By Elizabeth Spann Craig
Judging a writing contest can be a real treat. You have the opportunity to read excellent emerging or established writers, sometimes in a genre that’s different from what you usually write or read. Plus, reading other writers’ work can help inform and improve your own writing.
Here are six questions I like to ask as I read contest entries:
1. Did the story comply with the theme and contest guidelines? This is sort of like following directions for school assignments—it’s key. With some stories there’s more adherence to the theme than others and it can make a difference when judging. It’s tricky working within the confines of a theme and guidelines—entries that do, and do it well, get extra points.
2. Does the story hook me right away? This is crucial for books, but especially for short stories. There’s no time in a short story to load up with backstory and entries that do will be at a disadvantage.
3. Is there obvious conflict early in the story? This goes hand-in-hand with the previous question and is vital for story pacing and keeping the reader (or the contest judge) engaged.
4. Does the character have a clear goal? Is he or she developed as much as possible within the limits of the story’s length? The protagonist’s goal is the whole point of the story . . . it’s why the story exists. The protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to obtain his goal but there does need to be one stated. I don’t expect a ton of character development within the parameters of a short story, but I do expect enough to feel a connection (good or bad) to the main character and to keep the other characters distinct from each other.
5. Is the story clear and focused?
Here are two ways I like to keep organized when judging:
1. Make notes in the margins. When you’re reading lots of entries, it helps to make notes in the margins with Track Changes or on paper if you’re working off printed sheets. The notes can help remind you of excellent sections of a story and parts that didn’t work as well. You can even tally up the totals to come up with a rating as you work through the entries.
2. Re-read my top picks. Sometimes there’s not immediately a clear favorite for me among the entries but several that I especially enjoyed. That’s when I re-read my top picks. Reading the best stories back-to-back can help clarify which is superior to the others.
Have you judged writing contests? What tips can you add?
Elizabeth is the bestselling cozy mystery author of the Southern Quilting mysteries, the Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries, the Village Library Mysteries, and Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin Random House, Midnight Ink, and independently. Follow her on Twitter where she shares writing links @elizabethscraig or at her blog where she offers tips for writers. She lives in Matthews, North Carolina with her husband and is the mother of two.