On Judging Short Story Contests

Over the past few years, I’ve judged many writing contests–some large with thousands of entries and smaller ones, with less entries. I’ve judged short stories and novels–published and unpublished.

Recently, I finished judging a short story contest. It’s always easy to pick out the best entries. These were the ones with the most catchy or intriguing first lines, great character development, dialogue that was realistic, moved the plot along, and different sounding from each character, a background setting or settings where the story played out, an unusual plot with a satisfying or surprising ending, and of course, no grammar or spelling errors.

Unfortunately, there were those entries where the characters had names, but nothing else; making them talking heads; stilted and meaningless dialogue; no clue as to where the story takes place; strange punctuation especially with the use of dashes; pronoun usage where there’s no clue to whom the pronoun refers to; telling instead of letting the reader see what is happening. Several I read could be developed into a novel. The ingredients were there, though it would take more research and a lot of work.

One entry was a well-written, humorous essay–but this was a short-story contest, so it didn’t belong.

Anyone entering a writing contest should really pay attention to the rules. Not following the rules can cause a good story to be rejected from the contest. The same goes when submitting a manuscript to an editor or publisher–always makes sure you follow their guidelines.

I’ll probably keep on judging writing contests because I think it’s a way to help other writers. Over the years, I’ve had several accomplished authors who helped me along the way. Frankly, I’m not much of a short story writer myself. I have written a few which have been published in anthologies, but I much prefer writing novels.

Short stories are hard because every word should be meaningful. The dialogue has to move the plot along and reveal character. The characters must be described quickly and in such a way the reader can immediately picture them. The plot can’t be too complicated, but it must have a purpose. The ending must wrap the story up in a satisfying manner–or with a surprise.


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