Congratulations, writer. Whether you placed in the contest or not, just by entering a writing contest you have earned the right to call yourself “author.” Or “poet.” Either works. The most important difference between writing as a hobby and writing as a professional is sending it out into the world. It’s impossible to say if the reader will be who you had in mind when you were writing. They may get it, they may not. You can get value from their feedback when it’s offered constructively. That’s what I hope for you and what, in most cases, we achieved.
The most common mistake we saw this year was formatting. Next year I’d like to see formatting as part of the scoring, rather than something to disqualify an entry based upon. It doesn’t mean it’s less important, it means it’s critical. When we disqualify an entry, it doesn’t get judged. In many contests, you may never even know why. If the score was lessened because of an incorrect font or a missing header, then it would be an item easily corrected for the next year’s entries. Publishers want a specific manuscript format, and so do contests. For a good example, check out this article.
Each category has a different score sheet, and different attributes are used to judge the entries. Here’s what the judges are asked to keep in mind:
- Hook – The reader is immediately drawn into the story and characters. Time, place, and mood are established in the first one or two pages. The title is well thought out and creative.
- Characterization – The characters are realistic, interesting, believable, well motivated and described vividly. Any secondary characters contribute to the story without distracting from it. The protagonist has a goal that the readers care about.
- Setting – The author clearly and vividly describes where and when the story takes place. The setting is appropriate to the story and enhances it rather than intruding.
- Point of View – POV is clear, consistent and includes the five senses. Readers experience only one character’s point of view at a time. Changes in viewpoint are clearly marked with page break or other device.
- Dialogue/Internal Monologue – (a) If used, it is smooth, natural, interesting and helps to develop character. (b) If not used, the writer involves the reader well enough that dialogue/internal monologue would not improve the story.
- Plot/Theme – The plot is fresh and interesting and holds the reader’s interest to the end of the piece, even if it is a tried and true story line. The beginning sets the tone and pace and the middle builds to a satisfactory and consistent conclusion, even if not happy. The premise is plausible, or the writer’s skill suspends disbelief so that it does not matter.
- Conflict – (External or internal—antagonist may be another person, society, nature, technology or self.) Motivations are powerful enough to create sufficient, believable conflict that is strong enough to move the story forward without distracting from it. It is free from predictability.
- Style – There is a recognizable tone, style and mood. Readers experience the story through sensory appeals and narrative description. There is a balance between narrative and dialogue. The author makes skillful use of vocabulary, language and sentence structure.
- Mechanics – The manuscript follows the format described in the guidelines; the author has command of elements of grammar, punctuation, spelling and capitalization. If such devices as intentional fragments or dialect are used, they are effective and not overused. Paragraphing is used in a way that aids the reader’s understanding.
In another organization’s contest that I helped judge, there were two questions they asked in addition to the usual craft items. These were:
From strictly a reader’s perspective, did you enjoy reading this entry?
Do you want to read more?
Those questions are really the heart of what this contest is all about. Good writing reaches readers, connects with them, and makes them want to continue on the journey.