Judging a short story contest and advice to a young writer

Judging fiction is difficult. This observation comes from a woman who spent several hours reading through twenty-seven short stories, all submissions to a writing contest. That would be me.

Remember how I stressed, sweated, and trembled over submitting my resume to a literary journal? (And wrote multiple blog posts about it to bolster my courage.) I didn’t receive the position as blog editor, but they promised to keep me in mind for other volunteer positions.

I thought that was a nice line in a form rejection letter. They were serious, and offered me the chance to serve on the panel that selects the semi-finalists for their annual short story contest.

The semi-finalists will go to a different panel, and the finalists will be judged by a guest writer. I have to narrow down my “yes” selections to twenty.

Currently, I have eighty-five submissions to read, and the deadline isn’t until the end of October. (The journal editor expects around two hundred submissions.) So I’m pondering short stories now, not resumes, and the works in consideration are by anonymous writers, not me.

Years ago, one of my professors told the class that he knew what grade a paper would receive after the first paragraph. (Cue horrified gasps and protests.) He read all the paper through, of course, and on rare occasions, he was wrong.

Literary agents have said they know if the novel is strong by the end of the first page (often, the first few sentences). Ditto for the query letter. (Cue angry protests from writers.)

I agree.

Let me be clear. I am reading each story.

Let me be equally clear. I know, within a paragraph, if the writer knows the writing craft. I’m not a professional anything, but I’ve read high quality fiction for decades. I recognize it. (I can’t necessarily write it, but I can recognize it.)

Let me be brutally honest. Most of the submissions are not winners. The stories aren’t ready for publication, and the writers aren’t mature enough in their craft development to realize it. This is clear within the first page, if not the first paragraph.

Let me be painfully honest. This hurts me. Each time I press the “no” button on a submission, I’m silently apologizing to the writer: Forgive me, I know this will hurt, but I have to do this.

I recognize the mistakes because I have made them, too.

Poor formatting. Stilted prose. Misuse of words. Grammatical, spelling, punctuation errors.

Melodrama, throwing rape or molestation or murder like Frisbees, when the subjects deserve serious exploration. A confusing plot. Or no plot at all, only a character lurching from one event to another, searching for a story.

The thinly disguised memoir pieces, usually from people who haven’t dealt with their past.

The young writer trying to write from the viewpoint of a middle aged or older person.

The highly educated trying to write like country hicks.

The middle class trying to write about the upper class or lower class, and unintentionally twisting the characters into caricatures, where the rich are all self-absorbed and drive flashy cars and the poor all have beer cans littered around the living room and the word “reckon” on their lips.

Trust me, I’ve made all these mistakes, and I still make these mistakes. That hurts.

Also trust me, as a judge, I hate knowing that each of these writers stressed over their stories, fussing like a new mama over her newborn, and believed that their story was ready for submission. Like hearing the declarations of a mama who believes her baby is the prettiest in the church nursery, it’s hard to shake my head and say, “No, it isn’t.”

I know that somewhere, these writers are sitting by their computers and anxiously waiting. Stressing, heart racing when they check their email accounts.

I also know the devastation when a form rejection arrives. No matter how kindly worded—and it will be kind from this particular journal—that rejection hurts. Why didn’t they say yes? the crushed writer wonders. Why can’t they tell me what I did wrong? A sentence or two, anything!

I wish I could tell you, dear writer. If I could, here’s what I would say:

It gives me no pleasure to vote “no” on your work.

But it isn’t ready. You aren’t ready. Your craft isn’t mature enough to write what you want to write, what you hunger to write.

This is about the writing, not you as a person. Always remember that.

I want to give you advice, from one growing writer to another.

I would tell you what I liked in your work. That turn of a phrase. That germ of a compelling conflict, the one that could grow into a strong story. That insight about your character, about humanity.

I would tell you what I think needs work.

I wouldn’t lie. Writing well is hard work. It is not without its pleasures and rewards, but it is difficult.

And most of all, I would tell you this:

Keep writing.

If it is your passion, keep writing.

If you are willing to invest hours and years to learning your craft, keep writing.

If you feel God laying a hand of blessing upon your work, keep writing.

If it leaves you in tears and devastates you and rips your heart from your chest, wrestle that bloody, pulsing mess onto the paper and keep writing.

