Today award-winning writer Hannah Froggatt delivers a guest post balancing both her experience winning writing contests and judging them. No one has ever pitched a piece to me on this topic, and Hannah has an impressive number of contest wins, so I was immediately drawn to giving her the green light! Remember, if you have an idea for a guest post, you can submit your query before September 30th. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until 2018 for consideration.
What Writing Contest Judges Look For
By Hannah Froggatt
I’m a writing contest junkie. Competitions are my favorite way to put my fiction in the public eye, and I’ve won or placed in about fifteen in the last two years.
After several years of entering them, I started being asked to judge them. In 2015, I adjudicated two rounds of the Tethered By Letters fiction, poetry, and flash fiction competitions, and was recruited to the judging panel of my local university’s student fiction award. I’ve also judged contests run by my writers’ circle and run free feedback services for young writers.
Being a judge began to massively inform my own writing when I noticed that my fellow judges and I consistently rewarded the same qualities in stories. There are definitely common characteristics that most winning entries share, as well as flaws that guarantee you pride of place in the judge’s bin.
So what makes a winning entry?
- Technical competence. Can you spell and punctuate? Do you know how paragraphs work? More importantly, have you read the competition rules? Depressingly few hopefuls do. I once knew a judge who published statistics illustrating the reasons entries lost, and 32% were disqualified for incorrect formatting. Of 800+ entries, over 250 failed this very first test. By neglecting the nuts and bolts, you’re handing the judges a reason to weed out your entry—and, in big competitions, they’re looking for one.
- Repetition. We’re all five-year-olds at heart. I’ve noticed a lot of the literary flourishes that judges really like—like arc words, irony, or bookend endings—come down to repeated phrases, or scenes that mirror each other. In very short stories, repetitive techniques offer a level of cohesion that plot alone can’t supply. It also shows you’ve thought hard about story structure, which a lot of judges really like.
- A strong, smart, ending. This is the single most important component for any entry. You need an elegant resolution that straddles the line between perfectly fitting your plot arc and being completely unexpected, and it helps to have a kicker of a last line. A strong beginning intrigues a judge, but a strong ending wins her. This cannot be overstated. The ending makes or breaks your entry.
And what constitutes a wasted fee?
- Ego. I recently judged a story about an I-narrator tormented by grief because her European vacation was over. Apparently she was too sensitive to return to the cultural wasteland of the States. This was not ironic—I was supposed to shed tears. I’ve also seen revenge fantasies about exes and the remorse of philistines who just didn’t understand the author’s–I mean the protagonist’–genius. These are egregious examples, but subtler variations exist. Please don’t use your fiction to tell me how great you are—that’s what dating profiles are for.
- Attempted shock value. I say ‘attempted’ because this never works, yet many authors try to be edgy by employing excessive violence, sex or profanity. These elements absolutely have a place in fiction, but while many authors deploy these literary tactics precisely and to good effect—many others seem to pile them on because they think it makes them envelope-pushers. It doesn’t. I already know all the swearwords—they’ve been done before.
- Weak plot. Poor plotting is the #1 worst sin a contest entrant can commit. Formulaic murder stories, fairytale retellings, flavorless affairs never win, unless there’s some ingenious twist on the old clichés. No matter how gorgeously-written they are, you can’t compete with a writer who applied thought and inventiveness to the story they wanted to tell. And heaven help you if your story has no plot at all.
I wish you the best of luck with all your writing contest endeavors. Have you got any tips or tricks that I’ve missed?
Hannah was the winner of the Junior Author International Short Story Award in 2015, joint winner of the Luna Press Prize in 2017 and the third-place winner of the winter round of the Writers Weekly 24-hour Short Story Award in 2017. Her work has appeared in Myths of the Near Future magazine, Crimson Streets, Writer’s Forum magazine, Frost Magazine and Mash Stories. She currently works for a publishing house in London.