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Writing Challenge Judging Criteria
by Allen Scovil
9/21/2006 / Writing
Modified Sept. 21, 2006
The judges are allowed room to be subjective each week, which is why some of the criteria are set the way they are. This keeps the personal in the midst of the technical (if that makes sense). Some judges found, in the past, that they had to rate some entries very high when they really didn't like them at all. This way, they are able to be a little more personal in some of their ratings - even the genre question.
The subjective factor will always be a reality, and the fact that there are different judges on every single week will mean that you can't write to please them. They are all very different. Even the judges on in the same week can be very different. So don't necessarily think that, because you didn't rank well overall, you didn't hit the target with one or two of the judges. You may have. But we are looking for the entries that have the greatest appeal to the most readers. That's the way the Challenge works.
There are nine categories that the judges use to evaluate each entry. Entries are rated on a scale of 0.0 to 5.0 (and every shade of point in between) on each of these criteria:
1. How well did this entry fit the topic?
This is pretty standard - the entry gets full marks if it does. For example (a very rough one, but hopefully helpful), someone writes a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the topic 'break,' and, just to make sure they are covering the topic, they suddenly throw in a sentence, 'Milly broke a vase as she came into the room.' The fact that Milly broke the vase is not referred to again and has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. It was simply used to get a 'break' of some description into the entry. In that case, the entry would be rated fairly low in this category. If the vase-breaking incident was referred to again, but still had nothing to do with the story, then they may rate a little higher. But if the vase-breaking incident is completely integral to the story (because Milly was in a museum and tripped over a priceless ming vase), then that's spot-on for the topic.
2. How creative was this entry?
Is it a story line that has been done over and over? With 'Soul' (summer of '06), too many people did the 'Will you sell your soul to the devil?' angle, but they still got good marks if it was in an interesting setting - like the pawn shop or the toy manufacturer's place.
3. How well-crafted was this entry?
Here could kill you if the judges don't see genuine talent in the writing. They want to see and hear and smell and taste. They want to be there in the story. If you can't bring them there, they aren't involved enough to care. Just telling them about things doesn't cut it; that's like sitting in a lecture hall. So, let us feel how muggy the woods are, with mosquitoes buzzing around one's ear. What about the creepy feeling on the back of your neck--is someone watching you? Remember, if you tell us something, then it goes into the head. If you make us feel something, then it goes into the heart. Make us care about your characters. Make us feel what they are feeling.
Don't try to be too creative with your 'tags'. Tags are the "he said" or "she replied" things that go with dialog. A beat is when instead of a tag, you describe what the character is doing ("I'm tired," he said. vs. "I'm tired." He laid his head against my shoulder.) Use tags very sparingly. And don't write something like 'Why don't you just shut up?' she exasperated (Near to a true-life example, by the way). A little goes a long way with tags. Also, you don't need both tags and beats. Just the beat is fine.
If you have a persons thoughts in italics, then the reader knows it is a thought. You don't need to add the 'he thought' tag.
Always separate each new speaker's words into a new paragraph - that's not a preference, that's a grammar rule (probably because it makes a conversation so much easier for a reader to follow).
Avoid 'there is' and 'there are' (and 'there was/were') statements like the plague. (Listen for the thud each time you use them!) Usage of 'there is/are' is passive and somewhat weak. Rearrange the sentence and use an action verb instead, when possible. Consider the following: 'There are houses on the hillside.' vs. 'Houses dot (or line, or cover) the hillside.'
If you are writing in first person, then either let us know the sex of the main character right away, or don't tell us at all. I hate being distracted from a story by a surprise "Mr." right in the middle of the climax, when I thought the MC was female.
Vary the kinds of sentences and word order that you use. Keep an eye out that your sentence and paragraph beginnings aren't all the same. Then there are the comments like "he ran quickly." Running is normally pretty quick. (Beware the evil adverb!)
