Winning Secrets from a Writing Contest Judge

May 28, 2008 at 3:39 pm (Writing) ()

For any of you who have entered writing contests, whether as part of a conference or separately, you know it can be just one more “black hole” in this business where we often fail to win the prize, but never know why. 

The lack of constructive feedback is arguably the most maddening aspect of publishing. Too often we end up guessing what we did wrong and “throwing the baby out with the bath water” in our attempts to please the mysterious and silent gods.  

If you’re lucky, your contest judge will take the time to make notes in the margins of your submission or write up a summary of observations that can help you improve your skills. As an author, I’ve learned a lot from just a few meaningful comments. As a contest judge, I’ve even had exemplary writers thank me for my feedback because it confirmed the authors’ own instincts and, in some cases, suggested other publishing opportunities they might pursue.

In judging, I have observed certain patterns and have identified three distinct author categories, based on their submissions:

Freshmen: Those who have something to say but have not studied the craft or business of writing to any extent.

Freshmen make a lot of basic mechanical errors: wrong fonts/sizes, margins, indentations and text spacing; missing or inappropriate headers, failure to drop down several spaces before starting each chapter, etc.

It is next to impossible for a freshman to win a contest among more accomplished or experienced writers. (You HAVE to master the basics if you want to play.)

Juniors: Those who have made a serious effort to learn about the craft and who have developed a great many skills.

Juniors have learned to format a manuscript, craft a compelling article or story with well defined characters, and refine their presentation to appeal to readers. If they are not among the contest winners, it is because their submissions were not quite as polished as others’ were.

They typically make a few spelling or punctuation errors, breaking rules the average writer may not even be aware of, such as:

  • The period or comma goes inside end-quotation marks, (e.g., James said, “I prefer mine shaken, not stirred.”)
  • The long dash (or “em-dash” written as two hyphens) is used to set off what is essentially a parenthetical phrase. But where the parentheses tend to downplay the importance of the information between its marks, the em-dash actually increases the reader’s attention to the information. Technically, the em-dash should not be separated from the words before and after it. However, graphic designers and typographers often will use an em-dash or the shorter en-dash (a little longer than a regular hyphen) with a space before and after it. Whichever style you choose, be consistent.
  • Verb tense should be consistent. Many writers stumble on tenses when characters in the present must refer to events that occurred in the past.

In terms of the stories they are conveying, juniors may also fail to:

  • Stay in only one character’s point of view for the entire scene.
  • Make the reader feel the experience of the POV character, as if living inside his/her skin.
  • Provide a unifying theme that lets the reader know up-front what the goal is and why it matters. Then pay off and wrap up that theme at the end (especially if the submission is a self-contained work, such as an article or short story).
  • In non-fiction as well as fiction, put tension, conflict or hooks of some kind on every page to keep the reader wondering what’s next, what’s going to happen.
  • Set the reader’s expectations with a memorable opening. And craft a memorable ending for your submission (even if it is only an excerpt from a larger work).

Valedictorian Seniors: Those whose work is highly accomplished in every way and who may only need to tweak their material to appeal to specific audiences/markets.

This is where judging becomes painful. When you hear a judge say he/she had a hard time deciding on a winner, this may actually be the truth. V-seniors offer submissions that are not only competent but entertaining/engaging and/or highly beneficial to the readers.

As a judge, you hope that, in the end, one submission will resonate more, or will have some special magic that sets it apart from the other, equally “perfect” pieces. But what do you do when three or four equally competent submissions all possess their own kind of magic? What do you do when each of the four is absolutely perfect for its own class, but you can award only one first prize?

At this point, the judge may end up drawing straws or selecting the winner based on some arbitrary virtue. 

What you can learn from this is that your skills may be enough to get your submission into the top three to five. But beyond presenting a perfectly crafted piece, it becomes a matter of magic, resonance and, sometimes, just plain luck.

Remember, too, that a somewhat flawed piece with incredible magic can trump even several “perfect” pieces. But it’s awfully hard to do. Judges feel compelled to reward authors who have perfected their craft. And in most cases, the submissions that are closest to being mechanically and structurally perfect will rise to the top. It’s best not to depend on magic alone.

However, if you intend to deliver one of those technically perfect submissions and want to do everything possible to rise above them all, then think about how you can make your submission (a) more memorable to the judge and (b) more appealing to a wide range of readers.

Both elements are important. I have ranked an exceptional piece one step below another–even though it was truly memorable, made me laugh and at the same time touched me–simply because its subject addressed a relatively small audience, of which I happened to be a member. The first submission appealed to me, personally, far more than the winning submission, but the winner addressed a much broader audience with comparable skill.

You may prefer to write about a more personal subject, even if it means you may lose out to a submission with broader appeal. But if you have choices and are determined to do everything possible to win the contest, you may want to pick a subject that is likely to appeal to a wide range of readers including the judges.

CAVEAT: These blog entries are primarily about sharing ideas and information on a regular basis. They may contain errors in formatting, grammar or spelling.

1 Comment

  1. What’s New in Publishing Blogs This Week « Purple Hearts said,

    […] to find out WINNING SECRETS FROM A WRITING CONTEST JUDGE? Click HERE for advice as posted on The Eldritch […]

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