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How to … : An Informational Writing Contest for Teenagers


Do you know how to fix a brake light? What about how to memorize Shakespeare? How to keep a goldfish alive? Spot a shooting star? Write a love letter? Forgive someone?

These are just a few of the many skills explained in Tip, the how-to column by Malia Wollan which ran weekly in The New York Times Magazine from 2015-2022.

Inspired by this column, which took on topics both serious and silly, we are challenging students to write their own “how-to” for (almost) any task.

As long as the topic is appropriate for a family newspaper, students can explain whatever they like, including tasks that Tip has already taken on. But, just as the column did, they must also find, interview and quote one expert on the subject.

Take a look at the full guidelines and related resources below. Please post any questions you have in the comments and we’ll answer you there, or write to us at [email protected]. And, consider hanging this PDF one-page announcement on your class bulletin board.

Following the example of the long-running Tip column from The New York Times Magazine, write a description in 400 words or fewer about how to do a task.

What might that task be? Anything that is appropriate for a family newspaper and specific enough that you can thoroughly explain it within the word limit is fair game. We hope you’ll have fun choosing, and we have a collection of prompts to help.

For example, Tip covered topics as wide-ranging as how to survive a shark attack, wait in line, hoot like an owl, be less afraid of the dark, make a love potion and scale a chain-link fence. So whether you choose to write about something you already know how to do, or something you’d like to learn, your description of it should be clear, informative and engaging to read.

The only other requirement for your piece is that you also must find, interview and quote one expert on the subject.

If you read any of the Tip articles linked above, you’ll notice that each edition is built around an interview with a single expert. For this contest, we’re asking students to do the same: Interview an expert of your choice and include at least one quote from that person in your final piece.

Who counts as an expert? That’s up to you to decide — the only rule is that this person cannot be related to you. Choose someone who is knowledgeable enough about the subject that your readers will trust their advice.

Sometimes choosing the expert is easy. For example, to explain how to choose a karaoke song, Ms. Wollan interviewed a world karaoke champion; for how to recommend a book, she spoke to a librarian; and for how to suture a wound, she interviewed a doctor.

But your choice of expert can also be offbeat. For a column on how to breathe, Ms. Wollan interviewed a clarinet player; for one on how to slice a pie, she spoke to a restaurant owner; and for one on how to say goodbye, she interviewed a child-care worker who has bid farewell to many children over her career.

In addition to the guidelines above, here are a few more details:

  • You must be a student ages 13 to 19 in middle school or high school to participate, and all students under 18 must have parent or guardian permission to enter. Please see the F.A.Q. section for additional eligibility details.

  • The work should be fundamentally your own — it should not be plagiarized, written by someone else or generated by artificial intelligence.

  • You may interview any expert on your topic you like, as long as that person is not related to you.

  • Your essay should be original for this contest. That means it should not already have been published at the time of submission, whether in a school newspaper, for another contest or anywhere else.

  • Keep in mind that the work you send in should be appropriate for a Times audience — that is, something that could be published in a family newspaper (so, please, no curse words).

  • Submit only one entry per student. And while many of our contests allow students to work in teams, for this one you must work alone.

  • As part of your submission, you must also submit an “artist’s statement” that describes your process. These statements, which will not be used to choose finalists, help us to design and refine our contests. See the F.A.Q. below to learn more.

  • All entries must be submitted by Feb. 14, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time, using the submission form at the bottom of this post.

Not sure where to start? Check out these resources:

  • The Tip column published hundreds of articles during the seven years it ran. You might scroll through the headlines or click on a few to read in full. A reminder that, if you don’t have a Times subscription, all of the Tip articles linked on this page and in our other resources are free when you access them through our site. (Note to teachers: Some articles may be not be appropriate for your students. Please preview the column before sharing it.)

  • For advice on finding topics and experts, read this piece from Times Insider about how the column is constructed.

  • Our related how-to guide breaks down the Tip formula and walks you through how to choose a topic and an expert, conduct an interview, then put it all together.

  • Our student forum can help students brainstorm topics and experts for their pieces.

  • Finally, here is the rubric we will use to judge this contest.

Below are answers to your questions about writing, judging, the rules and teaching with this contest. Please read these thoroughly and, if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, post your query in the comments or write to us at [email protected].

QUESTIONS ABOUT WRITING

What is a how-to essay?

It’s just what it sounds like — a piece of writing that explains how to do something. It is typically focused on one specific task and written directly to the reader. A how-to is a type of informational writing, which means everything you write should be true and based on facts and evidence. (For this assignment, that evidence is the expert source that you will find and interview yourself.)

By the end of your essay, your reader should understand how to do the task you set out to explain and come away with some practical advice or tools they can implement. But they should also have a wider understanding of the purpose of this skill and how and why they might use it. And remember, beyond being both clear and informative, your piece should be engaging to read.

I’m not sure what to write about. Where should I start?

Our student forum poses a series of questions that can help you brainstorm topic ideas. We hope you’ll not only contribute ideas but also read and respond to the ideas of others.

Is there anything I can’t write about?

You can cover any topic you like, as long as it is appropriate for a family newspaper and you can explain it sufficiently in 400 words or fewer.

