So, you’ve decided to enter a writing competition and discovered I’m judging. Well, congratulations! You’ve certainly come to the right place. (And, actually, even if I’m not judging the competition you’re entering, I hope the tips here will still be useful.)
Of course, I will not tell you what you should write, but like all judges, I have my own observations and pet peeves. So why not take a look, find out what they are and, therefore, learn how to avoid them?
I’ve judged many short story competitions, and I’ve also had many short stories published in women’s magazines in the UK and Australia. There is a huge skill in telling a complete story within a limited number of words, especially if it’s a flash fiction competition. (Sign up to my free newsletter here, and you can claim a free ebook of my short stories.)
Some tips I picked up when writing stories for the women’s magazines are:
- The main character needs to solve their problem. This is important because it makes you focus on who the main character is. Whose story are you telling? Who has the problem or the challenge? What do they have to do to resolve it? Sometimes, it’s not a physical problem that needs solving. Great stories can be about how a character comes to accept a fresh way of thinking, or comes to terms with a challenging situation. We are often told that characters need to have changed during a story.If the main character has an internal conflict, then, yes, the story is how that character resolves that conflict. How they change their mind, or their take on a certain situation. Ultimately, the character needs to be in a different place at the end of the story to where they were at the beginning of the story.
- Please don’t kill everybody off. Seriously. I hold my hands up here. We’ve all done it. A great way of creating emotion in our reader is to have a character die. Particularly if it’s a character the reader has grown to love. (And when a character dies, there has certainly been a change in the story’s circumstances!) But put yourself in my shoes. The judge’s shoes. Your story, in which your main character dies, it’s just one of 200 other stories I shall read where the main character dies at the end. Believe me when I say it can get depressing at times. Which brings me onto the next point.
- Remember, you are in competition. Your story must stand out from the crowd. Sometimes, it is how the character’s problem or the challenge is overcome that enables you to achieve this. Don’t always go with the first resolution that comes to your mind. Think about it a bit more. Is there any other way your main character can solve their problem? When I judge competitions, the first thing I do is sit down and read through every entry. (I’ll try reading them all in one sitting, because it gives me a broad overview of what I have to judge.) But even after that initial read, there will be stories that resonate with me and linger in my mind. These are the stories that have, in one way or another, had some sort of emotional connection with me. Often, it is the stories that have the unexpected resolutions that stand out. So, don’t always go with the first ending that comes to your mind.
- As a writer who enjoys humour, I always welcome a bit of humour in competition entries. BUT – that does not mean if your submission isn’t funny, it won’t win. I recently judged the 2021 Evesham Festival of Words Short Story competition, and neither First (Regeneration by Richard Hooton), nor Second (Handprints by Anita Goodfellow) had much humour in them. The third placed entry (Home from Home by Hazel Whitehead) had a few moments that caused me to smile. At the end of the day, it’s the story itself that matters.
As someone who writes British travel articles, I’m often asked to judge travel competitions. And it’s always a fascinating exercise. I love being transported to where the entrants have visited, especially if I’ve never been there. And even if an entrant has visited somewhere I’ve been, they always seem to spot something I’ve missed on my previous visits.
But writing a travel piece is not as easy as many think. Consider the following points:
- Your travel piece is not a WIDOMH – which stands for What I Did On My Holidays. Don’t get me wrong – our holidays can provide the perfect material for a travel piece. But focus on one particular aspect of your holiday. Not the entire trip. I don’t need to know what bus you caught to get to the airport for your two-week stay in Tenerife. Nor do I need to know about a particularly nasty set of roadworks just outside the town you were staying, because they won’t be there when I visit. Just focus on one thing that you did on your holiday. For example, I had a two-week holiday in Pembrokeshire a couple of years ago. And on one day I explored Caldey Island near Tenby. Now, I wrote an article for a magazine about Caldey Island. I didn’t write about my whole two weeks in Pembrokeshire. Just my time spent on the island.So just focus on one specific event, destination, activity. Of course, you can always theme these in some way. For example, if on my Pembrokeshire holiday I’d visited a fascinating local museum in six of the towns that I visited on my trip, then a travel piece on local museums in Pembrokeshire could work well. Think carefully about what it is you’re going to share with your reader. What will they learn from your piece?
- You don’t have to travel anywhere to write a travel piece. Everywhere is a visitor destination to somebody. Write about your hometown. You live there, that makes you an expert! Where are the fascinating places to visit? Where do you know that’s interesting, that the tourist guides fail to mention? Do you have a local custom that takes place in your local town? These local events can make fascinating pieces.
- Travel is a broad subject matter. Don’t just write about tourist destinations. Remember, a journey makes a fascinating read. Sometimes, it’s not about to where you travel but how you travel. Unusual ideas will always stand out.
- Think senses. Don’t just tell me what you can see. Think of the sounds, the smells, and the taste of these places. Do that, and you’ll transport me there, so I’ll feel I’m walking beside you as you explore a place. Often, our other senses evoke more atmosphere to our readers.
General Competition Advice
- It should go without saying, but always follow the rules. Go over the specified word count, or send an entry that doesn’t meet the competition’s theme, and they will disqualify you. It doesn’t matter how good your writing is, the competition organisers will not pass your entry on to me for judging. I can only read your pearls of wisdom if you have obeyed all the rules.
- Give yourself plenty of time. Competitions are fantastic for giving you a deadline, but there is no law that says you have to write it and submit it 24 hours before the deadline. Give yourself time to think through an idea. The earlier you start working on your submission, the more time you have to develop it. It will also give you more time to review your submission. (Put your work aside for at least a week – longer if possible. You’ll be surprised by the errors, spelling mistakes and typos you spot. You may also spot those other embarrassing mistakes I’ve seen in some competition entries – where a character’s name suddenly changes midway through the story. Oops!) Your submission will be stronger if you give yourself the time to review it. (And remember – it’s a competition. Don’t let your silly mistakes drop you out of the prize categories.) If you want help with planning a timetable for entering competitions, check out my Second Edition of The Positively Productive Writer.
And finally, do some research about the judge (if it isn’t me). Find out what sort of writing appeals to them. What do they write? Because, believe it or not, we are all human.