Notes From a Contest Reader

A Note That’s an Introduction and an Apology: this turned out longer than I’d anticipated. I hope it’s still helpful.

Let there be light!

I’ve written recently about three lenses through which one could revise a piece of writing. Today, I’m thinking about them again as writing contest season ramps up.

A full blog post about those three lenses is here. Here’s a brief recap. The subject of your piece is what your draft is about. Your ambition for the piece is the final form you want it to take. The execution is how close to your ambition you come and how well you convey your subject.

A Note about Contests: Most contests (and literary journals) rely on volunteer and/or anonymous readers—sometimes one, sometimes a team—for the first round of reading. (An administrator might have already tossed out entries or submissions that don’t meet the stated criteria—for example, word count or formatting.)

These readers select the top entries--sometimes the top 6, 10, 12, maybe even 20 or more, depending on the total number of entries.

Some contests use two or more rounds of readers—again, depending on the size and number of entries. A contest that gets 1000 entries and skims the top 10% for further review is still evaluating 100 entries.

Along the way, the contest announces some entries, perhaps as finalists or a longlist. Often it’s from this subset that the actual Big Name Judge chooses the winning entries, plus perhaps some honourable mentions.

For several years at different times, I’ve served as a reader for national and regional contests, looking at both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve worked as an individual and as part of a team, using different scoring and selection methods.

All systems for judging contests (and for everything else; systems are imperfect) have pro and cons and are inherently subjective. Contests are, after all, managed by humans, with distinct likes and dislikes. Ultimately, a contest’s system aggregates individual tastes.

A Note about Using Lenses to Revise: And here’s where those lenses come in. Thinking through them as you revise might help you understand why a specific contest didn’t recognize your work. They might help you find a contest or publication that’s a better fit. Or they might help you revise your work so that it’s a better match for your dream contest or publication. 

Incidentally, that's why the basic advice for writers is to read: read the publication and previous year’s winners to see what has worked for them in the past.

A Note About My Experience: In both fiction and nonfiction, I saw a lot of writing addressing similar subjects.

* The cancer or other serious illness diagnosis, as told by the patient, the spouse, the child, the child’s best friend, the parent.

* The death of parent, spouse, child, friend, boyfriend, BFF, worst enemy in middle school.

* The coming-of-age story (yes, both fiction and nonfiction) in which the writer recognizes some important life lesson around adults being imperfect, revenge being futile, and/or the inescapability of personal humiliation.

* The “dude we were so wasted” story* (yes, both fiction and nonfiction) told by an affected child, a sober person, one of the impaired persons, a neighbour, a bystander; these stories usually had just enough bodily fluids to be edgy; these stories also tended to end in extreme hilarity, extreme tragedy, or some mixture thereof (but not in the middle).

* The “human against Nature” story, usually about a boy and again with the bodily fluids, often a riff on the coming-of-age story that focuses less on disappointment in other humans and more on the actual dangers of farm or sporting equipment, plus cold weather and (literal) thin ice or excessive heat.

I am not mocking any of these types of stories. I have written my fair share of “death of a parent” and “illness of a spouse” pieces, to say nothing of stories of people (of various ages) struggling to understand what the heck is going on in the world (some of which have also included weather and bodily fluids).

Serving as a contest reader has helped me see how my lovely, heartfelt, obviously PERFECT writing might appear to a reader—and therefore, why it might not be recognized.

A Note About The Effect of Reading Contest Entries: Here’s the problem. Entries start to sound the same.

The writing that fell into these content groups was often written with great feeling and exquisite sentences. But the pieces had the same ambition. They aimed at a close-third-person short story or personal essay, heavy on personal content and heartwarming (sometimes banal and tidy) conclusions, and lacking anything more—anything more insightful or unexpected, more connected to a broad swath of time (even, possibly, the future), more connected to the specifics of a culture (theirs, mine). They presented nothing for a reader to learn, though what they wrote was … fine.

BUT! Sometimes, a writer had a different ambition. This writer aims in a slightly different direction—“higher,” if you are into hierarchies; I’m not, so I’d say these writers were going somewhere unique. They made room for untidy, chaotic feelings and impulsive or baffling, inconsistent decisions; maybe they presented new information (like a brief history of warfare in a specific region); or perhaps they foregrounded a person with an interesting and insightful voice who was in an interesting situation.

Sadly, these writers often couldn’t deliver a coherent reading experience (sorry, that that sounds hoity-toity). Their execution was lacking—the writer didn’t quite have the mastery to pull it off. Beyond the mechanics of spelling and grammar, which might be 100% (all the sentences made sense), they didn’t create a sense of consequence or consequences—nothing happened. The piece had no shape; everything somehow carried the same weight. (Maybe this makes me an old-fashioned reader. Again, this is just my experience.)

Even experiments in form aren’t a sure-fire “fix” for content that’s “all over the place” or “too expected.” Writing in the form of a weather report, a course syllabus, a post-mortem exam, a braided essay, or a glossary can be interesting. But unique forms can feel like another clichéd device. Instead of “oh, another close third-person narration” it’s “oh, a story told backward” or “oh, another recipe.” Ideally, a unique form adds something to or comment on the content, and sometimes it doesn’t.

So as a reader, I often had to make difficult choices. Do I select from among myriad same-sounding, well-executed, perfectly fine but unexciting entries? Do I forward a chronological story with an interesting voice that fizzles, leaving me baffled and frustrated? Do I forward something that uses an unusual form, even if it doesn’t really help the subject or the execution needs serious tweaking?

You can see how different people--contest readers, contest judges, publication editors--would make different choices.

But still: you can play with your piece’s ambition, subject, or execution and see if changing it helps you get your point across. It's one way into revising. 

A Note That’s Evergreen: This is a lot. Sometimes, writing is hard. Sometimes, revising is also hard. And both are so, so worth it. There’s nothing more exciting than finding the sweetest spot you are capable of at any given time—that perfect marriage of subject, ambition, and execution that leaves you satisfied.

Even if, five years later, you pick up something published and roll your eyes at your past self.

Even if the writing never finds a publication that resonates with it, but five years later, you pick it up think, “Hmm, this is pretty good.”

It’s all worth it. And although you can’t control “best of” lists, “eagerly anticipated” lists, or “finalist” lists, to say nothing of “yes we’d love to publish this” decisions, you DO have some control.

You get to decide all these things—your subject, ambition, and execution level—and keep writing.

That’s the most important thing.



* A category named by Phoebe Buffay on Friends.