So... how do you win a writing contest?
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.
To separate the stars
The quality of many stories submitted to the Writers' Village contest is outstanding. So, to separate the stars from the near-winners, I allocate points out of a total of 45 to each entry as follows.
1. Does the story emotionally engage the reader?
A maximum of ten points go to the stories which engage me emotionally throughout. I read many entries that are impressively clever. They dance with ingenuity, wit or wordplay. But they are cerebral exercises, not stories. That said, a truly witty story may win high points. Laughter is an emotion too!
2. Is it original?
I then award 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 has to be fresh.
3. Is the first paragraph imbued with power?
The quality of the first paragraph gains a further maximum of eight points. Does it compel me to read on? I am seriously underwhelmed by shock openings along the lines of ‘I pulled the trigger. The punk fell dead’. Yawn! What gains my vote instead is the intrigue or enchantment of the opening lines.
4. Does the story have a sense of form?
Another eight points in total are allocated to the story’s sense of form. It has to show a coherent progression, a plot structure involving conflict between characters (or entities represented as characters) 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 has to be rigorous in its construction. I have to feel: nothing could usefully have been added to it or cut. It’s a ‘whole’.
5. Is the language well handled?
I then allot up to six points for the originality or deft use of language. A story does not need to dance with spry metaphors or turn somersaults in its syntax. Indeed, an outlandish tale often gains great emphasis by being told in the most prosaic language. But clichés, clumsiness and lazy expressions are a no, no.
6. Is the grammar, punctuation and presentation professional?
A final three points are given for the professionalism of the presentation. I have no problems with the odd misspelling or typing error. (I make enough of them myself :)) But I do shudder at the systematic misuse of apostrophes!
(NB: For the winter 2014 round and subsequently, I added a seventh criterion: How well does the story close?)
A FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTION
The top three winners in the Writers' Village contest usually fall in the 42-43 points range. The shortlisted or runner up winners typically gain 41-42 points. Some miss a top prize only by a whisker.
Entrants often ask me: why did my entry win a minor prize (or no prize at all) when everyone who has read my story tells me it's excellent? (What's more, Dr Yeoman, you awarded me 42 points out of 45!) Answer: very likely the story is excellent. But it stumbles in just one or two points of detail. Often, these can be easily fixed.
So entrants have always received a little feedback on their entries. This is not a 'critique', nor could it even begin to do full justice to the story. I've either shown precisely how the story was graded, across the criteria above, or I have suggested in a few lines: here's what you may be doing wrong. Fix it and your story (in some other contest) might be a winner!
(Adapted from an interview published at the site essentialwriters.com, February 2010, with grateful acknowledgement.)