On the spot essay-writing contests are similar to the theme writing assignments you normally do in class. The judges or the club or institution will give you a phrase or a question which you need to expand, explain, defend, or agree or disagree to into a set of paragraphs. But unlike these assignments, these contests are often (not always) strict in word count and time limit. You do not have an opportunity to assess whether or not you did well until you know that you have joined the rank of the winners.
These contests are also one of the two arenas for many young and emerging writers in the Philippines, the other one being Press Conferences. This is also the arena where I used to thrive and often win, sometimes with little preparation. And now that I am old enough to be out of the competition, I believe many aspiring writers may benefit from the following tricks that helped me through these contests:
- Read about writing arguments
Know those American college writing textbooks or readers you find lurking in book sales or school libraries? In a town without a strong reading community, these books became my companion. Not only are these selections entertaining, but they also contain the rhetorical modes that I use in these contests.
Try and focus on the section on writing arguments, since on the spot essay writing contests are argumentative by default. You would also find yourself having to defend the question or theme involved. To do this, you have to support it with various statements, provide evidence, and prepare for flaws or counter-arguments.
The argumentative mode is also easy to use, because you give emphasis to information rather than style. You can also engage the judges quickly if you know and are confident with what you want to say.
- Read newspapers, particularly opinion articles
Reading opinion articles give you the opportunity to understand how other professional writers write from the top of their head. No; it doesn’t mean that these writers are uninformed; if they are, then these opinion articles would be unconvincing and useless. Most of these opinion writers know what they want to say about a significant issue, and by writing an opinion, they interpret and assess the topic. Thus, when you read an opinion article, ask yourself if these writers are convincing and try to understand how. This attitude is the same attitude many judges use to gauge your work.
- Try to outline your essay into paragraphs
Since these contests are timed, you cannot afford to dwell too much on brainstorming. You need to do this, but you have to do it quick. I deal with this constraint by writing a quick paragraph-by-paragraph outline. I estimate the number of paragraphs I need to use for the introduction (one to two), for the explanation and defense (two to three), for managing flaws and rebuttals/implementation (one), and for the conclusion (one). I also try to highlight what I need to do, achieve, or include in the outline.
Once it’s done, I write from the top of my head. I don’t follow it sometimes, either out of circumstance or train of thought, but it helps to have a guide to help you if you’re lost.
This mode of brainstorming also helped me ace those essay examinations with little preparation.
- Know how to disagree with and please simultaneously
No, it doesn’t mean you flatter the hosts. But if you can, if it boosts your argument, and it satisfies the theme or question, why not? This is better understood as: know how to uplift the role of the institution/s involved in the contest in your essay. It is a must when the theme involved represents a core value in the host institution’s beliefs and virtues.
This is also why you always have to be agree with the idea or theme, unless the contest openly states that you have an option to disagree. Your primary goal after all is to win, not to create meaningful conversations with a wide audience.
So when you counter possible flaws in your essay, show that these flaws do not threat the integrity of the institution, or that anyone can deal with them by following certain steps. And when you flatter these institutions, make sure that you maintain a consistent tone. Make your flattery seem like a part of the argument, not an appeal to their ego.
- Preparation is optional. But if you have an idea about the scope of the contest, it is best if you are well read about it. More so if you barely know about any context or significant events related to it.
Because nothing is more convincing than a timely essay that is well supported with real information. If you have any relevant experience, that can stand in or boost your essay even further. But if you neither have experiences relevant to the contest nor knowledge of related events, you just need to begin reading.
And if this page ever had a cult following among writers, be prepared to be more creative in your essays. Know how to spice up your words, take risks with your paragraphs, or come up with entertaining ways of presenting your case. The argumentative mode I presented above should only be your emergency weapon, right when you have no idea how to deal with your on-the-spot problem, or if you only have cold information on your mind.
As of now, two other methods I know that could stand better than the argumentative mode is the experience mode and the creative/linguistic mode.
- The Experience Mode
As the name goes, you answer the question based on experience. If you want to tell your experience first, try to demonstrate how it is relevant to the question. If you prefer to use it later, it becomes your defense or evidence, as stated in Tip #5 above.
Relevance becomes a weighty word in this mode. You have to know how to create a perfect balance between telling the story and making it relevant. If the story is relevant enough, then good. But if it is not, dig into the experience and make it relevant. But if you barely have any relevant experience, don’t give this mode a thought.
For this one, it is best if you have read a lot of personal essays, or generally recommended short works in creative nonfiction.
- The Creative/linguistic mode
This mode allows you to play with your words and your presentation of the topic. But only dare to be creative and playful if you are sure what you want to do, and are certain that it can satisfy the question and can be considered as an acceptable form for an essay contest. The freedom you have may indeed be enticing, but there are just so many uncountable things that can go wrong in a limited period of time.
On the plus side, if your work does more than what is given and achieves that entertaining, enlightening, or witty effect (or whatever effect you have planned), there is a very high probability you can get that award.
These tips don’t work if you haven’t expressed your words and ideas clearly and properly. And you should always ask if these tips does apply to your contest. Following the instructions and knowing their standard comes first before using any trick.
What do you think? Do you also have any tricks or tips you use in writing contests? Share them in the comments!