The Big Scribble: a new contest gives some UNC Hussman students a reason to keep writing
by Barbara Wiedemann
UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media student Hannah Towey ’21 finishes in the Top Ten, with Elizabeth Moore ’22 and Parth Upadhyaya ’20 placing in earlier rounds
“Hey, student journalists. We're launching a free contest,” wrote Jonathan Eig on Twitter on April 7, 2020, about a new website and Twitter account called The Big Scribble that his nephew helped set up for Eig and his friend, fellow sports writer Jeff Pearlman. “Show us your stuff,” said Eig, the PEN/ESPN award-winning author of “Ali: A Life.” “Connect with professional writers. Win prizes. It's 100% free, 110% fun.”
Confined by the coronavirus to do their reporting and writing from childhood bedrooms and family basements, over 400 hundred quarantined students answered the call and took on the first Big Scribble assignment on April 20. One hundred and sixty students from around the world made it through the first of the competition’s five weekly rounds. Three UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media students were among them: Parth Upadhyaya ’20, Elizabeth Moore ’22 and Hannah Towey ’21.
Along the way to The Big Scribble Twitter Periscope finale on Sunday, May 24, Eig, who is working on a Martin Luther King Jr. biography, and Pearlman, the peripatetic sports book author and former Sports Illustrated writer, tweeted plenty of sound advice. Like a detailed guide to pitching an opinion piece from The Forward’s editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren and opinion editor Atya Ungar-Sargon. Job leads. And goofy videos, including Eig and Pearlman reading from their first-ever bylines along with judges Candace Buckner from The Washington Post and Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader.
David Maraniss from The Post and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Evan F. Moore joined Eig, Pearlman, Buckner and Fader as judges, and winnowed down the first batch of entrants. More importantly, the six judges sent back short feedback to all 409 entrants. A host of equally reputable guest judges joined in to help read through later entries and send editorial commentary.
Winners were announced and new prompts were shared on Sundays, with some tips included (Week Three tip: “Do not write about yourself. Do not use the words I, me, mine. If you’re writing about your mother, treat her like a stranger. We repeat: Do Not Write About Yourself!”). Submissions were due back by Thursday at noon, no exceptions.
Parth Upadhyaya ’20 was a senior sports writer for the student-led The Daily Tar Heel and spring 2020 UNC Media Hub contributor. Media Hub faculty member John Robinson pushed Parth hard — “As hard as I've pushed any student,” Robinson said. “He responded well to every challenge I laid before him. He's an inquisitive reporter and elegant writer. He's going to make some sports publication proud to publish his work.”
Upadhyaya was in Greensboro, North Carolina, in March, reporting on the 2020 ACC men’s basketball tournament until it was cancelled shortly before the tipoff of the quarterfinals. Then Carolina’s spring break was extended by a week to March 22, followed by the decision to transition to remote classes in the face of the pandemic. Suddenly, Upadhyaya was quarantining in Raleigh with his parents and grandmother.
“I was looking for ways to be occupied and stay connected,” said Upadhyaya. “I saw [The Big Scribble] on Twitter,” he remembered. The caliber of the judges got his attention, and the Top Ten prizes — including a letter of recommendation from the judges and one-on-one consultation with one of a long list of esteemed writers — caught his eye.
“Six big names. People you admire, whose work you read,” he said. He was in.
His answer to The Big Scribble’s Week One “top of a profile of someone in your home or someone you know (350 words, max)” prompt was a stretch for him. He wrote an emotionally tough piece about a friend who endured abuse as a child. It made the first cut.
It meant something to hear from Mirin Fadin at Bleacher Report about his first assignment. He was a fan and Twitter follower. Later, when Pearlman tweeted that any first-round drafts seeking in-depth feedback could email him, Upadhyaya jumped. He received a detailed response from the bestselling author of three baseball, three football and one basketball book (who, his agent might add, could have been working on his next book, “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” out in September).
“We got an email saying we were in,” Upadhyaya said, “I think it was sent out by Jeff Pearlman and Jonathan Eig. They mentioned quite a few times: we’re making up the rules as we go along. No formality. No hardcore structure. No partnerships. No money. They just wanted to help.”
Upadhyaya added, “Someone like a Jeff Pearlman being empathetic definitely means a lot to me.”
The young sports fan who transferred to Carolina to be a sports writer heads to a delayed internship at The Baltimore Sun in September.
Elizabeth Moore ’22 of Sanford, North Carolina, attended North Carolina Governor’s School. As a freshman at Carolina last year, she too joined The Daily Tar Heel. Former co-editor-in-chief Marcos Quiroz-Gutierrez ’20 said Moore was a great reporter and key part of the DTH team, writing several important pieces for the investigative team under Charlie McGee ’20.
