The art of writing an essay

There are many rules in writing, and an essay is a specific type of nonfiction. As I prepare to write a piece to enter in the “Able in This Diverse Universe” Essay Competition in support of Four Paws for Noah, I needed to refresh my memory about the basic rules of writing an essay.

Four Paws for Noah

(Image copied from November 5, 2015,

Since my modus operandi of late is writing fiction, I turned to the internet for a quick reminder of the rules for writing an essay. In today’s post, I will share some of what I found.

In a nutshell, the first paragraph contains a one- or two-sentence thesis statement, why that thesis is important, and how you plan to defend your position. The body of the essay is made up of paragraphs that lay out your thoughts on the topic. Each body paragraph should begin with a topic sentence. The closing paragraph is your conclusion. It summarizes the essay’s arguments.

That’s all well and good, but I need a little more detail.

The University of Canberra website,, is detailed even to the point of recommending that the academic essayist “do the math.” The introductory and conclusion paragraphs should constitute 20% of the essay’s word count. Take the contest’s word limit and subtract 20%. The remaining number of words are available for the body of the essay. Divide that number by 150, which is the average length of an academic paragraph. These instructions take the fun out of writing. Since math has never been my forte, the thought of having to plug percentages into my writing makes me cringe.

Hoping to find less rigid guidelines, I continued my internet search. This is what I concluded:

  1.  Research topic;
  2. Summarize primary sources;
  3. Determine your stand on topic (and why the topic matters to you), and formulate thesis statement;
  4. Thesis statement should prompt reader to know that you are going to try to convince him or her of something and make them curious to see how you go about that;
  5. Keep in mind that presenting your thoughts and analysis of material at hand is more important than how well you demonstrate your ability to summarize the thoughts of others;
  6. Organize your notes and thoughts into categories, including counterarguments;
  7. Taking your experience and research into consideration, make a case for your original ideas on the subject;
  8. If you don’t have an original thought on the topic, if your stance has no opposition, or if your stance has overwhelming counterargument — don’t write the essay;
  9. Hone your thesis as you write drafts of your essay;
  10. Map out your essay;
  11. In the body of the essay, persuade the readers — usually using deductive or inductive reasoning — and by anticipating the reader’s questions;
  12. After presenting counterarguments, be sure to reaffirm your position; and
  13. Give close attention to your conclusion, for it is important.

No matter how I approached this, I felt burdened by rules. Writing an essay for Four Paws for Noah should prove to be good exercise for my writing muscles because this is going to be much different from writing fiction. For the sake of Four Paws for Noah, I hope I can get my act together and pull it off.

Four Paws for Noah

Today’s post makes you aware of Four Paws for Noah and a couple of ways you can help fund the training of Appa, an assistance dog for a boy named Noah.

Noah is a nine-year-old boy who struggles with autism. There are two writing contests whose entry fees will go 100% to help pay the cost for Appa’s training.

The “Able is This Diverse Universe Essay Competition” has a March 31, 2016 deadline. You may write an up to 2000-word essay based on the themes of ableism, disability, access, and overcoming. Go to https// to submit your essay and $10 entry fee.

The “Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Writing Competition” invites a 100- to 500-word piece of fiction using the theme “a boy’s dog.” This competition has a March 31 deadline and a $15 entry fee. Visit the website. Click on “Events” and then on “Contests” for contest details.

The way I see it, entering these competitions is a win/win situation. Time spent working on a piece for a writing contest is never wasted time. One becomes a better writer by writing. The entry fees going to support such a worthy cause is just icing on the cake.

A Week in the Life of a Struggling Writer

I debated over several possible titles for this post, and I settled on “A Week in the Life of a Struggling Writer.” Perhaps other struggling writers will read this and take comfort in reading about how my writing life is going. The content of this post will not be uplifting. Hang in there with me, though, to the last paragraph. After a bit of a pity party, in the end I was able to end on a positive note.

I promised in at least one earlier blog post that I would report on the outcomes of all the writing contests I entered. The last week or so has not been the highlight of my writing endeavors. I thought it was bad enough when I was notified that I had not won two competitions, but yesterday I received word that I had not won or placed in yet a third contest. I promised to report to you, so here goes.

