauthentic and naive because it’s clearly unaware of its own blind spots (it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, so to speak). It’s just trying too hard to be provocative and “mature,” seemingly unaware that mature adults deal with lots of things that aren’t provocative or “racy.” In fact, the vast majority of adult life consists of a subtle interplay of small joys and incremental losses, petty satisfactions and half-formed longings, nagging fears and tiny little affirmations. There are stories and poems and essays written by teenagers that are fully aware of (and fascinated by) this sort of interplay; I’m lucky enough to read them semester after semester in the classes I teach here at ASFA-CW. Most teen-writing contest judges AREN’T that lucky, though. When they encounter such work in a slush pile of other teen writing, they take notice. Instantly. It stands out. This quality in a young writer’s work is not so much the product of classroom learning; it’s more a by-product of a multifaceted process of accrual — a.k.a., Life. Also it helps to have been exposed to a lot of different perspectives, often through travel, living in the context of different cultures, eclectic consumption of art and entertainment, and/or the aforementioned voracious reading of great writing.
What It All Might Mean
I’m of the mind that determined young writers will eventually attain the requisite level of sophistication in their language. It’s a simple process of reading and writing enough (see: Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule). The same goes for subject matter; it’s just a matter of paying close attention and fully living the life available to you. Thus, I contend that the necessary combination of sophistication in language and subject matter will come to any writer who seeks it; all it takes is patience, faith, and (oh yeah) effort. In a large percentage of writers, this “magic” combination of writerly sophistication seems to coalesce in their thirties or forties; some even later than that. And, yes, for some writers, it happens sooner than that — sometimes consistently, but more often in fits and starts, a poem here, a story there.
Either way, “sooner than that” = precocious. That’s, often, (I contend) what teen writing contests are identifying. Not so much that the work is good but that it’s precociously good. And this “sooner-than-that” precociousness is great — amazing, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, worth celebrating. But, by definition, it has a shelf life. It’s fleeting and it depreciates over time. The world of determined young writers in your generation will catch up. And when they do catch up, when their language and life experiences are every bit as varied and “sophisticated” as yours, you better have been working as hard as they have in the meantime, or else they’re going to blow right past you and never look back.
I’ll conclude by suggesting that there’s a real downside to contests for young writers. For all the reinforcement and encouragement they can offer (and they do offer those things), they can sometimes send the exact wrong message at the exact wrong time, whether a young writer wins recognition or not. To those who win early recognition in a writing contest, it’s a little too easy to think you’ve already arrived and your continued success as a writer is a foregone conclusion. (It’s not.) To those who don’t win early recognition, a contest result (or a series of them) can make you think you’re not good enough to seriously pursue the writing life, so it’s not worth the time and effort to keep going. (It is.) Either way, the message, on some level, is to stop — rest on your oars and pat yourself on the back or quit altogether and get in some other boat. The truth is, whether or not you win writing contests as a teenager, your task as an aspiring writer is always the same: write a lot, read even more than that, and try to fully engage the world you find yourself in. The rest will, sooner or later, take care of itself.