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Through Judge-Coloured Spectacles: How to Win a Writing Contest
by Sue Emms

Return to Tips to Winning Writing Contests · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

As one who enters a lot of writing competitions, I've often wondered how anyone could judge between the wide variety of stories entered. Mainstream, sci-fi, humour, horror, romance, "popular" vs. "literary"; adult vs. children's, the short-short to the longer forms -- how could anyone judge between all those different types?

Recently, I found out. I was asked to judge a competition, said yes, and a few days later received a box of nearly 300 hundred stories. I opened it as soon as the courier turned his back, and sat down for a few days of great reading.

At least, that was what I expected. What I got was a revelation as to why so many writers get rejection slip after rejection slip, and why their names don't appear in competition short lists and anthologies.

I had a game plan. I wanted good opening lines, strong characters that read like real people, dialogue that rang true. I would look for well-crafted, original stories, for the 'x' factor that captures the reader and causes the story to linger in the memory. I thought that perhaps half the stories would qualify.

Only 26 did.

You're shocked? So was I. Here are the main reasons many stories didn't succeed:

Lack of Writing Ability. A good 20% of the stories were missing the basic skills of spelling, grammar, sentence construction, story structure, tense, etc. You don't need a degree in English to write well, but you do need an understanding of the basics. If you feel you are weak in this area, take time to learn. If your prose is improved, you will have a greater chance of success.

Lack of Originality. If you get a blinding flash of an idea, don't use it. I'm serious: If it came to you that easily, there's a good chance it has come to dozens of other writers as well. Here are two examples of overworked story lines:

  • An older, female family member has a secret that, inevitably, turns out to be that she had a baby out of wedlock years before.

  • A child is doing something (down by the water, usually) and grandfather comes along for a chat, dispensing a few words of wisdom before saying he has to go. The child goes back to the house to find that grandfather died an hour before the visit.

While I'm on the subject, avoid the use of Grandma's diary or the bundle of love letters in the attic as a plot device. Don't settle for tired, overused story lines.

Likewise, don't settle for tired, overused phrases: "The burly policeman," "the bored housewife." Be fresh, innovative, and original in your phraseology. (Don't get too outrageous, however; that's just as bad.)

Telling, Not Showing. This was a major weakness in the stories I read. Telling a story results in flat, lifeless prose that bores readers and can lead to a judgmental, lecturing writing style. Don't say the monster was scary, describe how "drool dripped over its scaly lips" and let the readers make up their own minds. Draw readers in by showing events as they unfold and characters as they develop.

Poor Characterisation. This let down many stories that otherwise had good potential. Children talked like adults, modern teenagers spoke as if they'd stepped out of the 20's. Men sounded like women (when they weren't supposed to). Actions and words contradicted descriptions -- for example, writing "He was a mild-mannered man" followed by a passage in which the character throws a tantrum and smacks his wife. You might protest and say that the point of the story is that he acted out of character, and there is a place for that. I'm not talking about deliberate writing; I'm talking about the muddled kind, where the author obviously hasn't planned the character properly.

Overuse of Adverbs and Adjectives. As an "accent," these have a place in writing, but when overused, they weaken your prose. For example:

John sat at the table and tapped his foot steadily.
"Do you have to," asked Jane irritably.
"Have to what?" he asked nastily, and deliberately spilled sugar on the table. He looked at her innocently. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Jane thought, this marriage is what's wrong, and flounced angrily out of the kitchen.

If you've written a word that ends in -ly, look hard to see if you need it. Likewise, watch any tendency to write like this:

The gleaming water flowed between shaggy banks, reflecting cute ducklings and green willows.

Long-winded Descriptive Passages. In a short story, the reader almost never needs to know how green the hills are, or how blue the sky, or how restless the sea, unless the location is essential to the plot. You'd be surprised at how often exact details don't matter if you've given the "essence" of the place.

Stories that Weren't. No matter how subtle or obscure a story may be, it should have a beginning, middle and end. It should also have a theme, which doesn't have to be overtly stated, but may run through the prose in an unspoken motif. Essays, anecdotes, lectures or personal reminiscences are not short stories. Likewise, writing that is nothing more than a soapbox for personal beliefs is not a story. I read several pieces that lectured on the need to be kind to one another, that urged "young people" to respect older folk, and so on. By all means, write about these issues if they concern you, but decide if you're writing a short story or an essay.

General Inconsistencies. By this I mean lifestyle values, clothing styles, social standards, manners of speech and so on that were not in harmony with the setting. For instance, in Western culture today, children almost never call their grandparents "Grandmother" and "Grandfather." Terms like Granddad, Poppa, Nanna, Ning, and Gran are far more likely to be used. And don't discount the large number of kids who come from split families and have a confusing number of grandparents: They're likely to use given names. Many good stories were spoiled by a disparity between the stated generation and the generation revealed by the prose.

Poor Presentation. Stories arrived on coloured paper, handwritten, single-spaced and in fancy fonts. They had borders, illustrations, and dedications to loved ones. Did those writers think this would make their story stand out: It did -- it marked them as amateurs.

It's also rarely necessary to put footnotes in your work. For the average fiction, footnotes to clarify points to thick judges or dimwitted readers don't go down very well. Give the judge a little credit.

Some manuscripts had so many typos and corrections that they looked like a schoolchild's effort. Others were worn and torn; without doubt they'd been around the block a few times. Some were full of bold accents and italics, which do not add to your prose; they weaken it.

Pity the poor judge who has to read 30,000 smudged words on brownish paper. You can bet a clean, crisp, professionally presented manuscript that shines amongst the dross gets a good, close look. Another painful truth: Any busy editor would toss out such manuscripts without even reading them. Don't waste your time, energy and money sending out work in such formats. If you're not sure what format to use, write and ask the editor for submission guidelines (include a SASE).

At one end of the scale, a good short story can offer a few minutes of relaxation and escape. At the other, it can make a reader laugh, think or cry. It can entertain, illuminate, move or stir someone, change the reader's perception of an event or person or feeling -- in short, enhance our understanding of the world.

And that is exactly what the judges are looking for!

Find Out More...

A Beginner's Guide to Writing Competitions - Dawn Copeman

Choosing a Writing Contest - Tammy Mackenzie

Contesting: Why and How - Kathryn Lay

Step Into the Winner's Circle! - Moira Allen

Writing to Win - Moira Allen

Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, by Moira Allen

Helpful Sites:

Writer Beware
SFWA's page for illegitimate contests and vanity anthologies
Copyright © 2000 Sue Emms
This article originally appeared on Inkspot.

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Sue Emms is a New Zealand author of short stories, poems and articles. She has been writing seriously for about ten years, and has work published in USA, England, NZ, and online. Her first novel, Parrot Parfait, was published in 2003 to great success. Her second book, Come Yesterday, was published in November 2004. This article was based on her experiences judging the Auswrite Short Story Competition.


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