Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Judging Writing Contests Can Improve Your Writing

Recently I volunteered to help judge a portion of the Utah Writers League state writing contest. Tim, somewhere in Utah, asked the president of the Coeur d’Alene chapter of Idaho Writers League president, Faye Higbee, for assistance. I answered the call. What I received in return for my volunteerism and 14 hours of work was a gift to my own writing.

This past April, I volunteered for the fifth year to help judge the Coeur d’Alene Public Library’s annual writing contest. This contest has many entries in its nonfiction and fiction categories drawing participants from second grade to 19+ years of age. Again, the rewards were multiple. I helped my community, encouraged the development of writing skills, received an invitation to a community volunteer thank you breakfast and garnered a gift to my own writing.

Writing North Idaho has sponsored three writing contest: one on first best short story line, a short story contest using the winning line from that contest and a haiku contest. I was a judge in two of the contests and a coordinator for the third. In all contests, my rewards were in multiples. I again encouraged writing among strangers by helping offer a contest where prizes were available (always an extra incentive), helped spread the joy of writing and improved my own writing skills.

I had a score sheet as a guide for these contests and using my own knowledge of writing, I was able to ascertain different levels of writing abilities where writers had entered their best work. Through the training of writing classes, reading many books about how to write, writing posts for this blog for three years and writing a book of my own, I was able to draw on those aspects of my writing skills to look objectively at others’ writing. I was surprised at how quickly some poor writing stood out----incorrect grammar, poor proof reading (mea culpa), uneven flow, unbalanced structure, and lack of focus.

On the other hand, I saw signs where authors had used an outline to help them pace and define their stories. I could discern good research and which writers had an excellent grasp of the rules of grammar. A good author limits the number of adverbs he uses, has a “hook” at the story’s beginning, uses the active voice and gives the reader a satisfying conclusion. These were evident in winning entries. I took mental notes as well as physical ones.

Judging all of the points in the preceding two paragraphs helps me to be a better writer because I can remember stories where there were good examples and bad examples. I am able to apply what is stored in my brain to make my writing better. I will always remember the pathos used by a writer who won our short story contest. It was about a Serengeti baby gazelle who had tripped while being pursed by a predator. This author, Lila Bolme of Post Falls, ID, skillfully built the tension from the first line, “Her long journey through pain was almost over” through the first gamboling steps of this carefree baby to her joyful exploration of her new world next to her mama, to the terror and innate sense she used to flee this dark thing following her, to her tripping and finally death. Ms Bolme had written it so skillfully that I was engrossed throughout and her writing ability made the story stick in my mind, hopefully forever. I learned the valuable lesson of how tension can help the story and I plan to I apply it to my stories.

In two stories I judged this week, the subject was about the legend that the Aztec chief, Montezuma, had secretly dispatched members of his tribe to stockpile hordes of gold from the Conquistadores after they imprisoned him. The folklore is that these runners transported and hid gold jewelry, icons, and decorative wear in the Uinta Mountains of Utah. What a great story to tell on many different levels. Unfortunately, neither of these writers was able to centralized his thoughts, use a time line or hone in on one or two aspects of the story, Both wandered off telling a little of this, nothing of that and avoiding what should have been the top theme throughout each story. I learned from reading those stories because I had a judge’s sheet to track “theme identified,” “clarity of subject,” and “satisfying conclusion.” In one instance, the hook came three paragraphs into the story which was by then already blurred. In the other story, the hook came where it should, at the beginning, but then the story wandered all over the chronological calendar with tidbits and unfinished tales of people looking for this hiding place or not looking for it. One story went on to tell of a man who found parts of these hidden treasures, melted them down and became wildly rich. However, the author failed to follow through on where this hiding place was and if people can visit it now, or if people continue to search for more treasure. In other words, there was no satisfying conclusion. I learned through their examples.

In another well written and highly graded story, I read about a simile between the millions of bats in India comparing them to the millions of Indians and their multiple levels of various living situations. The theme was all tinged with how wonderful diversity is. Another story adroitly told the benefits of hiring seniors and not just for the “Want fries with that?” type jobs. From scoring those stories, I learned how to set up a story, how to write back up facts interestingly and what were important things to say, how to write those points and how to write a satisfying conclusion.

I encourage you to find several different examples of score sheets for writing contests, either online or from actual contests. Use them as a guideline to critique your own writings. You will find it hones your writing ability and makes you a better writer.


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

This is a refreshing take on the plus side of judging a writing contest! Generally we think of contests as being of benefit only to the entrants, but being a judge is rewarding as well. Speaking of contests (how's that for a smooth segue? :-)) check out WNI's new Six Sentence Mystery contest in the sidebar to the right!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I mean left! lol

Jennifer Rova said...

Great segue! I have found judging to be very beneficial and fun. I hope Writing North Idaho's "Six Line Mystery" contest encourages many writers to submit.