by Patti Shene
A few emails have come through my inbox lately announcing the opening of writers’ contests. I’ve entered some over the years and served as a judge for several.
I want to share some “in it to win it” tips from the perspective of a contest judge. What do we look for? Why do scores vary so widely between judges? What lessons are there to be learned from entering a contest? Which contest should I enter?
What do judges look for?
I can’t speak for other judges and their methods, but I will share what I expect to find when I evaluate a contest entry.
First, I give the entry a rapid read. This is where I make comments within the body of the work on blatant errors, such as obvious incorrect grammar, spelling, or word usage.
Example: King Hawthorne rained over the land of Lavindale with an iron fist.
Unless you intend for King Hawthorne to possess the power of a god who can produce rain, the word you want is reigned.
Example: “I don’t suppose you would go with me.” She said.
There should be a comma after me, not a period.
While revealing the writer’s knowledge of basic writing skills, his first read also gives me an idea of what the story is about, the writer’s voice, and her grasp of basic story elements, such as point of view and characterization.
The second read is when I evaluate content: the initial hook, the flow of the story, motivation of characters, balance of dialogue versus narrative, and use of descriptive detail. These factors weigh heavily when scoring.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when editng your work before entering it in a contest:
What have I revealed in my first line that compels the reader to want to know more about the character or situation I have introduced?
Suggestion: Create a situation that conveys a sense of urgency or a character forced to make a major decision.
Have I defined my characters in such a manner that readers can identify with them on some level?
Suggestion: This does not necessarily refer to physical description. Give the reader insight into your character’s goals, motivation, and response to his situation.
Does the story move forward without multiple references to the character’s past?
Suggestion: Stay in the moment. Do not jerk the reader out of the story with paragraphs of backstory.
Suggestion: Avoid “talking heads.” Show your characters’ body language to reveal emotional responses to verbal interactions. Use beats verses tags to identify the speaker.
Do I make use of all five senses to enhance my scenes?
Suggestion: Don’t tell the reader your character walked out of an air conditioned building into sweltering heat. Show him squinting against the brilliance of the sun because he misplaced his sunglasses. Describe the feel of the trickle of sweat down his back in the 100+ degree temperature.
Have I used descriptive action verbs?
Suggestion: Specify your action verbs. A character who walks into a meeting late draws less attention than a character who stomps, marches, bursts, flounces, or saunters through the door.
These are just a few of the basic elements that will make or break your story when you place it in competition with the work of other writers.
Why do scores vary so widely between judges?
One of the most enjoyable social activities I engage in is our local monthly book club. Even though we all read the same book, we come away with a different perspective on the story, the characters, and the author’s motivation for writing it.
Just like readers, every judge brings to the table their own thoughts and biases about what is good writing and what isn’t. Keep in mind that most judges do have some level of experience to back up th
eir observations about your writing. If the same issue is brought to your attention by more than one judge, recognize it as a weakness that needs to be improved upon and take steps to do so.
On the other hand, you know your story. If you disagree with one judge’s suggestion of recommended changes, seek input from other writers.
What do I gain from entering a contest?
Self-esteem is #1. You did it! You consider yourself a writer and you have the confidence to put your “baby” out there in front of sometimes very critical eyes.
You will receive valuable input from people in the industry who have seen hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories.
You must exercise the discipline required to meet a deadline.
You learn to follow directions. This may sound silly, but it prepares you for meeting submission guidelines set forth by a publishing house. Often, failure to use proper format will result in rejection, both in a contest and from an editor.
Which contests should I enter?
Almost all writing contests charge an entry fee. You can find as small or as large of a competition as you want. Writing groups in your area may offer contests. Various chapters of organizations such as RWA (Romance Writers of America) sponsor contests. ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) offers an annual contest as well as individual chapter contests. National pu
blications such as Guideposts advertise an annual writing contest.
Prizes vary from a few dollars to large amounts of cash. Sometimes, publication in the respective magazine or on a website is realized, free admission to a workshop or conference, or paid membership in a writers’ organization.
Consider the level of competition you wish to engage in. If you’ve never submitted work, you may be entering solely for the feedback you will receive. A smaller, less expensive contest would be more appropriate to meet that need.
Whatever contest you choose to enter, do so with an “In It to Win It” attitude, incorporating the above tips to polish your work until it is the best it can possibly be. Even if you don’t clinch that coveted first place spot, you come out a winner for the experience you will have gained.
Patti Shene has enjoyed writing since childhood. She is published in two anthologies, Love is a Verb Devotional and Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters, as well as in local publication
She served as Executive Editor for Starsongs, a publication of Written World Communications (WWC), written for kids by kids from 2010 – 2013. She also held the position of Division Manager for YA and Children’s Imprints with WWC for several months.
She has three novels in progress. Patti enjoys encouraging other writers by judging contests and featuring writers as guests on her three blogs, located at www.pattishene.com.
Patti is a retired RN, formerly from Long Island, who resides in a small Colorado town with her husband of thirty-six years. They have two wonderful adult children and one amazing 12- yr old granddaughter.