Writing competitions are funny things. For me, there is a slight dissonance between producing a piece of art and asking someone to judge that piece of art against other pieces of art. Creative endeavour is not the same as, for example, a purely physical or purely intellectual pursuit. With a running race or a spelling bee, competitors have a defined criteria of what will constitute success. But when art is judged, the metric for success is much blurrier. Art is subjective. When art is turned into a competition, the winner will be different dependent on who is judging, what chimes with that particular judge, what mood the judge is in. Normally, when we contemplate art, we make a qualitative judgement – “I enjoyed this” or “I didn’t enjoy this” – but we don’t necessarily extend that into “I enjoyed this more than this” and even more rarely do we justify that comparison with a reason.
If you say to a bunch of writers, “Write me a story in three-hundred words on the theme of wisdom featuring a donkey, an umbrella and a pomegranate where the last word is ‘sunset’”, that is quite a hemmed-in prompt, but you would still end up with vastly different stories. Some of the pieces would be apples and some of the pieces would be pears, and you know what they say about apples and pears. Which all leads up to the fact that who wins a writing competition is always going to be highly subjective. I saw a competition judge a few years ago claiming that the “best” story will always rise to the top. I’m not sure the words “good”, “bad”, “best” and “worst” have any business being applied to art, but possibly if a hundred judges judged each competition then you might see consensus around your winner. However, most competitions are ultimately judged by a single person, a duet (harmonious or otherwise) or a trio.
But while the judging process comes with a large dollop of subjectivity, if you enjoy the thrill of entering competitions, is there anything you can do to rocket-boost your chances? I’ve had the pleasure of judging a couple of flash competitions over the summer and, in case it is helpful to anyone, these are some of the thoughts I scribbled down to myself as I was reading through the entries.
The mechanics of a competition
Most competitions hone in towards their winners through multiple stages. There might be a group of first readers who read a certain number of stories and say which ones they liked and which ones weren’t for them. They might only have time to read each story once – so, your story needs to stand out on first read. Remember that your story is going to be judged against other stories so you are generally going to stand more chance with a piece about a tap-dancing hippo than you are with a piece about death or love. If the competition has a theme, try to find a unique angle on that theme – otherwise, there's a good chance you’ll be putting yourself in direct competition with someone else.
The opinions of the first readers will usually help decide the longlist which gets passed to the named judge. As a judge, when I’m reading through for the first time, I simply mark the ones I feel drawn towards re-reading. Does the story reel me in? Is there something that feels original? Is this a story I want to spend more time with? Again, this is all about having something appealing on that surface layer.
On second read, I might shift my goal from “looking for a reason to love” to “looking for a way of whittling”. At this stage, I might be asking myself, “Is everything working within the piece?” “Is the story in balance?” “Is it well-written?” “Is there something in the story that puts me off?”
Finally, when I get to picking my winners, I look for those moments of sparkle. I might be reading for a third, fourth or fifth time by this point. Have I discovered something new on each new read? Are there layers? Are there highlights that make the story stick in my mind?
What you want to achieve (and this is a tall order) is simply to make it through each stage. In one of the competitions I judged, the story that placed fourth on my first read didn’t make it to my shortlist. A story that on initial read wasn’t in my top ten ended up being one of my top five picks because I enjoyed it more and more with each further read.
Short fiction is all about picking out the shiniest jewel and placing it in the best display case for that jewel. Don’t try and cram too much story into too small a space. Condense your story down to its purest essence. Usually, it will be stronger for having been distilled. On the same theme, think about writing your story in specific scenes rather than generally describing what happens – mostly, this will produce a more evocative effect.
A competition judge will read a lot of stories. Usually, the ones that stay with them are the ones that have an emotional pull. I would suggest you want your strongest emotion to be at the end of the piece and you want a structured journey of emotions towards that point. Explore the opposite emotion to the one you end with. Perhaps create a tension between the two?
While I like a good bit of poetry and I’m here for the occasional vignette, if you’re entering a fiction competition then be aware that something probably needs to change within your piece. What changes for your main character? What changes in your reader’s understanding of this world? The amount of change that is needed will come down to who is judging and how wide they cast their net in terms of what constitutes flash fiction, what constitutes a short story etc. I personally am not a great fan of labels so am pretty open to anything and everything but other judges might have a slightly narrower view.
What makes them unique? Who are they? Reading a piece multiple times, I often find a story works well in terms of narrative arc, the writing is full of highlights, but the piece is let down because the character feels underdeveloped. Character development is tricky within the confines of short fiction but one unique characteristic can do so much to lift a piece from also-ran to possible contender. Also, on characters, consider how many you want within your story. Often the reason that characters feel underdeveloped is because there are too many of them competing for space.
Nuts and bolts
In many competitions, this is free space (it’s not part of the word count). Try and make the most of it. Pick a title that is going to stand out (make the judge need to read your story). Pick a title that is going to stick in a judge’s mind (so that when they are thinking back on the stories, they can pinpoint yours more easily). Pick a title that adds something concrete to the piece that follows.
Try and have something in the opening lines that is going to reel your reader in. Make it clear where and when we are. Jump us straight into the story, especially in flash where you haven’t got the word count to be hanging about with what a character ate for breakfast.
A lot of the pieces I read over the summer worked brilliantly over the first two-thirds of the story but seemed to run out of steam just when they most needed to sparkle. Sometimes, this was down to not allowing enough space for the climactic moment. Sometimes, this was down to the story not quite building towards the ending the writer had in mind. Watch out for ta-dah endings too. These rarely go down well. Normally, in flash fiction, an image or a deep philosophical thought will provide a much more resonant off-ramp. If going for a punchline ending make sure there is enough architecture in the early part of the piece to support that choice.
Anyone involved in judging a writing competition has to do a lot of reading. They are likely to become tired and possibly emotional through this process. Therefore, think about clarity. Is your story graspable on the first read or is it too ambiguous? Is your phrasing clear? Are your images clear? On a more mundane level, have you used a readable font and font size?
I think concision is important in any kind of writing but given what I’ve mentioned above about a judge reading a story multiple times before reaching their decision, can you make each word do multiple things? Startling language and highlight phrases are lovely but if they can also deepen a reader’s understanding of character, place, emotion etc. then they are more lovely still.
These can be so important for bringing a scene to life. Invite your reader into the story. Allow them not just to see the world but to hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, feel it.
It may sound basic but if you start off in present tense, don’t suddenly waver into past tense without good reason. Don’t switch a character’s name halfway through. Try to keep the tone of voice consistent. Try to be consistent with formatting. These are small things but they can be enough to pull a reader out of a story.
Be aware of who is judging a competition but don’t be too aware. At the end of the day, I think we should write stories for ourselves in the first instance and not burden ourselves with the pressure of potential readers. To do otherwise, in my opinion, wouldn’t be honest to our own voice as writer, nor honest to the story we are trying to tell. The other issue of writing towards a particular judge is that other people might also be writing towards that particular judge. In both competitions I judged this summer, I read a lot of lyrical pieces and I have a feeling that is because people put two and two together and made a forest full of azaleas. All these lyrical pieces were competing against each other and so the less lyrical stories sometimes stood out as a result.
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