How to make judges smile

I started entering writing competitions when I was about 17. The encouragement I got from even the most obscure of commendations helped build my confidence, little by little. It was enough to keep me writing, even when I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

After the dust had settled from a competition, I always found it useful to hear what the judges were looking for and what they enjoyed. What gets published in an anthology and what misses out is always fascinating too. (Just don’t get sucked into buying a book on the hope that your work is in it. Unless you have confirmation you’re being published, wait and look at it in a library.)

Anyway, as mentioned previously, I have been judging a secondary school short story competition for several years now. I never meet the winners or their teachers so it is all very impersonal – but if I had the chance to chat with the entrants here are the tips I’d pass on:

1. Proof-read your work for spelling and grammar errors. Spell-check software doesn’t always work (e.g. someone had “delicate” when they meant “delegate”) and is set by default to US English rather than Australian. I’d rather read Aussie English than Bill Gates’ best guess.

2. Reading your work aloud is the best way to check how it will sound to other readers.

3. Strive for unique humour, situations or insights. Taking a character on a journey only to conclude with “it was all a dream” is … yawn … a tired idea. But perhaps the dream changed the character in some way … Perhaps the author has a new spin to put on this old idea.

4. Let your character grow or learn. When you put yourself in the character’s shoes, ask how the events of the story would have changed them.

5. Surprise me. Knock me off balance. (Read Roald Dahl short stories for some classic examples.)

6. Think about descriptive language and be innovative and fresh. “Ice cold”, for instance, is unnecessary; everyone knows that ice is cold. In what other ways could the cold be described? Cold as the footy clubroom showers? Cold as my sister’s glare? Cold as an empty bed. Create an image that works for you and then sell it to your reader.

Get all or even a few of these right and you’ll be a contender!

Oh, and fancy fonts and silly stationery just annoy judges. Stick to something that’s easy on the eye!

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