How do you win a writing contest - for profit?
What do the judges of writing contests look for? Here are my own judging criteria for the Writers' Village short story award. Most major literary contests for short fiction will follow similar judging rules, whether or not these are announced.
The key question from a judge’s point of view is: how do you judge a contest fairly? I knew I had to define strict rules from the outset when I set up the Writers’ Village short fiction competition in 2009.
I was confident I would gain a wealth of entries online, as I was asking only a small entry fee of £5 ($8) and offered 13 cash prizes totalling £300 ($485). Soon I had stories flooding in from all over the world, even from South Korea and Estonia.
To separate the stars
The quality of many entrants was outstanding! So, to separate the stars from the near-winners, I allocated points out of a total of 45 to each entry as follows.
1. Emotionally engage your reader
A maximum of ten points went to the stories which engaged me emotionally throughout. I read many entries that were impressively clever. They danced with ingenuity, wit or wordplay. But they were cerebral exercises, not stories.
2. Write with originality
I then awarded up to ten points for a story’s originality. True, there are just 36 story plots or themes, according to Georges Polti (1916), but there’s always room for a new twist on Cinderella, Bluebeard’s cupboard or Romeo and Juliet. Point is, the twist had to be fresh.
3. Imbue your first paragraph with power
The quality of the first paragraph gained a further maximum of eight points. Did it compel me to read on? I was seriously underwhelmed by shock openings along the lines of ‘I pulled the trigger. The punk fell dead’. Yawn! What gained my vote instead was the intrigue or enchantment of the opening lines. My top three winning entries glittered with magic.
4. Retain a sense of form
Another eight points in total were allocated for the story’s sense of form. It had to show a coherent progression and a satisfying conclusion. Many a fine story lacks ‘closure’, of course. It may leave the reader with untidy loose ends or an unresolved mystery. It might even appear, at first glance, to be a collection of vivid but disjointed impressions (Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind.)
But the story still had to be rigorous in its construction. I had to feel: nothing could usefully have been added to it or cut. It’s a ‘whole’.
5. Avoid using clichés
I then allotted up to six points for the originality of the language. A story did not need to dance with spry metaphors or turn somersaults in its syntax. But clichés and other lazy expressions were a no, no.
A final three points were given for the professionalism of the presentation. I had no problems with the odd misspelling or typing error. (I make enough of them myself :)) But I did shudder at the systematic misuse of apostrophes!
Be a creative writing contest winner!
My top three winners fell into the 35-40 points bracket. The ten runner up winners gained 30-35 points. Some missed a top prize only by a whisker. In fact, I created two extra top prizes to honour those entries where I just couldn’t decide between the great and the good, even by using my clever points system.
Frankly, I had intended the contest to be a ‘one off’, something to keep me happily occupied over Christmas while I took a break from my university job as a creative writing lecturer. But I was so amazed at the quality and volume of entries that I now plan to run the competition every quarter. In each round, the total cash prizes will be £300 ($485).
Folk who follow the rules above, will stand a very good chance of winning a prize.
(Adapted from an interview published at the site essentialwriters.com, February 2010, with grateful acknowledgement