A Good Cross-draft: The Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest
Originally published in full in Issue 148 of The New Quarterly.
TNQ has long been a haven for the well-wrought personal essay. Even so, it is a contest that comes with a distinctive set of challenges. To wit: we ask for essays in which personal experience is framed by thoughtful, bracing, or lively engagement with an issue that the author has researched. What people send us year after year ranges from travel memoirs, illness narratives, and eulogies to portraits of people and places loved and lost, recollections and evaluations, family stories, and so on.
People want a hearing. The essay contest gives you permission to speak your mind.
Judging, in turn, becomes something of an art form. TNQ judges work in close collaboration, labouring toward consensus to identify a winner, a runner-up and any other selections we feel should be published. These then make up our shortlist.
So, here are our criteria, in sum what the judges typically discuss:
Impact. Does the work excite you? Would you press the essay into someone else’s hands, recommend that others read it? Does it bear re-reading? A piece can be of passing interest; the question is, will it hold up over time?
Creativity. Does the work enrich/enlarge/unsettle your grasp of the subject? Is it a fresh take on a subject we have yet to cover? If a subject we’ve tackled before, why should we invest in this iteration?
Voice & style. Is the voice distinctive, compelling, a voice that’s overlooked or underrepresented? (See Marina Nemat’s introduction to Best Canadian Essays 2017.) Is this a work of superior literary (rather than journalistic or commercial) nonfiction?
Risk. Has the writer taken risks in letting the work go public? Would we stand behind that risk and if so, why? (See Jonathan Franzen’s editorial in Best American Essays 2016.) Is this a writer we want to sustain, champion, or mentor?
Resources. Is TNQ the right home for this piece? Why use TNQ’s valuable resources to support this writer? What signals are we sending if we do: that we’re striking out in a new direction, that this work challenges the canon? And so on.
Year after year, we are seeing an increase in deeply empathetic works that reflect on the human need for real connection—with earth and animals, with one another, and with the ever-imperfect self. Thank you to all who took the time to send work our way. I cannot stress enough how invaluable these contributions are; as readers, editors, and judges, we are enriched by the incredible array of nonfiction that you take the time to send our way.