“More than anything, I’ve really learned from my peers at The Daily Tar Heel,” said Moore, who left campus for her family home in Sanford this spring. ”I started as a freshman, and I’ve learned so much from the upperclassmen on the paper. I hope to emulate them, moving forward.”
In April, she saw The Big Scribble mentioned in the UNC Hussman Career Services weekly newsletter.
“I was looking for some spontaneity and joy back in my life, and it was free to enter,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’”
“I’ve had a lot of great and dedicated professors,” she added about her UNC Hussman experience to date. In particular, she called out journalism professor Ryan Thornburg. “He coached me throughout the spring semester, and he taught me how to pitch to find summer opportunities.”
“Our school is filled with great writers, so what sets students like Elizabeth apart is their curiosity and persistence,” Thornburg responded. ”She doesn't write with broad strokes, but pays attention to details that drive narrative. It's an ability to operate at both ends of what some people call ‘the ladder of abstraction’ — all the details, but also how those details illuminate broad themes beyond the immediate subject of the story."
Moore is a full-time intern with Triangle tech digital news source GrepBeat this summer. She still hopes to head to Argentina to study over the fall and spring semesters. The contestant wrote a Week Two food review of a home-cooked family meal of lentils, squash and sweet potatoes in Sanford, and the dinner table banter that ensued. The review advanced her to Week Three’s prompt: Write a news-feature on the impact of COVID-19 and the quarantine on hair.
Candace Buckner, who covers the NBA’s Washington Wizards for The Post, said of Moore’s food review: “In this second round, the best food reviews have popped from the start, and so did Elizabeth’s. She does a fantastic job showing us (not just telling us) what’s on the plate, what it looks like, what it tastes like and also explains the context in which this dish was prepared. The context and the view around the dinner table with mom and dad are the most interesting things about this review, in my opinion. Food is as much about the people who made or enjoyed it and the experience and circumstances surrounding it. And Elizabeth captures all of this very well.”
“This is the best FREE opportunity I’ve ever had!” Moore said of the feedback she received from both Eig and Buckner, and the exposure and networking opportunities afforded by the competition.
Hannah Towey ’21 — The field was winnowed to ten prize-winning finalists on Sunday, May 17. Rising senior Hannah Towey, a journalism and global studies major from Norwalk, Connecticut, stood among the finalists on the strength of her entry to Week Four’s prompt: Write the first 200 words of an obituary for one of these four living people: Mariah Carey, Mikhail Gorbachev, actor Jonathan Lipnicki or former second baseman and outfielder Bip Roberts. She chose Lipnicki, and interviewed him for her entry, catching his attention with a DM on Instagram.
“I have to write your obit,” she wrote. ”I know you’re alive. I thought you might want some input.”
Towey was encouraged to enter The Big Scribble by UNC Hussman faculty member Kate Sheppard.
“I pay close attention to Kate’s emails,” said Towey. “The fact that Kate liked it intrigued me. And the way they pitched [The Big Scribble] made it sound exciting, which is hard to do about a writing competition.”
“It was something to keep me writing every week,” she added.
Towey is a voracious reader and ambitious writer with a songwriter mother, two journalist cousins and an aunt who spent 22 years at the creative helm of Martha Stewart Living. Towey was a volunteer brand ambassador for The Skimm and has interned at Carolina alumni-founded mobile media company Relevnt and for Hatchette Book Group. She wrote for the Durham VOICE as a sophomore. She decided to get a minor in creative writing at the encouragement of author Stephanie Elizondo Griest, faculty member in Carolina’s English and comparative literature department.
“Hannah Towey is one of the most luminous minds I have encountered in a decade of teaching,” Griest said. ”Her writing is both eloquent and elegant, and deeply committed to humanity.”
Towey was named the #1 seed moving into the final round. Her college friend MaryKate Stone, whom Towey joined on the Outer Banks of North Carolina after nine weeks of quarantining at home with family on Cape Cod, captured Towey on video when she almost fell off a dock in Kitty Hawk shouting for joy as she heard the news.
“That video of Hannah. I’m not joking. I’ve watched it 30 times,” said Big Scribble cofounder Pearlman. ”It’s such a joyful moment.”
