Craft Tips Culled from Contest-Judging

If you’re a Practicing Writer newsletter subscriber, you’ve already seen this piece, which was featured in the issue that went out last week. But I thought I’d reprint it here. Enjoy!


by Erika Dreifus

As some of you may remember, my writing practice recently expanded when I was invited to judge a short fiction competition. I am very grateful to have been asked to take on this role, and I am eager to see the winning stories announced (which should happen at the beginning of October).

One of the most interesting aspects of reading the nearly two dozen finalist pieces that were forwarded to me was the opportunity to reflect, once again, on what makes a story “succeed.” Since I was required to comment on each winning story – touching on why I’d selected it as well as offering some ideas on what might further improve it – I had ample reason to revisit some of the lessons I have absorbed over the years about the craft of fiction. And so, this month, I thought I’d share five tips on how to strengthen a story based on my recent immersion in an array of short fiction contest entries.

1. Give your story a title. A title can help pique a reader’s attention and ease her transition into the story. (And from this judge’s admittedly idiosyncratic viewpoint, it simply seems more appropriate to award a prize to a specific story rather than to “Untitled.”)

2. Unless you have a specific purpose – such as writing a story *entirely* in direct dialogue – it’s a good idea to vary the direct and indirect approaches. Incorporating direct dialogue provides an opportunity to render characters more distinct through their individual word choice, dialect, and cadence. Indirect dialogue can be especially useful for summarizing information that need not be presented word for word.

3. Again, unless you’re seeking to attain a specific effect, vary sentence structure and sentence length. Same goes for paragraphs. Shake things up! Everything – words, sentences, paragraphs – is a tool in your writerly toolbox. Use it all to maximum effect!

4. In the case of the competition I judged, writers had the option to begin the story with a prompt that presented a first-person narrator-character looking into a mirror. Ordinarily, however, having a character look into a mirror and describe his or her eyes, hair, teeth, etc., is not a very useful technique. Unless, perhaps, you wish to heighten the sense of your character’s narcissism (or self-criticism).

5. It’s a rare successful story that is composed of a character’s unsituated memories/ruminations.

And one last tip, although I know we all hear it all the time: proofread, proofread, and proofread again. You do not want a judge stopped mid-read by misplaced apostrophe marks.

Now, go forth, write, and submit!

2 thoughts on “Craft Tips Culled from Contest-Judging

  1. Monica Manning says:

    I entered that competition, Erika. I don't imagine I was short-listed, so you may not have read my story (Sundae Dinner, submitted under my real name). It was my first competition and, although I didn't place, I did receive what I thought was a very good review. The constructive criticism was the reason I entered–to learn and grow as a writer. I am already working on my story for the next quarterly competition.

    I enjoyed the winner's story and actually laughed out loud at the ending.

  2. Erika D. says:

    Hi, Monica. I apologize for the delay in responding to your comment. Keep submitting your work! And I'm glad you enjoyed that story.

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