In March, I submitted my short story titled Someone is Trying to Kill Me, in the Gemini Magazine Short Story Contest. My entry did not make the cut.

In June, I entered George Govan, A Gentle Man, in the Northern Colorado Writers’ Personal Essay/Creative Nonfiction Contest. I really thought I had a good chance to secure at least an Honorable Mention for that piece; however, it was not to be.

In July, I wrote a piece about the experiences I had a few years ago when I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Ira Lee Taylor about his military service during World War II. He was part of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and other battles in the European Theatre. I presented his memories of the war as a human interest story titled, Telling World War II Stories, and submitted it for the Page Crafter’s Prize in the On the Same Page Book Festival coming up in a couple of weeks in West Jefferson, North Carolina. I was proud of that piece, but I learned yesterday that I did not win or place in that competition.

I have entered nine writing contests in 2015. So far, I have not won or placed in any of them. I am more than a little discouraged today, but I will press on. The only way my writing will improve is through writing, writing, writing. It would have been helpful if I could not gotten some feedback from those nine contests, but I only received constructive criticism on one. It is difficult to learn from one’s mistakes when those missteps are not identified.

From these nine writing contests this year I have learned that I’m not as good a writer as I thought. That is a valuable lesson, lest I start thinking too highly of myself.

As I proofread this blog post, it occurred to me that I enjoyed the process of writing each of the nine pieces that I submitted in these contests. If that is all I get out of writing, that’s enough! Having the luxury at this time in my life to do some things that bring me joy is a gift that many people never experience.

Sometimes life gets in the way

Sometimes life gets in the way and derails my plans. Throughout a house remodeling project this summer, I found little time to read or write. Planned blog postings did not get written. It seemed that everything I wanted to do or intended to do got postponed to the next day, or the next week, or the next month, or even to next year. The work is complete; however, it will take several weeks to unpack, locate some items, and get everything situated. It is exhausting!

It occurred to me early in the remodeling process that I should blog about living in the chaos and uncertainty of construction, but by the end of each day I was too tired to put words together into coherent sentences. I am not a “morning person,” so blogging first thing in the morning was never an option. Subcontractors arrived as early as 7:00 a.m. and worked as late as 8:00 p.m. No two days were alike.

I met the July 20 deadline for the Ashe County, NC, “On the Same Page” creative nonfiction competition. I came in just under the wire on July 19. My entry was a 995-word piece about the experiences of a World War II veteran. The theme of the contest was “telling stories.” The winner will be announced on August 31. I intended to also enter the fiction contest. By the time I settled on an idea, though, there was not enough time to do the story justice. I’ll keep the idea for another time and venue.

No time spent writing or honing one’s writing skills is wasted.

Northern Colorado Writers Contest

I’ve entered another Northern Colorado Writers Contest. Last night I submitted an essay titled “George Govan, A Gentle Man” in the 2015 Northern Colorado Writers Personal Essay/Creative Nonfiction Contest. I reworked a piece I wrote about Mr. Govan before he died. That necessitated changing the tense in which it was originally written and gave me the advantage offered by the passage of time. Reflecting on the things I learned from Mr. Govan several years after his death afforded me the opportunity to realize the difference he made in my life and just how fortunate I was to have known him.

If not for my freelance writing job from 2006 through 2012, I probably never would have met Mr. Govan. I was under contract with a local weekly newspaper, Harrisburg Horizons, to write a local history column titled “Did You Know?” That work pushed me way out of my comfort zone and into the homes and lives of several elderly area residents. I visited Mr. Govan many times and never failed to learn something from him. As an elderly black man, his life experiences were much different from mine.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to know Mr. Govan. I must try to live in such a way that someone will say that about me someday.

I’ve Entered Another Writing Contest

In case you’re keeping score, I’ve entered another writing contest. The Sixth Annual Gemini Magazine Short Story Contest caught my eye for two reasons. First, the entrance fee was just $5. Second, the prizes are nice. By the law of averages, I figure if I enter enough writing contests I’m bound to win another one eventually.

I won the first writing contest I entered, which gave me a false sense of confidence. That was in 2003. It was the first and last writing contest I have won or even placed in. This is a good thing. I no longer puff myself up with illusions of grandeur when submitting an article or story for a magazine or writing contest.