Who counts as an “expert” and how do I find one to interview?

Our How To Write a ‘How-To’ Guide has more on this, but keep in mind that your expert doesn’t have to be the world champion of a sport or the national head of an organization to have expertise. This person can be anyone with specialized knowledge of a field or topic. For example, if you were writing a piece on how to start bird-watching, you could interview someone who works at a local park or zoo, someone from a birding group in your town or a bird-watcher you know personally, such as a neighbor or teacher.

But my grandma makes the best apple pies in the world. Why can’t I interview her for my how-to on baking?

One reason for this is that we want to encourage students to widen their circles and get to know new people in their communities.

But a bigger reason is that we want this contest, and all our contests, to help teach news literacy. In real-world journalism, no reporter would be assigned to cover their own family. Journalists must try to be as objective and unbiased as possible, and interviewing your grandmother — or your father, or your cousin — leads to a natural “conflict of interest” since it is hard to be objective about your relatives. For this reason, we also hope you won’t choose your close friends. One goal of this contest is for you to talk to people you don’t know well and learn from them.

The good news, however, is that you can suggest your relatives as possible interview subjects for others in your class, and they are welcome to interview your grandmother!

Do I need a Works Cited page?

Our submission form does not allow for a separate Works Cited page for this contest. Instead, you should give proper credit to your expert source in the piece itself.

Here is an example of how to do so from the Tip article “How to Recommend a Book”:

“Recommending books you love is the hardest thing of all,” says Joyce Saricks, 72, who worked for nearly 30 years as a reference librarian in suburban Chicago.

_________

QUESTIONS ABOUT JUDGING

How will my piece be judged?

Your work will be read by New York Times journalists as well as by Learning Network staff members and educators from around the United States. We will use this rubric to judge entries.

What’s the prize?

Having your work published on The Learning Network.

When will the winners be announced?

About two months after the contest has closed.

My essay wasn’t selected as a winner. Can you tell me why?

We typically receive thousands of entries for our contests, so, unfortunately, our team does not have the capacity to provide feedback on individual student essays.

_________

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE RULES

Why are you asking for an Artist’s Statement about our process? What will you do with it?

All of us who work on The Learning Network are former teachers. One of the many things we miss, now that we work in a newsroom rather than a classroom, is being able to see how students are reacting to our “assignments” in real time — and to offer help, or tweaks, to make those assignments better. We’re asking you to reflect on what you did and why, and what was hard or easy about it, in large part so that we can improve our contests and the curriculum we create to support them. This is especially important for new contests, like this one.

Another reason? We have heard from many teachers that writing these statements is immensely helpful to students. Stepping back from a piece and trying to put into words what you wanted to express, and why and how you made artistic choices to do that, can help you see your piece anew and figure out how to make it stronger. For our staff, they offer important context that help us understand individual students and submissions, and learn more about the conditions under which kids around the world create.

We won’t be using your statements to choose our finalists, or publishing them alongside the winning work. Instead, they will strictly be for our staff to read. If we later decide to post something about student process using these statements, we will ask for your permission before quoting you. In other words, this is fairly informal; just be yourself and be honest in telling us as much as you can about how you worked and why.

Who is eligible to participate in this contest?

This contest is open to students ages 13 to 19 who are in middle school or high school around the world. College students cannot submit an entry. However, high school students (including high school postgraduate students) who are taking one or more college classes can participate. Students attending their first year of a two-year CEGEP in Quebec Province can also participate. In addition, students age 19 or under who have completed high school but are taking a gap year or are otherwise not enrolled in college can participate.

The children and stepchildren of New York Times employees are not eligible to enter this contest. Nor are students who live in the same household as those employees.

Whom can I contact if I have questions about this contest or am having issues submitting my entry?

Leave a comment on this post or write to us at [email protected].

_________

QUESTIONS ABOUT TEACHING WITH THIS CONTEST

I’m a teacher. What resources do you have to help me teach with this contest?

See the Resources for Students and Teachers section above.

Do my students need a New York Times subscription to access these resources?

No.

Students can get free access to Times pieces through The Learning Network, and for this contest our related materials link to well over 50 individual Tip columns.

In addition, all the activities for students on our site, including mentor texts and writing prompts, plus the Times articles they link to, are free. Students can search for articles using the search tool on our home page.

However, if you are interested in learning more about school subscriptions, visit this page.

How do my students prove to me that they entered this contest?

After they press “Submit” on the form below, they will see a “Thank you for your submission.” line appear. They can take a screenshot of this message. Please note: Our system does not currently send confirmation emails.

Please read the following carefully before you submit:

  • Students who are 13 and older in the United States or the United Kingdom, or 16 and older elsewhere in the world, can submit their own entries. Those who are 13 to 15 and live outside the United States or the United Kingdom must have an adult submit on their behalf.

  • All students who are under 18 must provide a parent or guardian’s permission to enter.

  • You will not receive email confirmation of your submission. After you submit, you will see the message “Thank you for your submission.” That means we received your entry. If you need proof of entry for your teacher, please screenshot that message.

  • Teachers, please note, for this contest there is no bulk-submission option.

  • If you have questions about your submission, please write to us at [email protected] and provide the email address you used for submission.

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