Make the Judges Care: How to up your odds in a writing contest, by Anne Mahon



Writing contests are like speed-dating events: nervous writers with only minutes to make a lasting first impression, and judges hoping (at times praying) to find a recipient worthy of their affection and commitment.

I learned this recently as a first-time judge for a creative nonfiction writing contest sponsored by my city’s main newspaper. One week, 93 entries, 1,500 words each. It was like impatiently combing a patchy 600-page book for the best six-page excerpt.

I was excited to join my two co-judges in seeking out the most memorable pieces of writing. Yet, although we did read a few great pieces, I was shocked at the amount of mediocre, even careless work that had been submitted. Judging the contest was a hugely informative (and formative) experience, generating in me an urgent, humble concern for my own writing.

Here’s what I learned:

The opening paragraph sets the tone for the encounter between writer and judge (or reader). As a handshake and eye contact — or lack thereof — can turn a speed-dater on or off, so too can an opening paragraph. The opening sets the tone for the experience the reader will have “inside” the piece. If it’s unexciting, expectations plummet and the overburdened judge starts looking for an excuse to move on to the next piece.

There must be substance to back up the accepted invitation. Once you’ve made it past hello, judges are looking for effective voice, character development, dialogue, and emotional truth. Use these to make the judges care.

Good content and craft must go hand in hand. Superior content delivered in a flawed writing style won’t impress — but neither will the most beautifully crafted piece, if the story isn’t meaningful.

Clichés make your writing sound stale. The overuse of clichés among the submissions was jaw dropping. In the quest for a voice that’s fresh, better to replace a cliché with a clean, simple phrase. Even topics can feel cliché. The contest received an abundance of pieces about travel, dying and dementia-affected parents, and relocation. If you choose to write on a popular topic, your approach must be insightful and unique, your craft impeccable.

Every paragraph, every sentence, and ideally every word should have purpose. Edit, edit, edit. This unseen effort demands a ruthless pen, but separates the extraordinary from the ordinary.

The ending is the final opportunity to impart something unforgettable. Like the last taste of melting chocolate on your tongue, it should be satisfying and leave a hint of what was. Or do the opposite and slam the reader to the floor in shock or wonder.

Don’t underestimate the significance of the title. Avoid those that explain, or give away too much. Among 93 entries were four identical titles that restated the broad topic of the contest: “An Unfamiliar Place.” Yawn. My favourite titles were curious ones that evaded easy definition or held multiple meanings.

Check carefully for typos and minor errors. Vigilant proofreading is a must; otherwise judges will think you do not value your work and their time enough to take maximum care. Reading aloud is a great way to catch tiny errors.

Use 12-point font with black ink unless otherwise noted. Our contest’s winning entry was selected independently by two of the three judges on the first read; however the third judge had not read it because of its varying shades of purple ink. She had eyesight and forgiveness issues. When pressed, she refused to read it, and eventually excused herself from the panel. Lucky for the winner, the story’s language was gorgeous, the content distinctive and memorable, and the remaining judges were unanimous and committed.

Two factors that affect selection are completely out of the writer’s control: the calibre of the contest’s other entrants and the personal taste of judges. Enter the smaller contests; your chances will improve. As for taste, my personal preference was for clean writing that stayed out of the way of the story. A style that sounded new, creating either pop or a pause of appreciation was even better. And don’t underestimate the power of humour, even when writing on a serious topic.

Ultimately writers must write for themselves. Chasing contests and valuing yourself based on their outcomes will leave you unhappy, and always searching. If you love writing, keep writing. No matter what. Keep reading too. You never know when you’ll find yourself stepping into the pages of something special.


♦     ♦     ♦

Anne Mahon’s first book The Lucky Ones: African Refugees’ Stories of Extraordinary Courage won the Manitoba Library’s 2013 On The Same Page Book Award, promoted as the book every Manitoban should read. All author proceeds are being donated to two local charities assisting refugees. Visit for more information.

(Anne was a student in my University of Toronto SCS writing course Memories into Story.)



  1. So well defined Anne! Several of you points (choosing a title, size of font) sound so simple, yet are immensely important. Thank you for this.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks Allison. I guess the basics are the basics for a reason.
      “We often stand in need of learning what we know full well.”- Walter Savage Landor

  2. Anne, thank you for sharing your great advice for writers who wish to enter contests. A beautifully-written post. I hope your writing is going well. Janis (Memories Into Story, Fall 2013).

  3. Anne says:

    Thanks Janis! Nice to hear from you. All is well, and I am wishing the same for you.

  4. Jeff Preyra says:

    Thanks Anne, for the good advice.
    It goes without saying that these things need to be said.

  5. Christine Barbetta says:

    Thank you so much, Anne, for the excellent advice and information. It’s also very interesting to understand these points from your experience judging a major contest. There are so many practical and helpful insights, I’m definitely going to have a copy of this post taped above the computer and not just for contest entries

Leave a Comment