Sometimes it is the littlest things that are obtrusive and interrupt the flow of the story. For instance, watch for repetitiveness. I read a story once that had three sentences almost in a row in which the last word in each sentence rhymed with the last word of the other sentences. It was done by accident, but it gave me the giggles, and it took me half a page to get back into the serious mood of the story. On the same note, I almost started a challenge entry for the work topic with the words "Just keep working. Just keep working." It was going to be a very serious scene, but as soon as I heard the words in my head, I could hear Dori from 'Finding Nemo' chanting, "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming." I didn't want to mess up the reader in the same way, so I changed it. I think these sorts of problems can often be caught if you read your entry out loud to yourself. It's amazing what you can trip over that way; it looks okay but doesn't sound right.
One of my big weaknesses is POV (point of view) shifts. If Ann is your MC (main character), then you can't say: "Jon was uncomfortable." You can only say "Jon seemed uncomfortable", or better yet show how Jon is uncomfortable by his constant shifting, or tugging on his clothes, etc. Think: how does Jon appear to Ann?
The fewer words you have, the more the words you do have will impact the reader. Check and make sure you aren't saying the same thing in several different ways. You dont need to have your character think something, say it, and have the narrator tell you about it.
4. Did the entry start well?
I want my ears to perk up; I want to lean forward closer to my monitor so that I miss nothing because the opening lines were so interesting.
Don't tell us what happened. Dump us in the middle of what's happening and let us figure it out. Jonny's turning red and spluttering? He must be mad, and probably a little embarrassed, too. Darren is frozen and can't breath? Obviously he's scared.
Keep your first sentence short and eye-catching. I've noticed that long sentences don't grab me in as effectively. Try to at least have a short first section set off by a comma.
5. Did the entry come to a satisfying conclusion?
This may be better worded: Did the ending wrap up this entry well? Has the story been wrapped up, not left hanging with unfinished details? It's pretty easy to score big here.
This does not mean 'hunky dory,' everyone lives happily ever after, or all tied up in a neat little bow (happy or not). It just means that the author didn't leave the reader feeling cheated. Too often the entries come to a fizzle rather than a finish which is satisfactory and satisfying.
You are more likely to get marked down in this category if the entry ends with a 'thud' - like the sound of the phone book of a major metropolitan area hitting a table when thrown down in disgust. Thud. If it seems that the writer just plain ran out of words (hit the 750 limit, or couldn't complete their thought), that's not a good ending.
Beware of closing your entry with a scripture verse (or passage), or song lyrics, or a quotation. If it feels 'tacked on,' that's bad, but, if it completes or complements the point of the entry, that's good.
6. Did this entry have a clear point or message?
Even if it did not fit the topic, if it had a point, this one is easy to score well on too. Most of the points this week (Soul) were about needing God in your soul to get you to heaven, or needing God to water your soul. It can be tricky, however, because some of the best, most enjoyable writing does not necessarily have a point; it is enjoyed for what it is. This factor is probably more important when it comes to non-fiction than with fiction.
Just the same, ask yourself: Why am I bothering to write this if there is no point? The responsibility of a writer to a reader is like anyone in any conversation. 'So what?' should never be a viable response.
7. Did it flow smoothly and have minimal errors with grammar?
You should have a beginning, middle and end. It can't jump all over the place.
Grammar doesn't get marked down too much, but it does get marked, and a decimal point for a typo or a mis-spelled word can easily drop an entry a couple of places, everything else being equal. However, I want it set in concrete that minor typos should never lose enough points to knock an entry out of contention. It would have to be riddled with glaring spelling mistakes for that to happen. Judges are looking for significant grammatical issues (poor sentence structure, wrong use of punctuation, major spelling errors, etc.). They are also looking at the flow of the entry, so a couple of very minor typos should not be considered in the same light as that of a poorly constructed entry.
