When the judges rate the writing challenge entries, the first criterion on their rating sheet is how well did the entry fit the topic?
Finding a way to write to the topic AND be original BUT not be so original as to be off-topic is one of the most difficult things that challenge enterers have to master. However, learning to write to a given topic is a valuable skill, especially for those who enter writing contests, or who will have to write on demand for an employer, a newsletter, or some such assignment.
Let’s say, for example, that the topic word was jump
Some people already have in mind an entry that they want to write, and they write that entry regardless of the topic. Then, in an effort to be on topic, they make sure that at some point, one of the characters jumps. When I was a judge for the challenge, I gave entries like this a simple test: would this entry be essentially the same if the mention of the topic word was eliminated?
If the answer was ‘yes,’ then I would give it a very low score for that criterion. It’s not enough to simply mention the topic word.
On the other hand, some people give the topic word considerable overkill. They use the word “jump” or a synonym of “jump” in every other line, or they write something that reads like a student’s report on jumping, or they write about several different times in their lives when they’ve jumped. None of those “overkill” responses to the topic would get a bad rating for the “on topic” criterion, but they are perhaps less creative and writerly than they could be, and might score poorly for the “creativity” criterion (which I’ll cover another time).
When I was writing for the challenge, I tried to write a story in which the prompt played a pivotal role—but I did not write about
the prompt. I applied the same test to my writing that later I applied as a judge: could I write this entry without the challenge word?
So for our hypothetical topic of “jump,” I might write a story in which a high school student with a bad reputation is kind to a special needs peer by “missing” some jumps in a checkers game, allowing the other child to win. The story is about
compassion and shattering stereotypes, but “jump” is critical to its telling. The word “jump” might only be used once, but the story could not be told without it.
I urge you to think carefully about the topic, and not necessarily to write about it in the first way that comes to mind. I’ll write more about this when I write about the “creativity” criterion, but this might be important enough to say here and to repeat it later: look at the challenge topic from as many angles as you possibly can. For example, the word “jump” can mean:
1. to hop or leap
2. a move in checkers
3. a way to start up a dead car battery
4. to attack or to mug someone
5. to come to a sudden conclusion
In fact, one online dictionary has 45 different uses for “jump.” Whatever the topic is, do a little bit of research—at the very least, do some brainstorming about possible uses of the word or phrase.
If the challenge prompt is a phrase that is not familiar to you, definitely look up its meaning. Also come back here to the writing forums; often Deb Porter will start a thread that discusses the meaning of the challenge prompt.
Finally, although it you’re encouraged to research many possible meanings of a prompt, don’t try to sabotage the prompt. For example, simply naming a character “Jump” or setting your story in a town called "Jump" really isn’t on topic (unless you also make some aspect of “jump” pivotal to the story). I’ll admit doing some overly-clever sabotage when I was still fairly new to the challenge: the topic was “car trip” and I wrote about a person who tripped
while carrying a toy car
. Not really on topic at all. For many quarters, the topics have a recognizable theme weaving throughout the entire ten weeks, and the judges don’t appreciate nimble sidestepping of the theme (or an individual topic).
I’ll close with two examples of writing challenge entries for which I applied these tests: Was the topic for the week essential for the story, but not overused and not tossed in just for a mention? Secondarily, did I use the topic in a unique way? (And remember that I link to my own stories because I can find them; if you have an entry that you’d like to link to, please do!)
For the topic “yellow,” I wrote about the racial concept of “high yellow” in post-civil war America. It was a subtle use of the topic word, but absolutely essential to the story. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=33093
When the topic was “river,” I put a river in the story, with a significant role to play, but the story was about baptism and a budding romance. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=10935HOMEWORK:
1. Read one of the stories linked to above, and comment on its “on-topic-ness.” Do you think it could or should have been more on topic? Don’t be afraid to criticize; I can take it.
2. Link to one of your own entries, and either make a comment about its being on topic, or ask a question. For those of you who are on Facebook, I’ve started a Facebook Writing Lessons page where I post this same material. I know that some of you are more comfortable with Facebook than with these message boards, and that notifications there are more timely. Feel free to “like” the Facebook page, and to refer friends to like it, too.