How to judge writing competitions for children, adults, beginners and seasoned authors

How do you judge a writing competition? This is something authors are asked to do from time to time. How do you compare different styles and subject matter? What do you make allowances for? What do you never compromise on? What are the different considerations for child and adult competitions, local beginners or experienced authors seeking professional publication?

I’ve gathered some authors who’ve been there, done that… and asked for their tips on how to do a fair job.  

Literary

Novelist Ian Rogers @iantheroge is a slush pile reader for a prominent literary journal’s short story prize. Applicants pay a fee and submit a manuscript for a chance at publication.

What’s your system for judging?

Surprisingly, the applications tend to be relatively uniform, in the category of “serious literary fiction”.  Some take risks with humour, themes and form, which I suspect will not please the judges above me. But I value them as distinct and memorable, so I often give them a green light to get a chance of winning. If they later get a No, I want that decision to come from someone else, not from me.

What about gut instinct?

I’ve learned that certain interesting, funny or creative pieces might strike me as brilliant in some areas, but are lacking in organisation, prose quality or consistency.  In these cases, it’s a simple but painful decision to pass on them.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Clear, meaningful decisions by the author in crafting a piece structurally, rather than haphazardly following a formula, or God forbid, slapping together a bunch of meaningful-sounding prose.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

For a contest, my standards are higher than if I’m reading for another purpose.  A brilliant idea and great potential would draw me in every time if I was reading for something less competitive, but for this contest, there will be more than enough pieces that succeed in both their potential and their execution.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

No tricks. And don’t front-weight a manuscript with higher quality material while the rest is padded out with rougher pieces. I took this route myself as a younger writer for fear of missing out on a contest, and shudder at my naiveite now. A winning manuscript should be in top shape from start to finish, and if it’s not, wait until next year.

Have you ever had to justify your decision to a disgruntled entrant?

Thankfully no—bigger contests keep the judging blind and impersonal with form letters, which takes the humanity out of the process, as if entries were being judged by machines rather than people.  Such distance sends a strong signal that entrants shouldn’t question the final decision.

Who’s Ian Rogers? More here

Literary vignettes and flash fiction

Flash fiction author and movie writer Jayne Martin @jayne_martin has judged the 50-word story contest for the Bending Genres journal. Author,  musician and small press publisher Jessica Bell @iamjessicabell used to hold an annual competition, the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award.

Jayne Martin

What’s your system for judging?

Jayne I looked for pieces where the writer clearly understood the genre and craft of microfiction. It’s a specific skill.

Jessica We had a team of five readers, including myself. We did not have strict judging criteria for the first round – vignettes do not follow standard rules – but we looked for originality, sound spelling and grammar, and the ‘it’ factor. The ‘it’ factor basically meant they impressed us.

The quarter-finalists were manuscripts we would be prepared to publish. These were then re-evaluated by three judges, including me, with a  score system. From that we decided a grand finalist and two semi-finalists. They were all then offered publication.

What about gut instinct?

Jayne Gut instinct is a big part of it. Either a piece moves you or it doesn’t. I’m looking for an emotional experience or takeaway. That is what will elevate one story over another that may be better written but leaves me cold.

Jessica We were judging for our own press, so our emotions played a big role. However, they were balanced our by our judging process.

Jessica Bell

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

Jayne Craft. Does the writer know their stuff?

Jessica If it triggers a strong wave of emotion, it’s got me.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Jayne It can’t be rough at all. It must be polished and professional.

Jessica Very rarely am I impressed by rough writing, since smooth writing is all part of making a book resonate with a reader.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition?

Jayne Before submitting anywhere, read your story out loud. Record it. Listen to it. You’ll find the places where it stumbles. And never ever send in a first draft.

Jessica Be yourself. Don’t try to write like someone else. Write from the heart; it shows. Make the judges cry, laugh and sneer.

Who’s Jayne Martin? I interviewed her here

Who’s Jessica Bell? I interviewed her here

An all-genres small press mentoring competition

This was my turn in the hot seat! I judged the Triskele Books Big Five mentoring competition in 2018. The aim was to find one manuscript to develop for publication.

What’s your system for judging?

My role was to choose a winner from the five finalists, so the main job of selection had been done. But those five entries were already a high standard with their own merits – and they covered a huge spectrum of styles and genres. There were narrators who were unreliable or dreaming; narrators who were unsure if they could trust their senses. Sassy voices; sad ones. Narrators who were on the brink of terrible events. Some were fiction; some were not.

