This winter I had the honor of being asked to join the panel of judges in the annual Winter Writing Contest hosted at The Write Practice. While I’ll admit it was a time consuming activity, I found it thoroughly enlightening and am so happy I was able to participate in this contest.
Over 300 writers entered the contest this year and I saw a tremendous variety of stories, from all genres of fiction, as well as a diverse group of non-fiction stories, all sharing a common theme of “Two Worlds”.
My take-away as one of the judges was that it was easy to agree on a few of the top stories, but fairly difficult to agree on some of the others. I don’t know if I have the right to speak of the actual judging process, so that’s about all I’ll say about that part.
But I would like to share a couple of the things I’ve learned through this process.
It IS possible to read 50+ short stories in a week.
We had to read a lot of short stories. A lot. And unlike reading for Theme of Absence, I couldn’t stop reading at the point I consider the story a “no”. When you’re a judge in a contest, I believe it’s your responsibility to read the entire story from beginning to end, especially if the entrant has requested feedback.
Other writers make the same mistakes as me.
One thing I saw quite often were what I would consider “beginner mistakes.” I’m not criticizing the quality of the writing; I’m just saying that a lot of the things I used to see in my own writing (and have hopefully fixed by now) showed up in a lot of the entries. Little things that the writers can fix in future revisions, like occasional head-hopping, passive voice, too many adverbs, etc.
I enjoy giving feedback.
I really do. I take pride in the fact that Theme of Absence is listed in Duotrope‘s Most Personal Markets. I feel like if I’m going to take the time to read your story, I might as well give you some tips on how you could make it better, right? And in this contest, writers were given the option to receive feedback, so I’m happy to abide.
Judging is a lot different than reading submissions.
I mentioned earlier that at Theme of Absence, I can stop reading submissions as soon as I know it’s a “no”. And that’s true. Even though I read over 90% of the submissions all the way through, I usually know whether or not I’ll accept it in the first few paragraphs. And sometimes I do stop reading, especially on the longer submissions.
But that’s what makes judging a contest different than being a submissions editor. When you’re reading submissions, (and maybe not everyone will admit this) you’re looking for a reason to reject the story as you read it. It’s like a negative thing. You add up all of the bad parts and consider whether or not you can overlook them, or try to fix them if the story is good enough.
As a judge, it was the opposite of that. I felt like it was my duty to keep an open mind as I read each story, and instead of looking for reasons to reject it (like an editor would) I looked for reasons for it to advance to the next round. It was really neat to change the way I looked at other peoples’ work.
Finally, I think you (and I) should enter some contests.
So everything I mentioned about was mostly my take as an editor, with the exception of seeing some of the same mistakes I’ve often made. But as a writer, I realized that the people submitting to contests such as this one are just like me. There were varying levels of success and experience from the submitting writers, but in the end, we’re all just people out there trying to make it and we’ve all got strengths and weaknesses in our writing.
There’s not reason to be intimidated by contests or publications, and I just might try entering one of my unpublished stories to a Write Practice Contest sometime. And I think you should too, especially if you’re a newer writer. Here’s the link to their contest page. Do consider. At least click on over to The Write Practice and check out their blog. They’ve got a great site, and you can often find me lurking around in their comments section.
And finally, while we’re on the topic of contests, give Theme of Absence a look this fall, as I’ve run an annual Halloween Flash Fiction contest for the last two years and will be doing it again this year.
So to close out, I’d like to thank The Write Practice staff and Alice Sudlow, in particular, for inviting me to participate in the Winter contest. It was a great experience.
Have you entered any writing contests? What was the experience like and how did you do? Leave a comment and let us know!