May 17, 2016

Three high school seniors recently got something a lot of professional journalists will never get — a good edit from an editor at The Atlantic.

On Tuesday, The Atlantic and College Board announced the winner and finalists of their second annual writing prize. This year’s essay contest asked high school seniors to interpret a work of art. The contest got more than 2,000 entries focusing on more than 700 works of art from students in 43 different countries. Finalists then got to work one-on-one with editors at The Atlantic on revisions.

“I think the opportunity to work with The Atlantic was very meaningful, and part of the goal of the contest was to underscore the importance of writing,” said Zach Goldberg, senior director, media relations with College Board. “We think that’s among the most important skills that they can develop in their lives.”

Poynter spoke with the contest’s winner (who will receive $5,000 as well as publication online and in print in The Atlantic’s September issue) and two finalists (who won $2,500 each) about what they learned from the process of working with professional editors. Here are the three lessons they shared.

1. Great editors respect the writer’s voice.

Thanh Nguyen, from Vietnam, wrote his winning essay about Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” For the revision process, he worked with The Atlantic’s Scott Stossel. Nguyen, who will attend Duke University in the fall, said watching Stossel work showed him how editors can respect what the writer has to say.

“Although Scott provided very constructive and very enlightening feedback I had not seen before, he also said that he wanted me to preserve what I had from the beginning.”

2. Remember the audience.

Alejandra Canales, from Texas, wrote her essay on Frida Kahlo’s “Autorretrato en la Frontera entre México y los Estados Unidos.” Before the contest, Canales mostly wrote papers for herself. But in revising her essay with The Atlantic’s Sarah Yager, Canales learned how to consider her audience, too. How much background knowledge would they have? How much should she leave open to their own interpretations?

“I had never really considered those things before,” said Canales, who plans to study at Yale University in the fall.

3. Revise, revise, revise.

Rahul Malayappan, from Connecticut, wrote about M.C. Escher’s “Waterfall,” for the contest. Malayappan, who will attend the University of California, Berkeley in the fall, worked with The Atlantic’s Ann Hulbert on his essay. She worked at both the sentence level and the larger thematic level with his essay, tying ideas in his piece back to his central theme.

Previously, Malayappan had really only revised with an eye on grammar.

“It opened my eyes to how refined the writing process and the revision process has to be,” he said.

Working with Hulbert helped his piece flow better, and it made his ideas more complex and coherent.

“I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of writing in technical fields but, when you’re communicating to the public, it definitely helps,” he said.

In college, Malayappan plans to study physics, computer science and maybe math. Nguyen is undecided at this point, but is interested in studying social sciences and humanities. Canales is undecided, too, but she’s interested in ethnic studies, gender studies and journalism.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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