The contest that I won was the November 2003 Writers’ Journal Travel Writing Contest. I wrote about a fascinating day trip I took to Orkney while visiting Scotland. My article won first place in the competition and was printed in the May/June 2004 issue of Writers’ Journal. Winning that contest validated me as a writer, which was much more important than the $50 prize.

I will know by June if I won or placed in the Gemini Magazine Short Story Contest, and you’ll be the second one to know.

“The Other Woman” Submitted for Bevel Summers Prize

In a continuing effort to hone my writing skills, I submitted a 1,000-word short short story titled “The Other Woman,” in competition for the Bevel Summers Prize. The prize is offered by Shenandoah, the literary review sponsored by Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

I wrote “The Other Woman” in the vein of O. Henry’s short stories. False assumptions are made by the narrator throughout the story. She and the reader do not know the truth until the end of the story. It will be interesting to see how the story is received, since O. Henry’s style is not in vogue today. It was through reading the short stories of O. Henry that I developed my love of short stories.

Never one to conform or to do things just because “everybody’s doing it,” I wrote this short short story the way I wanted to write it. If I enjoy a story with a surprise ending, perhaps other readers do as well.

The winner of the 2015 Bevel Summers Prize will be announced in August. I will report on this blog when I learn my story’s fate.

Slip Sliding Away! entered in Northern Colorado Writers Short Fiction Contest

There was a plethora of writing contests this month that attracted my attention. I submitted “Slip Sliding Away!” in the Northern Colorado Short Fiction Contest. It is a 4,981-word revision of a story I wrote a decade or more ago.

I recently discovered the Northern Colorado Writers contests. The entire process of entering writing competitions is beneficial to me. I tend to need deadlines, so contests force me to put words on the page. Knowing a story is going to be judged causes me to revise and edit with a keen eye and tighten up my writing.

The winning entry and honorable mention pieces will be published in the Northern Colorado Writers annual anthology. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

Submitted a Story for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize

Several weeks ago, I submitted a story to the North Carolina Writers’ Network for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize. The winning piece of fiction of up to 6,000 words will be announced in April and will be published next year in North Carolina Literary Review.

Doris Betts was born in 1932 in Statesville, North Carolina. For 30 years, she taught creative writing and English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was an award-winning novelist and writer of short stories. Her subtle writing style was often compared to that of Flannery O’Connor. Ms. Betts died in 2012 at her home in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

The story I submitted in the competition for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize was titled, “Secrets of a Foster Child.” It is the first fiction story I’ve written in first person. I tried to put myself in the skin of a foster child. That wasn’t easy. I was blessed to grow up in a stable, two-parent, loving home. We lived on land that has been in our family since the 1760s. I knew we weren’t ever going to move. I knew where I would go to school the next year, much less the next day. I never once had to wonder if I would have enough to eat or clothes to wear. I knew Mama and Daddy were my forever parents.

Hearing and reading about the various experiences foster children have has helped me to realize how fortunate I am. There are many wonderful foster homes, and I hope my story conveys that. Some foster homes are not so good, and my story touches on that. The overriding theme in the story is the insecurity that foster children have. Nothing in their lives is permanent.

I doubt that “Secrets of a Foster Child” is literary enough to win this august writing competition. I do not expect to win, but it was helpful to write for the contest and go through the mechanics of editing and revising in order to make the piece as good as I could.

No time spent writing is wasted.

Top of the Mountain Fiction Contest

My January 28, 2015 blog announced that I had entered the first 20 pages of my unpublished historical novel manuscript, The Spanish Coin, in the Top of the Mountain Fiction Contest. The contest was sponsored by Northern Colorada Writers.

This week I eagerly awaited news of how my writing fared in the contest. Word came today that my entry was not one of the four finalists. That was disappointing, but the critique I received from one of the three judges was well worth the $25 contest entry fee.

My work was graded on a 10-point scale on each of the following 10 categories: synopsis, beginning hook, plot, originality & voice, characterization, pacing, dialog, setting/description/narrative, mechanics, and appeal to intended audience.

I am pleased that my lowest score was 8 and I received two 10s. My total score was 88 out of a possible 100.

The judge’s comments give me some specific weaknesses and areas I need to work on. I look forward to doing that in the coming months as I work toward my ultimate goal of getting the novel published.