I received a notice recently, letting me know about a local short story competition that was taking place. Around the same time last year, the organisers of that competition rang me to ask if I would judge it. A chance to read stories? I certainly wasn’t going to turn that down.
It was my second time judging a competition; the first one was in association with a local radio programme. When judges announce the winners of competitions, they always start by saying what a close run thing it was. From my experiences, this isn’t strictly true. In both cases, I knew who the winner was straight away.
Here are the ingredients that I believe winning stories have, and they also apply to other writing forms.
- Know Your Form
Most competitions cater to a specific form of writing: poems, short stories, plays. If you want to reach the final stages, your entry must show an understanding of the conventions of the form you have chosen. For example, a short story must be a complete story in itself, based on a central event. I disqualified stories which read like the start of a novel, or an extended character sketch, even though they were very promising.
- Don’t reveal too much
You do need to get on with telling a story, but the most rewarding stories I judged were the ones that didn’t spell everything out, the ones that made you work a little bit to grasp their message. Stories like this have a greater emotional impact, and linger in the mind for longer. They also show great writing skill, as the author uses images and dialogue to make their point.
- Knowledge of Techniques
Winning pieces of writing demonstrate a knowledge of the techniques of good writing. For example, a winning short story will demonstrate the writer’s knowledge of characterisation, plot and setting. What’s more, the techniques don’t dominate the story; they’re woven into it with a lightness of touch which means the reader is barely aware they’re being used.
- And above all … passion
You can use all the fancy techniques you like, but it’s the passion you feel for your story or poem that will help it rise to the top. Telling a story with passion makes it memorable, and that’s to your advantage when a judge is wading through dozens of entries. And when it comes down to the wire, passion will give your story the edge. When I was deciding between two stories, I eventually chose the ones which haunted me, which made me think long after I’d put them down. A passionate story or poem resonates with readers, so don’t be afraid to take emotional risks with your writing – it will reap rewards.
These are my two cents worth. What do you think makes a winning piece of writing? Did you ever judge a writing competition and what did you look for? And if you entered a competition and got feedback, what insight did that feedback give you about what the judges were looking for?