Enter the Smart Alex creative writing competition for secondary school students

Me whakauru mai koe ki te whakataetae tuhituhi o Smart Alex mō ngā ākonga kura tuarua gives the te reo Māori version of this blog post.

Would your secondary students like to take part in an exciting writing competition and win great cash prizes?

The Friends of the Turnbull Library (FoTL) have launched the Smart Alex creative writing competition for all secondary school students in New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Entry is free and comes with over $2,000 in prize money. The aim is to celebrate the centenary of Alexander Turnbull and his remarkable legacy.

Poster for the Smart Alex competition

Who was Alex and why was he smart?

Over 100 years ago in Aotearoa New Zealand, a smart hipster-looking gentleman called Alexander Turnbull — known to his family as Alex — loved collecting stuff: art, artefacts, clothes, coins, maps, photographs, and books — especially books about New Zealand and the Pacific. In fact, he bought his first book at 17 and didn’t stop. He wasn't a hoarder, he was a book-hunter, and his passion for collecting books about us turned into something quite extraordinary.

When he died, Alexander Turnbull gifted his collection (including 55,000 books!) to New Zealand. That gift became the basis for New Zealand's largest documentary heritage library, the Alexander Turnbull Library (ATL). It was seen as, “the most generous bequest to the people of New Zealand ever made by a New Zealander” (New Zealand Times, July 1918).

Thanks to Alex’s gift 100 years ago, New Zealanders today are more informed about their heritage.

The competition

Students are required to produce a piece of outstanding creative writing where they personally respond to, or interpret, an item in the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Submissions can be prose, poetry, or a combination of text and illustrations such as a cartoon strip or graphic story.

Creative writing prompts

To help the writing process, we've developed a set of evocative items from the Turnbull collections. We want this tantalising selection to bring student creativity and imagination to life.

Alternatively, you can search online to discover something in the collections that inspires you.

For further information about Alexander Turnbull and his collection, see his biography in:

Entry details

The competition is open to anyone who is currently attending a secondary school in New Zealand or in the Pacific Islands. It also includes secondary home-educated students.

  • For Years 9–10, the word limit is 250 words, or up to 3 A4 pages if including illustrations. The winner will receive $500, the runner-up $200. The winner’s school library also receives a $150 book token.
  • For Years 11–13, the word limit is 500 words, or up to 6 A4 pages if including illustrations. The winner receives $1000, the runner-up $300. The winner’s school library also receives a $150 book token.

Entries must be received no later than 5 pm on 22 July 2018.

Winners and highly commended entries will be announced on Friday 14 September 2018 (which is also the 150-year anniversary of Alexander Turnbull's birth).

All entries must be attached (as a pdf or Word attachment) to the official entry form, which can be found on the Friends of the Turnbull Library website (where you can also find more details about the competition).

Start creating

Creative writing is about establishing a strong starting point then bringing the imagination to life. To do this, personal memories, emotions, images, even music are great ways to initially ignite the creative storytelling process.

Frank McCourt's reflections and advice on 'teaching' creative writing to high school students over 15 years is just as pertinent now as it was when first written in 2002.

Pull the plug, cut off the juice, let the batteries die. Just sit there and dream. And when in doubt, tell a story.

Other ways to inspire your students

Here are some other ways teachers and authors have tackled and inspired the creative writing process within their students.

Creative writing in the classroom: Five top tips for teachers — insightful tips here from English teacher Alan Gillespie.

Drawing words & writing pictures — offers comprehensive activities, tutorials, advice, and lesson plans about learning to make, illustrate, and write comics.

How to win a creative writing competition — top tips — author Joe Craig's tips for young writers on how to avoid common creative writing pitfalls and stand out from the crowd.

See Think Wonder — a quick routine to engage and connect students with anything interesting.

Tips for illustrating your story (pdf, 294 KB) — these illustrative tips are from New Zealand children’s book author and editor Don Long.

Top tips for writing your story (pdf, 290 KB)— these writing tips are from New Zealand children’s book author and editor Don Long.

20 top tips to make creative writing class great — great creative writing advice, from letting students create their own prompts to teaching them how to write for social media.

Writing prompts — teacher Luke shares his daily writing prompts he uses in class. Includes a random prompt button.

Reading is one of the best ways to learn how to write

First, choose stories from authors you enjoy, then re-read them focusing on how the writer developed characters, and created atmosphere and emotion. Booktrust has a range of tips for teenage writers along with lists of books for all ages.

We can't wait to read your students' stories

While there's no end to advice on creative writing, the Smart Alex competition will be looking for stories that show wonder, curiosity, insight, humour, courage, and, of course, creative flair.

We can't wait to see how young minds will create new and stimulating ways of looking at our past, present, and future using the Turnbull collections!

By Dylan Owen

Dylan is an Online Content Services and Products Developer (Curriculum) with National Library's Services to Schools.

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Francesca Drewell March 13th at 11:57AM

I would love to participate in this. My love for writing stories is at the same level for my love for creating art. Which in-fact is maximum level. I've never done this type of thing before, so it would be awesome to try something new.

Dylan March 14th at 5:03PM

Hi Francesca
You certainly can enter (and it’s free) if you are a Y9–Y13 student and attend a New Zealand or Pacific Island secondary school (or are home educated). You’ll find all the competition details are in the blog post.
Good luck!

Olivia Beck May 8th at 9:42AM

Our secondary school is from Yr 7 - Yr 13, is there any chance our Yr 7 and Year 8 Students could enter?
We are a small school in Taupo and this would be a great opportunity for our students I will be definitely putting some of our Year 9 students in.

Dylan May 9th at 11:58AM

Hi Olivia
Thanks for your interest and great to hear some of your Y 9 students will be entering the competition! Unfortunately only secondary school students are eligible to enter the Smart Alex competition this year. However the competition may be extended to include primary schools (up to Y 8) in 2019. We are also more than happy for — and encourage — your Y 7-8 students to use the images in the Smart Alex topic and other creative writing prompts mentioned above to inspire their creative writing.

Cynthia Gonzalez May 28th at 1:13PM

I have one of my year 10 students who is worried about exceeding the word limit of 250 words. Would it be acceptable to be 10% above?

Dylan May 29th at 12:35PM

Hi Cynthia
The Smart Alex writing competition word limit is set at 250 words for Year 9 -10 students and adhering to this limit is essential for any submission to be considered by the judging panel. However there is no reason why your student cannot submit multiple competition entries (on the same topic) should they wish too.
Thanks for your interest and we look forward to receiving your student’s competition entry.

Leticia Mason July 22nd at 10:26AM

I accidentally sent in my copy and then realised it had more than 500 words. I then removed some of the words and it is now 500 words, will my new copy that I sent in still be read?

Dylan July 26th at 9:45AM

Hi Leticia
Yes your new copy will be read.
Good luck!

Carrie Suszko March 13th at 9:01AM

Hi there,
I teach Year 8 at a secondary school and some of my students would like to enter into this. I see there was a comment previously about allowing Year 7 and 8 students who attend high schools to enter this competition in 2019 - has a decision been made about this?
Many thanks