In "Ten Truths about Writing Competitions" I point out that winning a contest doesn't mean you're a great writer, nor does not winning crush your writing dreams, the reason is that most contests are judged by poeple whose opinions on a winning piece are as unique as individual snowflakes. However, you can increase you chances of winning if you understand how contests are judged. Like my Previously Unpublished post, I've created a scale to help evaluate a contest based on the judging - Presenting The Competitive Writer's Judgimeter.
Level 1 - The Black Hole. You have no idea who the judge is or how many people are judging your work. You also have no idea how the judging is done or what criteria the judges use. You might as well just put your story in a bin with thousands of other stories and have it plucked out at random.
Level 2 - The Foggy Swamp. It may appear as if there is no information, but in actuality there is if you dig a little bit. Competitions that are sponsored by individuals, online magazines, or print magazines are often judged by the sponsor. Knowing what styles of writing are published by the sponsor, or searching the internet for works published by the sponsor, can help point you in the direction of what sorts of elements the judge will find appealing. You still have no idea how they judge the thing.
Level 3 - The Stockade. These contests are judged by popular vote. Who cares how well you write, what matters here is that you work your self promotional magic to get voted to the top. Some contest will let entries be judged anonymously, others not. Some contests include popular vote as only a portion of the final score. Either way, you can't really complain if your not the most popular author on the block.
Level 4 - Behind Closed Doors. Here you know who the judge or judges are, but there is no guidance as to what it is that they are looking for. A lot of contests fit in this category. You can use some of the techniques from the Foggy Swamp to get an idea of who the judge is and what makes him tick. One thing to keep in mind however, is that a lot of competitions will screen entries before they send a shortlist to the primary judge.
Level 5 - Out in The Light. You know the judges. You know how your work will be judged, either by a scoring rubric or set of qualitative criteria (emotional impact, character development, etc.). There is still plenty of room for subjectivity, but at the end of the day if your story didn't line up with the criteria as well as the winner, there's not much you can do about it.
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