You should always keep in mind that FaithWriters is a site with members from all around the world, and UK English is used by many of the writers. The US has variations of UK English. It is the difference between such words as 'counselling' and 'counseling', 'neighbour' and 'neighbor', 'favourite' and 'favorite'. All are quite acceptable spellings for the version of English the author has been using.
Beware of shifting tenses. (Past tense has happened already, present tense is right now, future tense hasn't happened yet, plus lots of variations.) Most people agree that writing in the present tense is the hardest to do, and easiest to slip out of, so you might want to avoid that unless you're very careful. Also, flashbacks are very tricky to pull off in writing, even though we see them all the time on TV and in the movies.
Commas! When I'm reading an entry on the week I'm judging (and reading it to myself), I say out loud 'Comma' when there wasn't one and should have been (a pause=a comma) and 'No comma' when there was one and shouldn't have been (no pause when spoken=no comma). Comma usage (or failure to use) would be the number one problem I would cite, if I had to rank writing problems.
Blank space in an entry REALLY, REALLY helps make it readable. In other words, leave a blank line between paragraphs. PLEASE!
8. How well did it work within its own genre? (poetry, fiction, devotion, etc.)
The question could be re-worded to say, 'Did the author accomplish what they set out to do?' If it's humor, did it make me laugh? If it's a thriller, was it scary? If it's a poem, did it have rhythm and flow (even a freestyle poem has flow)?
The genre category was put in to provide a bit of protection for the non-fiction/poetry writers. Believe it or not, this time last year (i.e.: summer of 2005) we had people complaining that poetry never had a chance. Good poetry always did, but we wanted to make sure that everyone's entry was being rated on its own merits, in its own genre. So it's not really a case of being very specific about sub-genres. It's just asking the judges to say whether it was effective in that genre - so, was it a good poem? Was it a good devotion? Was it a good bit of teaching? Was it a good short story? Did it work?
This is just an observation - devotionals don't tend to 'win.' The winning entries are more often fiction, with poetry rapidly rising in the ranks. Devotionals and other non-fiction pieces don't usually resonate with the judges. Why? Because fiction and poetry enable their authors to give freer range to their imaginations, and thus are more likely to be fresh, creative, new.
Many people here have been Christians for years, even decades, and have read and heard lots and lots of devotional, or 'teaching', material, so writers of that type of material have to be doubly sure to come up with something that people find exciting to read.
Another problem with devotionals is 'Christian-ese', the familiar words and phrases that come so automatically to us. Unfortunately, the fact that they are familiar makes them stale to Christian readers, and puzzling to non-Christians who don't know the jargon.
When you use Bible verses in your article, and then put the references on the bottom of the article, perhaps saying something like 'references listed in the order of their appearance' rather than trying to put distracting *'s in the middle of the article. (By the way, footnotes don't count in the word count. Even a tacked on Scripture at the end is not included in the count. Deb really does try to make as many allowances as possible. All the same, don't turn your footnotes into 'Gone with the Wind,' okay?)
If you are writing freestyle poetry, make sure you keep it free of a set meter, in all places. There is nothing worse that reading a poem that has a set meter in the first two lines that then dissipates into freestyle. The reader spends several minutes trying to make the rest of the poem fit the set meter, before realizing that it was supposed to be freestyle. Freestyle poems, however, do want to have a flow to them.
9. How well did the entry connect with or involve the reader?
Yes, this is very personal. If a piece interests the judge and they want to keep on reading, then they are connected. If they love it and gasp in awe and wonder at its overall gob-smacking mix of all things good, then it will get a five.
Dub's criteria: 1) have a catchy first line; 2) keep me interested; 3) avoid multiple syntax errors; 4) stay away from second person essays; 5) kill adverb use.
It's only fair to mention that this information has been gleaned or directly quoted from entries on our very own message board, but there are too many people to mention individually. Thanks everyone.
Allen Scovil has been writing as a hobby since 2003, struggling to learn to tell the story that God has put on his heart.
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