I’m delighted to be involved in another exciting writing opportunity for secondary-age students in NI, and I’m particularly thrilled about this one because it’s for essay writing!

Which you don’t see a lot of outside the classroom. I was always one of those odd kids who actually loved writing essays as much as I loved writing fiction. The general consensus about doing English Lit in school is that everyone loves books until you start making them write essays about them, and I completely agree, that can be off-putting, especially when it feels like the whole point of the essay is just to test what you know and it has to fit into a certain easy-to-mark structure that doesn’t allow any room for creativity.

I’ve heard horror stories of students being given essay plans that tell them exactly how many paragraphs to write, how many sentences in each paragraph, and what each paragraph should do.

But we’re not at school now! And Left Side Up’s Big Lockdown Essay Competition is all about my kind of essay writing. I’m very excited because I get to be a judge!

I’ve always felt that essay writing can and should be a really creative process. There’s so much scope for self-expression and originality of thought. There are as many ways to structure an essay as there are ways to structure a novel. There’s the same scope for beautifully constructed sentences, fresh metaphors, startling similes, passion and personality.

When I was a student we were literally told, Don’t use “I” in your essay and don’t give your own opinion because “who are you?” We were there to regurgitate stuff that had already been written, and that was all. This completely put me off studying English at Uni actually and I only went back to it ten years later.

But things have changed, and the ‘personal essay’ is a really popular form of writing these days. This is usually autobiographical non-fiction, with an emotional and intimate style. Anyone can write it, you don’t have to be an academic, and you can play with the form and reinvent it to your heart’s content.

And the best part is, you get to write about something you are passionate about. Not the exam text, not the set question, not someone else’s idea of an interesting subject. You can take a theme and use it to explore your own feelings, your own life. In my experience, you always produce better writing if you’re writing about something you care about. You’ll also enjoy writing it, and if you enjoy writing it, your reader will enjoy reading it.  

The idea of an ‘essay’ might seem scary and difficult if it’s something you’ve only ever encountered in exams, but actually, if you’ve ever written a blog post, a diary, a letter, some journalism, then you’re already writing creative non-fiction. It’s much easier and more fun than you’d think.   

The Left Side Up Essay Competition want “excellent, imaginative essays about our experience in lockdown here in NI.”

There are three categories, themes and wordcounts:

  • Key Stage 3 the theme is ‘Home’ (750-1000 words)
  • For Key Stage 4 the theme is ‘Community’ (1000-1250 words)
  • For post-16s the theme is ‘Citizenship’ (1250-1500 words)

These are huge themes, and that means there’s massive scope to interpret them in your own way. These words have as many meanings as there are people. So what does Home or Community or Citizenship mean to you? How has lockdown changed that? What will the post-lockdown future of these things be? Start brainstorming what these words mean to you and I bet you’ll come up with loads of ideas that you could write about. My advice is not to try and take on every single one of them because it’ll be overwhelming and you won’t be able to cover them fully within the wordcount. Pick a small, specific idea that means something to you or interests you and then explore all the aspects of it more fully.

The judges have stressed that there is no marking criteria and no set structure. You don’t have to use quotes or references or a particular style. They just want you to be creative. You can come up with your own structure. It can be funny, sad, personal, about the future or the past. They don’t want stories, poems or plays but other than that, it’s up to you how you write your essay.

They’ve also made a really helpful podcast about how to write a great essay, how to generate ideas, how to think about structure, and how to get started so I recommend you listen to that first. It’s on the website.

Then when you’ve written your essay you can submit it via the website. The closing date is Sunday 24th May and winners will be published in a pamphlet entitled ‘Living in Lockdown’ as well as winning a prize. Highly commended essays will be published on the Left Side Up website.

So teachers and parents please do recommend this to your students. It could be a really good home-schooling project as well as a chance to try a new style of creative writing that they mightn’t normally get a chance to within the curriculum.

Good luck!

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