If you are willing to take that heart on paper, the pulpy, bleeding first draft, and cut it apart, dissecting and slicing and analyzing, only to hurt through the same painful procedure with each successive draft, keep writing.

Don’t ask me about talent. That has almost nothing to do with publishing success.

Talent is cheap.

Hard work is expensive.

But no one else can tell the story you can. No one else can do this hard work for you. You have to do it. You.

Keep writing.


(Updated on 11/14/14: I came across an excellent post by Josh Spilker on this subject. Writing Fiction? 21 (or 22) Things A 21-year-old Should Be Doing. It’s for all young writers, even if they are well over twenty one, and is filled with advice that I wish someone had given me earlier in life.)


15 thoughts on “Judging a short story contest and advice to a young writer

  1. Well said Laura. Unfortunately after years of saying i wanted to write, i realized it didn’t really spark a passion within me much as i tried (forgive my lack of capitalizing pronouns but i’m writing this from a phone). However i found a new hobby which i’m trying to cultivate. The piano. And yes your advice rings true for that too… just replace writing with playing. Good luck on submission reading.
    No need to apologize for rejecting submissions though. It’s better to hurt than to harm according to the Boundaries authors Cloud & Townsend. Their example is that getting your teeth cleaned hurts but produces good results. Sugar does just the opposite.

    Your friend,


    1. Elina,
      I’m happy that you’re working on your piano playing! I played the piano off and on in elementary and high school; although I worked hard, I didn’t have a passion and talent for music, and finally I convinced my parents to let me quit. Best of luck on it. To modify the final bit of my post . . . keep playing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so glad that journal recognized you are someone who can contribute to their efforts, Laura. Who knows where this will lead?

    As for the rejections, they’re never easy but they are inevitable. Your advice might help others to deal with it better.


    1. I’m thrilled to help with the judging, even if it doesn’t lead anywhere. Each time I open a submission, I get this tingling feeling of hope: this might be good. It might even be a winner. It’s the same feeling when I see the emails from agents or journals, and think, oh, this might be an acceptance! Rejection is hard, so I was preaching as much to myself as anyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is absolutely fantastic. (H/t to Tim for putting the link to this on Twitter!) As a fiction writer and editor, I totally gel with everything you said–about the disappointment for the writer yet the “it’s just not ready” that must be said by someone.

    If it helps–all the times I was rejected made (and are still making!) me into a better writer. Each time gave me something new to work on, and when I jumped in with gusto, I had the joy of seeing something better come out of all that hard work. So thank you for rejecting authors, because you are helping us be better.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All the rejections I’ve received have been helpful, too. Even when they were form rejections–and there have been many of those–they were helpful because the rejection confronted me with this question: Am I willing to keep writing and growing, even when it feels impossible, even when it hurts, even when I’d rather do anything other than keep trying?

      Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth. I think I’ve read your comments at Tim’s blog. Thanks for stopping by. It’s always great to meet another fiction writer.


    1. Glad you like the post, Dyane. I think these things are pretty awesome:
      1. my wonderful online friends!
      2. that I get to write!
      3. the feeling of anticipation each time I open a submission and wonder, oh, will THIS be the winner?
      4. being alive!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I tweeted it too – remember that when I comment I’m sweating like a superfreak on that elliptical since reading blogs like yours while working out lures to me to the machine – it’s my self-bribe! Your blog deserves better, longer comments! I’ll try to remember to write them post-workouts whenever I can! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is good advice. I was always under the delusion that writing just happened naturally without much work. I have never written fiction, but I spent hours writing for school and the biggest challenge for me was deadlines. I never seemed to have enough time to finish a piece and get it to where I wanted before I submitted it. I feel the same way about blogging. My self imposed deadlines are helpful because they force me to finish something, but I also never feel satisfied with what I post. If that makes sense.
    Congrats on this opportunity! I can’t think of a better person to judge someone else’s work.


    1. Thank you for such a sweet compliment! I feel honored to be able to be a judge in this contest.

      Honestly, I’ve never done well with deadlines. I always met my school-related deadlines, but self-imposed ones are a different story. I become stressed, even when there’s no reason to be stressed, and I have to be easier on myself. The blog post doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes, “perfect” is the enemy of “finished”, I’ve heard.


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