I’m Totally Judging You

judge1A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to help judge a writing competition. I’d never judged at this level before, although I had competed in several judged competitions, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the process.

I won’t claim that I learned anything earth shattering, but I wanted to a post a few tips I would give writers submitting to competitions in general. Most of this stuff you’ve probably heard a dozen times, but they came up often enough that once more probably won’t hurt, right? Right.

So without further ado, here are my six tips for entering writing competitions.

Use a spell checker. Seriously. Few things are as distracting to me as a reader than an abundance of typos, and they are so easy to guard against these days. Most writing programs will tell you as you’re writing if your words are misspelled, and often even if they’re being misused. (Some even offer style suggestions! Crazy!) So just take a few moments before submitting a story and make sure yuor words is’nt wrong.

Follow submission guidelines/ competition rules. Are you tired yet of being told to follow the rules? I always am! And yet I was shocked at how many of the submissions I reviewed weren’t following guidelines. One wasn’t even the right genre for the competition! When submitting, please make sure you are submitting the right story to the right place and in the right way. Please don’t be That Guy that makes people like me have to keep telling decent internet folk to just follow the rules.

Make sure your story is a story. Does your story have an arc? Does it have conflict? Does it have characters? (I’m not even kidding.) If it’s missing any of these things, squint at it a little harder before sending it in. Even a very skillfully written series of events won’t go far if it’s just that- a series of events. Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably with some kind of growth in between. Make sure it’s a story.

The first few paragraphs are key. Make sure that you draw your readers in immediately. When judging, I read through and rated submissions in batches. While I took care not to work while I was totally glazed over, it’s hard to get into a story that starts off in the wrong place, or even too slowly. Short stories have a limited word count so be certain you’re making the most of your space.

Sensory details really sell a setting. Again, limited word count. But that’s why you must make sure that you set the scene quickly and completely. Small, specific sensory details can ground a reader in a time or place with few words and make a huge difference in the reader’s immersion level. Of all the stories I judged, each one described what conversations were heard and what people/things/events were seen and what emotions were felt. Fewer talked about the colors of flowers or the city sounds of cars and construction. A couple talked about how the environment actually felt. Only one mentioned smells and tastes.

Take heart- There are a lot of good writers out there. Whether or not you win, you’re probably one of them! Even if you don’t place the first time, or the first ten times, don’t sweat it. Any writing competition is going to draw in writers of all levels and, while judges try to be objective in their criteria, there is some personal taste going into the matter, too. If your story doesn’t get picked, don’t quit. Polish the story a little more and find another place to submit it to. Never surrender!

Happy writing!