One day, when I was 15 years old, my dad came home from work, and handed me a page from his company newspaper. “Thought you might like to enter a writing contest, Wen,” he said, pointing to an article about the National Electrical and National Engineers Essay Contest. There were two chances to win: a $50 savings bond for first place, and a $25 bond for runner-up. I was thrilled at the prospect of entering a writing contest. But the topic — “How Electricity Has Affected My Life” — left me cold.
Much as I loved a good writing challenge, I hated science. When I reminded Dad that I’d barely passed my electricity unit at school, he replied, “You don’t have to explain how electricity works. You just have to tell how it impacts your life.”
With those words, the gauntlet was thrown.
I wanted to make Dad proud, win or lose, but my early attempts were dreadful. My writing was listless, my topics uninspired and uninspiring. But, as I muddled along, I gradually came to see that it was all about the angle. If I couldn’t find a riveting hook — something that truly excited me —how could I ever expect to excite the judges? I had to find my own unique slant, and go from there.
I’d recently begun taking pipe organ lessons from our church organist. Since I had no instrument of my own at home, I practiced weekly on our church’s ancient tracker-action pipe organ. Decades earlier, before the organ was electrified, a couple of sturdy-legged boys were needed to pump the bellows during Sunday services whenever music was required. Without those energetic pumpers, the mighty pipe organ was silent.
But, electricity changed all of that. Unlike my predecessors, I was fortunate and grateful to be able to show up any time, and play that organ, no sidekick necessary, with just the flick of a switch. The minute I hit upon this exciting new angle, I was off and writing, and won first prize!
A writer himself, my dad was tickled when he heard that my essay had won. My older brother, however, wasn’t quite as supportive. When he heard the news, he smiled slyly, and said, “Yeah, Wen, but I bet only two people entered!”
My brother’s keen sense of humor, coupled with his steadfast commitment to keeping his sister from developing a swelled head, was at once crushing and comical. But, after hearing his take, I couldn’t help wondering if he was right. Was my win due to a lack of healthy competition?
Dad’s electricity challenge taught me the importance of owning a subject – of making it matter to me so it will resonate with readers. But, my brother’s remark was equally edifying because it spurred me to keep on writing, and prove that I was not just a one-time winner.
Freelance writers thrive on the occasional compliment, kudos, or heartfelt slap on the back for a job well done. But, sometimes, a teasing slap on the face can be equally beneficial. Many years ago, a witty jab from a Doubting Thomas provided the push I needed to keep me plowing forward, honing my writing skills, and proving that my first freelance success would hardly be my last.
- How to Get an Honest Critique of Your Writing (HINT: Don’t Ask Your Mom!)
- Self-Confidence Is More Than Skin Deep
- Answer Critics Before The Criticism Begins
- How To Give A Writing Critique…Without Losing Friends!
- Creative Queries and a Dash of Confidence
Wendy Hobday Haugh, a freelance writer from upstate New York, enjoys writing articles, stories, and poetry for children and adults. She recently completed her 8th draft of a middle grade novel, and now begins the lengthy querying process. Learn more at http://www.wendyhobdayhaugh.com.