Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Judging a Writing Contest

By Iola Goulton

I’ve recently had my first experience of judging a writing contest, specifically, the 2014 Chapter Short Story Contest from Romance Writers of New Zealand. It was an interesting experience, not least because I don’t usually read short stories, but also because it gave me an insight into what contest judges are looking for.

Each entry was judged in across six categories, with scores in each category ranging from one to five, to give a total score out of thirty. The scoring scale was:
  • 5 = excellent, ready for submission
  • 4 = above average, needs only minor revision
  • 3 = average, has potential
  • 2 = below average, requires considerable work
  • 1 = poor, extensive reworking required

Overall I was pleased with the standard of the four entries I judged, but it was interesting to see that the principles of good writing and storytelling are the same for an 1800-word short story as they are for a full-length novel: the difference is that everything has to be achieved in a fraction of the word count.


The first category to judge was the opening: did it draw me in and make me want to keep reading. The entrants all had good openings, but each could have been better:
  • Introduce your viewpoint character by name in the first sentence
  • Answer the essential questions: who, where, and when
  • Ensure you are showing, not telling
  • Avoid backstory


Were the characters memorable and well-written? This varied, depending on the number of characters. The contest was for an 1800-word short story, and that doesn’t give a lot of time to introduce and develop characters. One was entirely first person interior monologue, so by the end of 1800 words I really felt I understood her. Others felt like they had too many characters, probably because they started at events (like a wedding or a funeral).
  • Limit the number of viewpoint characters. The best stories had only one, whether written in third person or first person
  • Limit the number of characters. The best stories had no more than four


Was the dialogue natural and pertinent to the story (not idle chit-chat)? The short story form doesn’t give a lot of room for action or showing, so the dialogue has a lot of work to do: show us the character of the hero, provide backstory, and move the plot forward.
  • Avoid creative dialogue tags (which are often telling)
  • Pare the dialogue down to the essentials
I recently read a book which advised authors to participate in conversations on Twitter as a way of learning to write witty, informative and concise dialogue. I can see the benefits in a short story, where there simply isn’t the word count for long speeches.

Writing Technique

This wasn’t looking at formatting (which had already been assessed, and entries which didn’t meet the requirements weren’t submitted for judging), but at writing: pacing, setting, plot, structure, and word rhythm.

  • Important to hook the reader in the opening paragraph
  • Keep description short and to the point
  • Keep to two or three scenes (any more, and the pace starts to feel off)
  • The best stories still managed to fit in a beginning (first act), a middle (second act) and an end (third act), and to pace evenly throughout


Was the ending satisfying? One of the stories felt rushed at the ending, as though it had tried to achieve too much. Another had an ending I didn’t find believable given the word count (although that might have been my Christian world view creeping in!).

Overall Impression

The final scoring category was the overall impression: was the story an entertaining read which held my attention throughout? Well, I’m used to reading 90,000-word novels, so a story would have to be really bad to lose me in just 1800 words. Fortunately, none of these did.

The best stories were the ones with only one point of view character, as this make it easier to keep an even pace to the story, and to fit in a solid character arc.

Final Notes

The hardest part was the requirement not to mark someone down in two areas for one issue. For example, the pacing in one story was uneven which meant I felt the ending was weak because it came too fast. The rules meant I could only mark that fault down in one area, writing technique or ending.

As I was reading the stories and doing my best to judge according to the scoring scale and judging guidelines, it occurred to me that while entering contests such as this gives authors valuable feedback, it might also set up false expectations. Here I was, liberally awarding four or five out of five to stories I’d only give three or four stars if I was reviewing on Amazon.

They were good—ready for submission, and possibly even ready for publication—but they still needed work. All of them needed copyediting for misplaced commas and missing speech marks. One of them had fundamental issues with point of view, another had more telling than showing. One had structure issues, and another tried to cram too many characters and too many scenes into the word count.

All of these problems are identifiable and fixable, but it left me wondering. Are all those fives encouraging writers to believe they can publish and acquire a never-ending stream of five-star reviews? Are contests like this failing writers by giving insufficient critical feedback, the feedback they need to improve? Or are they encouraging writers when they need it most?

By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (, or follow me on Facebook (, Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog ( I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2000.


  1. Re expectations of the authors.That's an interesting point to raise, Iola. You were eminently qualified to judge after the thousands of books you've read and reviewed.However, I prefer comments rather than star rating because as you say there were more than one issue in each rating that needed to be addressed.

    It's more of a learning process to be guided why an author is weak in a certain area, especially if the author suspects it but doesn't know how to fix the problem. Still, if star ratings are the criteria the judge just has to abide by it.

    I guess publishers set the rules for how many points of view they expect. As you know I originally loved having quite a few characters express their POVs until I learned to cut to the mains and secondary characters only, which works in a full length novel.

    But those judging guidelines you followed are really neat because they set out a good framework to drape the story around. That's my POV :)

    1. You make a good point about comments. I was a little nervous about judging, so did the first then sent it to the contest judge and asked for feedback. Was I doing it right? Were my scores too high?

      She came back and said it was fine, and that the contestant would be delighted with the level of feedback, so I was confident to judge the others accordingly. I hope the contestants agree.

  2. hmm very interesting! I love entering competitions and your point is valid about the expectations that may result. Personally I think unrealistic expectations can be avoided by using the Beta reader and critique partner process, and entering multiple competitions with varying guidelines.

    1. I agree that using beta readers or critique partners can help manage expectations. However, I've found a lot of writers don't use them, and I suspect that's because they don't know to network with other writers and learn from them.

  3. Iola, great post! I like judging short story contests and reading the wide range of entries. The writing principles are similar to novels.

    You've brought up an important point. Ready for submission doesn't necessarily equate to being ready to hit the NYT best seller list. Unpublished writing contests that provide written feedback from judges are usually designed to encourage writers to learn and grow. They're a tool to help the entrant improve their writing. I usually mention grammar and copy editing issues in the entry once, if comments are allowed, but those additional comments may not be reflected in the numerical score sheet.

    I agree with Catherine about how writers can avoid unrealistic expectations. I've also read the opening pages of published fiction books that I'd be scoring in the 20-30% range if those pages were entered in a first five pages writing contest. That's using the criteria of 100% equals ready for submission.

    1. Thanks, Narelle!

      There was an initial (unscored) section where we could comment on grammar etc, and I did, as none of the entries were perfect. I know things like the Oxford comma are debated even among editors, but things like missing speech marks are straightforward proofreading. Simple mistakes this this showed, yet again, that we can't edit our own work.

  4. Hi Iola - I think you raise a very interesting point towards the end there when you mention liberally awarding four or five stars to stories you'd only give a three to on Amazon. Unless a story (long or short) is more than the sum of its component parts, it doesn't give the reader a sense of satisfaction at the end. Which is why an author's technical prowess can be virtually flawless, but a story doesn't quite work. I guess it's like music and whether or not it's got heart.

    1. "Unless a story (long or short) is more than the sum of its component parts, it doesn't give the reader a sense of satisfaction at the end."

      Well said. It's the subtext, what's going on behind the words, that makes a story great. Sexual tension comes to mind as a good example. Some authors use words in a way that makes me, as the reader, really feel the tension between the couple. Nothing is said, but it's there. Others are more obvious, and those are less satisfying to read.