How to Win a Writing Competition, Part Two—notes from a contest judge

Short story writing contest advice—what do judges look for in writing competition submissions/entries?

By Michelle Barker

What do judges look for in contest submissions?

Great writing is a rather generalized description, but I can tell you some of the things that pretty much have to be there for me to be interested. 

The first is that ineffable quality of voice. I wish I could be more specific, but this is one of those things that you’ve either captured or you haven’t. It doesn’t have to be off-the-wall unusual. It’s more that I need to know I’m in the hands of a genuine storyteller. It needs to feel authentic. 

More often than not, voice creates a strong connection to the protagonist, and that’s another thing I need to feel almost right away. I don’t have to like the protagonist, but they do have to intrigue me. 

Intrigue and strong connection are most effectively produced through showing rather than telling. There might be a little bit of telling at the beginning, but if the author doesn’t move into scene almost right away, I will be setting that submission aside. Too much telling is an automatic no for me. I look for interaction, dialogue, sensory detail, and conflict. I want to be drawn into the story and feel as though I’m sitting beside the protagonist experiencing what they’re experiencing. 

What makes me cringe? 

  • Dream sequences 
  • Dialogue that lacks context 
  • Launching straight into a fight or an argument, which also lacks context 
  • Being given a character’s life story 
  • Starting with an information or research dump 
  • Starting with a flashback 
  • Issues with POV 
  • Proofreading errors 

Taste is subjective, but craft is not.

Most of what I’m looking for is what any editor would consider solid fiction writing. John Gardner spoke of the fictional dream that immerses readers completely in the world of the story. Agents in New York City have described it as a story that makes them miss their subway stop. 

I don’t take the subway, and I don’t live in New York City. Vancouver is a city of joggers. Make me forget that I’m supposed to be going on a run, and you will likely have a winning story on your hands.  

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet, as well as a Darling Axe senior editor. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published two YA novels (fantasy and historical fiction) and a historical picture book. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

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