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The past winners of the Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize for writers under the age of 35, now in its seventh year, are an eclectic bunch. Their pieces offer imaginative perspectives on stories both personal and political, from an investigation into the cut-throat eiderdown business, to the story of a marriage breaking down in New York City. Of course, there’s no formula for writing a winning entry. But here are a few key points to keep in mind.
Pick your topic carefully
Don’t restrict yourself. Look at the subjects we cover in the FT, and the kind of books published by The Bodley Head, and you’ll see that there’s no need to confine your writing to purely financial subjects. Here are a few examples of the range of topics that we’ve covered in recent months:
Food writer Bee Wilson looked at our changing eating habits — and asked whether we’re really too busy to eat well.
Tom Faber wrote about the collectors who are battling to preserve the heritage of Arab music.
John Lloyd wrote about growing up as the son of a small shopkeeper — and what we lose when shops close down.
Laura Noonan wrote about her passion for running — and why it’s a form of exercise that seems to captivate the finance industry.
Keep it fresh
That means you shouldn’t pull something out of a drawer that you’ve had hanging around for years — and you definitely shouldn’t recycle an essay you’ve just written for a university class. The best essays have a sense of freshness and immediacy, and you can always tell if a piece is stale.
Our winner will be published in FT Weekend, so think about the conventions of newspapers. We don’t publish footnotes, nor do we print abstracts or bibliographies. If you include those, you’ll fall at the first hurdle.
Watch the word count
If you find you’re about to submit a 200-word poem — as several entrants did last year — the chances are you’re not on the right track. Submissions also must not be longer than 3,500 words. However, don’t worry if you want to play with form — after all, Ben Okri’s masterful 1,500-word poem written in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, was one of the most memorable pieces we’ve run in FT Weekend in recent years.
Many of the best essays have big themes woven into them, but we’re not expecting you to give the last word on artificial intelligence or Africa’s economies. Instead, try to come to the subject from an angle, finding your own route in.
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