Towey’s first entry introduced the reader to her recently-widowed grandmother on Cape Cod. Another student writer who had made the first cut, Menachem Weber from Israel, reached out afterwards. He wrote to let her know that,
“…Ever since the week one Zoom call when the judges read your work out loud, I've kinda viewed you as the gold standard in this competition. Like, I kept thinking it was cool that I was competing with the Hannah Toweys of the world. And I think we both wrote about our recently deceased grandfathers that week and used the same term of endearment for them, so I guess that might be why your name stuck in my mind. Not sure if it helps you in any way, but I figured you should know that you have a fan in the Middle East. And if you're ever in need of an amateur journalist from Israel, definitely let me know. Hope you're putting the finishing touches on an awesome op-ed right now, and congrats on being the number one seed!”
The winner was announced live on Twitter Periscope at @_BigScribble on Sunday, May 24. Earlier that week, Pearlman said of Towey: “She may be the best package: Good writer. Good reporter. On point. She’s a front-runner.”
Towey, watching live from Kitty Hawk, did not make the Top Three. But she learned she was Eig’s mom’s favorite writer. And Pearlman deemed her “Our most excited and enthusiastic participant. She has brought a lot of zest and joy to this contest.”
Pearlman and Eig’s volunteer adventure has gained so many supporters that they can promise one-on-one consultations with one of a host of big name writers to something like 30 students in the competition. Towey hopes to be connected with Diego Ribadeneira or Richard Sandomir, assistant metro editor and obituaries writer respectively at The New York Times, where she’ll be interning remotely this summer.
“I love all the judge's writing and would be humbled to be mentored by any of them,” she said. “Though David Maraniss aligns most with my career goals.”
A DIY writing competition with legs?
Eig and Pearlman share a literary agent and a sense of urgency to help students impacted by the havoc wreaked on their dreams by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I love journalism. I hate what’s happening,” said Pearlman. “So this weird idea popped into my head about putting together a contest with prizes where students could consult with different writers. I mentioned it to Eig, and he was into it.”
The two literary heavy hitters worked mostly by text to brainstorm names (Eig gets credit for “The Big Scribble”) and flesh out the concept. Much of the competition has unfolded with a DIY flare that hints at the fact that the founders, six judges and slew of guest judges they’ve welcomed to the fold were all making it up as they went along.
“It’s been really organic,” Pearlman said with a laugh.
Towey has already reached out to the contest's 409 participants, with 53 takers to date joining a GroupMe account she set up to foster future contact.
The cofounders are almost certain the competition will become an annual event.
“I hope so,“ said UNC Hussman’s Upadhyaya, who found the competition a great resource to keep students sharp during the summer lull between school and internships.
Writers like Moore, Towey and Upadhyaya who’ve followed The Big Scribble’s Twitter feed from its inception have received a semester’s-worth of valuable tips on what makes a great writer.
Chuck Stone was a WWII Tuskegee Airman. Wesleyan’s 1948 student commencement speaker. A department store executive. He earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Chicago, studied law and traveled the world as an overseas representative for CARE — all before pivoting to journalism at age 34. His influence as a writer and editor in New York, Washington and Chicago grew through the 1960s and led to a nearly two-decade stint as a trailblazing columnist and editor for the Philadelphia Daily News. He’d been one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in 1975.
University of Delaware freshman Jeff Pearlman had no idea. But he knew immediately that there was something to the elegant man who was humming at the front of his intro to journalism class in 1990.
“Bow tie. Flat top. I was a kid from New York, I didn’t know who he was,” said Pearlman.
“He was singing this song. That was our first lesson. It went ‘Walk Right In,’” Pearlman remembered (possibly this ragtime blues song by Gus Cannon). “His message I think was — ‘Don’t get too complicated. Don’t over-fancy it. Walk into the story; let it be greasy. Introduce readers to what you’re talking about.’”
Stone left Delaware a year later to become the Walter Spearman Professor at what is now UNC Hussman, where he taught from 1991 through 2005. Carolina’s beloved and revered Professor Charles “Chuck” Sumner Stone Jr. died at age 89 in Chapel Hill in 2014.
Much like Stone, his erstwhile student, Jeff Pearlman, had this final word of advice to student writers: “Don’t go out of your way to try and dazzle. Don’t over-write without the reporting behind it to back it up. I used to do that all the time at that age. Don’t do it.”
UNC Hussman writer Towey, who is actually quite a razzle-dazzler with the journalism chops to back it up, gets the last word. From her video submission to The Big Scribble question on how to save journalism:
“I think that’s a question that journalism students think of every day,” Towey said. She added, “A good story doesn’t necessarily mean Pulitzer-winning, though that would be nice. What a good story to me really means is a story that reflects the diversity of experience in America. There are so many people out there who don’t see themselves in the news. And journalism fails when we fail to reflect that diversity.”