Blog 104: 7 Lessons I Learned From Judging A Writing Competition.

September 8, 2020

Every now and then, I judge a small writing competition on a writing Facebook group. Despite the relatively small size of the group, the volume of entries are often pretty high! I have had the opportunity to read a lot of great prose and I have learned a lot by sitting in the judge’s chair. Here are 7 tips that I can give you for submitting your work to writing competitions…

  • Submit your work at its best.

Take time to edit. Take time to proofread. This may seem like an obvious takeaway, but I had several stories that came in looking rushed and underdeveloped, or with plenty of grammatical errors and clunky sentences. These can ruin a potentially great story and are easy to fix. I would recommend running each draft by a second pair of eyes. In my case, this would usually be my boyfriend or my mother, as I trust them to give me honest and thorough criticism. I will keep polishing and drafting until we all feel it is just right. I do this because it is incredibly easy to miss small errors or clunky sentences. They are easy to fix, yes, but can be difficult to spot in your own writing sometimes. It is frustrating, but it happens.

Pay extra attention to dialogue and plot, is the dialogue realistic? Does the plot have a logical sequence of events that the reader can follow?

  • Don’t keep sending the same piece over and over to the same competition.

Unless you have made ground shattering improvements or changes to it, please avoid sending the same piece to the same competition. Especially in very close succession. The short story competitions I judge often have a specific theme, and receiving the same story for two different themes can be very irritating.

When you judge a competition, you must read each one carefully and evaluate the work as you go which requires two different skill sets. Seeing the same work written for one theme and submitted again for a different theme comes across as lazy. It can put judges off from placing it in the longlist, even if it is a well written story. You always have more to offer, so offer it!

  • Show don’t tell.

This is a writing advice cliché. Try to ‘show’ aspects like characterisation or emotions, through other means as opposed to having your narrator or characters ‘tell’ it. If you tell everything, or over explain it, your story may end up sounding like a terrible B movie.

There was one story I read that kept telling me how the main character was supposed to feel, to the point where during a scene, they told the reader they liked a certain kind of bush they saw out the window. Great, it’s a bush, we don’t really care. It can be off putting having a narrator tell you everything you’re supposed to think or feel about any given scene or character. There is a balance to be had between the two, but usually stories that ‘show’ aspects of characterisation through what they actually do, feel more realistic and natural. You must allow readers to make up their own minds about the text and its characters.

  • Stay relevant!

If your competition has an ‘Open’ theme, then feel free to submit a piece that you feel is your best, or one that you are most proud of. However, most short story competitions or submissions feeds have themes or parameters stated, and even if they don’t, it is always a good idea to try and submit a work that fits in with themes and ideas from the hosting platform.

Read the rules carefully. If you already have a story that relates to the theme, brilliant! You’re already half way there. If you’re constructing a new story, think of the boundaries the competition sets up. How are you going to explore the theme? Play to your strengths.

If the competition doesn’t allow you to do that, move on. There are plenty more that will be more suitable to you. Stories that aren’t relevant, when a theme is stated, are less likely to be considered for the shortlist.

Make sure to follow the competition’s terms and conditions. I know it’s obvious but you’d be surprised how many people gloss over this. I know I’ve fallen foul of missing things like desired format or parameters or entry limit, and it’s something I am careful to look out for in the future.

  • Every great story has to start somewhere.

There were quite a few stories I read which had a lot of potential but could have done with a little more time, editing and proofreading, but these stories had to start somewhere, and the fact you managed to finish your story is something to be celebrated. Finishing things is something I find incredibly difficult, as my imagination tends to hop between ideas or I lose momentum mid-draft.

A short story competition is not going to make or break your writing career, really, so don’t let it. It’s so easy to compare yourself to everyone else online and published writers, but really the difference between your story and theirs is editing. But even these stories had to start somewhere.

  • No writer is ever going to write about the same thing – and this is amazing.

When meeting the parameters of the task, no writer is ever going to approach it in exactly the same way. This is a good thing. As a judge, the last thing I want is to read the same story over and over. As much as I could have complained about how half-baked some of the stories were, there were some amazing ideas that had a lot of potential.

The theme for the most recent competition was ‘Trapped’, and someone had written a story from the perspective of someone caught in an earthquake. Another person wrote about a purgatory where nasty people became garden gnomes after they died. Another was about a lesbian affair while being trapped in a cave. All met the task in a different dynamic way.

Don’t write what you think you should, you do you.

  • Don’t let losing put you off submitting in the future.

Just because your work doesn’t win a competition, doesn’t mean it is inherently bad. As I’ve said before, it’s not going to break your writing career. Not unless you let it. As a writer, you’re going to receive so many rejections. This happens. This is part of being a writer. The number of times you have been rejected do not make you any more or less of a writer.

The more you write, and the more you write for competitions the better you’ll get at your craft. The judges do not know who you are when reading your work, they can only judge the text that is in front of them. Competitions and submissions feeds are incredibly subjective. One judge will love one story that another won’t, and some stories will be deemed more ‘relevant’ to a theme than others. So if you’re not picked it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it just means you were unlucky this time and you should try again.

Every entry you submit is a first impression and another opportunity to practise writing. It gives you the chance to reinvent yourself with every new piece. In any case, don’t give up! Your work is worth the time you spend on it, and it will show the next time you submit it somewhere.