Tips for an award-winning Essay

The Essay category was very popular last year, and one of the more demanding for our judges since they had to read and evaluate several entries before they even arrived at National Capital History Day.

So, how do judges decide which essays are best? We asked one of our judges, Derek Shelly, a veteran editor (and editorial writer) and now a speechwriter, to think about some advice for students who might be planning to enter essays this year.

Derek Shelly, shown here, top right, with his co-judge, Richard Starnes, interview a student about his essay in the Junior English division. Photo by Jana Chytilova, National Capital History Day.

Derek Shelly, shown here, top right, with his co-judge, Richard Starnes, interviewing a student about his essay in the Junior English division. Photo by Jana Chytilova, National Capital History Day.

Here’s what he says:

1. Make sure your essay has a focus that matches the theme of the day — this year, “Leadership and Legacy in History” — with the emphasis on “focus.” You might decide to look at Winston Churchill. Seems easy enough — there’s certainly been enough written about him, and he was a prolific writer himself, even winning a Nobel Prize. But it’s not enough to present a biographical sketch of your subject. In this case, I’d suggest your essay needs to provide your answers for a few key questions:

• What characteristics made your subject a good (or bad) leader?
• What did they do to demonstrate these characteristics? Provide some examples or anecdotes.
• What was the long-lasting result, for good or ill, of your subject’s actions?

Essentially, it’s not enough here to tell your reader just the “who” and the “what” — you also need to examine the “how” and the “why.”

2. If you follow Point 1, Point 2 should be obvious: You need to make an argument with your essay and prove your point — and your entire essay should be focused on making that point. One good way to make sure you stay focused is to write a “statement of purpose” for yourself and keep it in front of you — at the top of the page, on a Post-It note on your computer, whatever. “Mahatma Gandhi was __________________ because he ______________.” I’ve written hundreds of essays, columns, editorials and speeches, and still find it useful to write something like this at the top of the page for inspiration and focus.

3. Multiple sources are best. This is a research paper, not an opinion column. If you have no sources, you have no research. If you have only one, you’re not really advancing your own thinking — you’re just presenting someone else’s. If you have several, even if they seem to contradict each other (history is messy!), you’re presenting a well-rounded view of your subject.

4. The closer your source is to the subject, the more valuable it is. A book about a historic subject is always good. A contemporary account, from a newspaper at the time, for example, is often even better. And an eyewitness or other first-hand account is usually best. (From Point 1, think how much better an essay about Churchill’s actions in the Second World War would be if you looked up what he wrote about his experiences himself.)

5. Some thoughts on Wikipedia: It’s a great place to get a broad overview of a subject, but be wary of using it as your main source. Any Wikipedia pages worth your time have plenty of footnotes showing you where you can go to confirm the facts for yourself.

Derek’s point about making sure your essay reflects the annual theme is very important. If you’re not sure what this year’s theme is, you can get all the info about that here. And if you’d like to see the evaluation forms that judges use to assess essays, you can download one here. And before you submit your essay, make sure you download a rulebook here and review the specific rules for this category — it’s important that your title page, bibliography etc. follow the contest guidelines.

We get lots of questions about which style guide students should use for essays. We’re flexible on this point — if your school uses a specific style guide, we ask you to use that. If your school doesn’t have a style guide, please use Chicago or MLA.

We are, however, a little stickier about word counts, so make sure your paper is the right length (750-1,000 words for the Junior division and 1,200-1,800 for the Senior division).

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