Monday, November 11, 2013

My Personal Judgment Day

Judge of writing with awesome wig
I wish I had an awesome wig to wear when I was judging the writing contests.

Recently I volunteered to help On The Premises judge a writing contest, and the experience illuminated some truths that changed the way I think about and approach writing competitions. Plus, in my quest to be the ultimate writing competition expert, I need to see contests from as many angles as possible.

Judge Lest Ye Be Judged

Let me clear the air.  I am not a professional editor.  I did not complete an MFA program.  My publication history is minimal (so far). So what qualifies me as judge? Nothing.  However, I contend that all of us are capable of judging a piece of writing.  In fact, we do it all the time.

The stories we buy, talk about, and share with our friends are reflections of our judgments.  The first question I asked myself was- Would I buy this?

Secondly, experts and amateurs can equally identify quality writing and crappy writing.  The difference is that experts can tell you exactly why something sucks or should be praised for its literary prowess. Now, I'm sure some writers want to win the equivalent of a Grammy - and earn recognition for the artistic and literary talents.  I would venture to say that most of us just want our work to be read and enjoyed.  These are different metrics, certainly, and I followed the enjoyment approach as my second criteria. How was the reading experience?

Finally I scrutinized the stories based on the guidance provided by OTP:
  • How creative we find the stories—have you read (or watched/seen) many other stories just like this one, or this story fresh and new?
  • How compelling we find them—was the story dull or absorbing?
  • How well ­­crafted we find them—are there lots of typos and silly errors, or very few? (“None” is rare, even among our best entries.) Is the prose so good it adds to the story’s power, or bad enough that it detracts from it?
  • How clearly entries use our premise—is the story obviously built around our contest premise or are you wondering how it connects to the premise?
I quickly discovered that judging is not easy.


The elements above related to being well-crafted and creative and compelling were all present on the top entries to some degree.  I consider these as writing fundamentals.  Like athletics, fundamentals are developed through repetition.  To me, that is the number one reason to enter writing competitions - to get reps to develop key writing skills.  Now, given that all the top entries are quality entries (which sounds self-evident), the chances of any particular one winning are up to fate and luck.  It all depends how strong the competition is.


I was surprised on how many common elements/themes/plots there were.  Even when the genres were vastly different, underlying story ideas were basically the same.  I think this will happen to some extent when the writing contest is a themed writing contest.  I'm sure you've seen the articles out there that there are only 7/23/35/41.4 basic stories you can write, so the challenge is to add a new perspective/twist/voice to the story.  In the stories I read, the winner accomplished this through voice. Again, to develop this skill, it takes practice.  More accurately, in this context you need to experiment.

Take what you've written and shuffle the chronology, change point of view, make a house plant the narrator, do something to make sure your story is not vanilla. Ask your friends what they would do with the topic, if their ideas have anything in common with yours, go looking for inspiration again.


Your characters need to feel things.  The more intense situations you throw them into, the more intense their feelings should be.  More than this, your reader needs to feel things.  We are bombarded with news stories of disasters and crises 24/7, our own lives are full of chaos and drama.  It is a very difficult task to grab hold of a reader and refuse to let go.  

The first thing that has to happen is connection.  Personality traits or the central conflict can be points of commonality between the reader and the protagonist.  The second thing that has to happen, is to provide the "so what?" moment, and it has to have weight.  For example:
Vanilla writing: The cupcake baker realized she forgot to add eggs to the batter.
Rocky Road Writing: Despite her ardent prayers, the cupcakes refused to rise, deflating her last hope at finding a way to finance her daughter's cancer treatments.

WARNING:  Never write something like the Rocky Road Sentence.  It's extreme, melodramatic, and a bit cliche in order to illustrate that actions need to have meaning, that decisions need to have consequences . To quote the editors at On The Premise (emphasis added):
"It's not any one well-written sentence that delivers emotional power, it's the whole story that leads up to that well-written sentence. Very few sentences, by themselves, are all that great. But some entire stories are."
The best way, in my opinion, to generate real and powerful emotion, is to be authentic.  That takes some courage and vulnerability, but know that someone else out there is going through those emotions. If you can connect to them, you will achieve something far greater than any writing contest prize.

In summary, next time you write for a competition:
  1. Make sure the writing fundamentals (craft and content) are solid and tight
  2. Challenge yourself to think out of the box and turn your writing upside down
  3. Search for things that pull at the heartstrings, and tug hard and tug convincingly.


  1. I know this comment comes rather delayed from the writing of this piece. I'm in the process of judging a writing contest. I have been scouring the internet for guidance in the duty. I'm very pleased to have found this post it has given me some good ideas. Thank You

  2. Thanks Kathryn! I'm glad you found it useful. I hope the content of this site can be rather timeless. Feel free to write an article about your experience and we can post it here for even more people to find!

  3. First time I've seen such kind of concept about the personal judgement day. As a lawyer student I am very happy and glad to know your writing concept like professional essay writers. Which helps me a lot. Thanks