Several months ago I was asked if I'd be willing to judge a writing contest. The organization who asked me is well respected with a good reputation, so I said yes. Then I forgot about it. Three weeks ago I got an email asking if I could still do it, and then last week, I got a packet in the mail stuffed with entries. Luckily, it was a flash fiction contest, so they were all short.
I've never judged a contest before and it felt weird being a judge after many years of being a writer who never won a single contest (or any kind of contest) in her life. What made me think I could judge the worthiness of a story? But I rolled up my editing sleeves and got to work.
This was a blind contest, so I had no idea who the author was or where they came from; the writing had to stand on it's own, as it should. There were two other judges, one of whom I knew, but we didn't talk until we had narrowed the field to our personal top five.
How do you judge a person's writing? What are the elements that make a good story? And how do you set aside your personal likes and dislikes to objectively judge a story on its writing skill rather than just the content?
Start with what's easiest, the mechanics of the story: spelling, punctuation, grammar, tense, and structure. Once I had weeded out the stories with mechanical issues (about half! Come on, people! When you enter a contest have someone edit it for spelling mistakes), I could move on to the next issue: does it meet the criteria for flash fiction?
According to Wikipedia, Flash Fiction "is basically a complete story - having a beginning, middle, and end - which confines itself to a very low word count." This contest required that the story be less than 500 words.
I read each remaining story a second time, looking for structure. Did it have a clear plot, with a protagonist, a challenge or obstacle that the protagonist must cope with, and was the protagonist changed in any way by that obstacle? Did it have a satisfying ending?
This is where the problem of subjectivity comes in because what feels like a satisfying story to me may not satisfy the literary needs of another judge. Which is exactly what happened. Each judge had chosen different stories.
The discussion began. My favorite story was ruled out by the other two judges because they felt it wasn't a complete story, but one of the stories they liked didn't meet my requirements for a complete story. We narrowed our choices down to five finalists and then discussed the merits of each. There was one story neither of the other judges liked, but after I argued in favor of its strengths they agreed it shouldn't be eliminated. I also agreed to keep a story I didn't personally like, but which met the criteria of flash fiction. The back and forth and comparing of notes went on for days.
Finally, we agreed on our winners.
I think about all the various writing contests I've entered over the years and what the discussion might have been amongst the judges. Hopefully I made it to at least the top twenty (I ALWAYS triple check my spelling when submitting work). I have a new respect for judges now that I know how difficult it is to chose a "winning work." And ultimately, it really does come down to what a judge personally thinks should comprise a great story. No matter how many times you check your spelling, you can't get around that.