To pick a winner, I looked for a writer who knew how to handle the reader. Whatever the setting or genre, did they know what feelings they were giving me? Did they know what questions I had and whether they should answer them…. or whether they should tease?

What about gut instinct?

For those questions, gut instinct became my biggest steer.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

For this competition, we were seeking potential and natural writing instinct. Roughness of craft wasn’t a problem because the right writer would pick up craft points easily.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition at this level?

Even if a competition is looking for manuscripts to bring on, don’t skimp on polishing. The judges want to see you at your absolute best, before any interventions, and they want to keep your strengths, not mould you. So show off those strengths.

Children’s writing competitions

Retired bookseller Peter Snell @peterjasnell judges the local heats of the national Rotary competition for secondary schools. The top three in each age category go to the national finals.

What’s your system for judging?

Each entry has to be considered in isolation, according to its own merits. A title is provided to entrants each year; interpretation is down to them. Each manuscript is judged on its own merits, Some entries are essays, some are poems, some are plays.   

I use three yardsticks in judging – the level and quality of imagination, the ability to engage the interest of the reader and the consistent power of the argument in each piece. I also consider grammar, spelling and punctuation, marking each script for errors as I read. I score each aspect out of 10 with a maximum of 40 points and write a short note for each entry highlighting good and bad aspects and my overall impression. This helps me with the final judging and comparison while also providing feedback to each entrant. I also produce a general report on the year’s entries. The points I raise are fed back to entrants by their class teachers.

What about gut instinct?

I read forensically so I’m able to disengage some of myself. Of course, some scripts sing to me, so I read every entry straight through first without judging. I then go back and examine with my categories. Sometimes I have to reread to make sure I understand what the author was intending.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

I enjoy a narrative flow that does not pull me up short or require me retrace my steps to puzzle out meaning. Of course, there are times when causing discomfort to the reader can enhance the atmosphere of a piece.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Some entries come from special schools. Entries from pupils with poorer motor skills can look rough but still have great merit. I make sure my judging is blind, not based on the kind of school.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition of this kind? And any don’ts?

Proof-read your entry. Don’t rely on spell checkers; they have no sense of context. Then read it out aloud, slowly. If you make corrections, rewrite the whole thing. Biro corrections on a printed submission are not a good look.

Don’t use big words unless you are sure you know precisely how to use them. A dictionary can be a good friend; as can a thesaurus if you need to avoid repetition.

Make sure you really understand the assignment title. But also try an original approach.

So, you’ve got your score sheet and your notes. What if you get a tie? How then do you pick a winner?

I discuss it with the contest organiser.

Who’s Peter Snell? You might remember him from our radio series So You Want To Be A Writer?

A local competition for first-time writers

Novelist and short story writer Annalisa Crawford @annalisacrawf judged a competition in her local town in 2017.

What was your system for judging?

Judging was easy. Most of the entrants were not writers and would probably not have entered any other writing competition. The fact it was local was the draw for them. The brief was to write a short story so I initially cast aside all the ones that weren’t stories – then had to reintroduce them when I realised I only had one left. That at least made it easy to decide the winner. I laid the others out on my floor and read the first pages a few times, removing any that had me stumbling or not understanding what they were trying to say.

What about gut instinct? I think sometimes it comes down to gut instinct. Judging a piece of writing is subjective and I think we’d be doing a disservice to the writers to stick to rigid guidelines.

What impresses you personally in a piece of writing?

I like to be surprised, to be drawn into the lives of the characters enough for me to believe they’re real, and to still be thinking about it a few days later. I like interesting imagery and to be taken on a journey.

How much roughness can you tolerate?

Not much, to be honest. I think any writer owes it to the reader to make their piece as perfect as possible. Having said that, although I’m harsh on the opening paragraphs because I need to be pulled in, once I’m there I’m more relaxed and forgiving. I’m not put off by an ending that doesn’t meet my expectations if the start is good.

Any advice for impressing the judges in a writing competition? And any don’ts?

Follow all the rules. Make the first page sparkle. Don’t overuse the thesaurus and fill the story with long, obscure words. Don’t fall into cliché. Make your characters do the unexpected.

Have you ever had to justify your decision to a disgruntled entrant?

Luckily, no. The winners were merely sent their prizes.

Who’s Annalisa Crawford? I interviewed her here

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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  1. #1 by Maria Donovan on March 14, 2022 - 8:25 am

    Helpful reminders! Particularly that the manuscript should be in good shape from start to finish …

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