Competition Judging Helps Your Writing

(Guest blog by author Erin O’Quinn.)

Recently I volunteered to be a judge in the Houston-area RWA Lonestar Writing Competition, judging entries in the area of history/historical romance. I thought that it might be rather a drudge to read through a series of 25-30 pageMSSwritten by anyone from fledgling writers to published authors. On the other hand, I had a hunch that judging other writers would help me know what publishers look for, and that it might help my own writing.

I was wrong . . . and I was right.

I was wrong to think that this would be a chore, like grading papers. Fully seventy-five percent of them were good, verging on very good. One of them I am sure I will buy as soon as it’s published. They were all fresh and appealing, though not equally stellar in the strict categories we had to judge.

I pass my observations along to you with the hope that they may help your own writing in some way.

I read each entry with new eyes, delighting in the individual viewpoint of talented people. I read a bird’s eye view of the 1900Galveston,Texashurricane, told from the point of view of a young priest, whose past was as intriguing as any I could imagine. I read a period piece about a woman in the uppercrust ofLondonsociety, a “spy” who was posing as a prostitute in a fancy whorehouse, whose special talent was to listen rather than to ply the world’s oldest trade. I read the beginnings of a compelling romance between a Roman general’s daughter and a captive Pict somewhere onHadrian’s wallin the fourth century AD. And I laughed and was dazzled by a story about a spy in nineteenth-centuryLondon’s great dark underbelly whose fiancee thinks he is dead, but who is nevertheless on a collision course to meet him again.

But the judging was far from easy. Each judge had to format the entry in the familiar “show comments” format that editors use when they send back our dreaded “edits.” As I searched each MS word by word, I began to feel a great empathy for my own editors who have to zero in on all my pov lapses, overuse of em-dashes, forgotten periods, unwanted spaces and worse.

We judges were admonished by the moderators to have an eye for the positive as well as the negative. After all, the word “critic” comes from the Greek word for “evaluator.” Even one well-turned phrase could be highlighted and noted with a word of encouragement. Apparently, although I never verified this, the writers would have the judges’ score sheets returned to them after the competition.

After poring over each manuscript and leaving remarks and suggested corrections in the margins, each judge had to fill in a kind of spreadsheet with scores from 1 to 5.  And here is where I formed an idea (and perhaps others who are reading this may see) what publishers must look for. I will break down each category, without going into great detail, to give you a taste of what your future publisher is probably looking for.

OPENING SCENE…Hook…convincing sense of time and place

CHARACTERIZATION…Effective descriptions…appropriate, consistent and credible characters…sympathetic even with flaws

PLOT…Progression building into an interesting story…logical and believable plot elements

NARRATIVE…Dialogue matching the characters…realistic, natural and true to the character’s voice…clear…show rather than tell…effective pacing…tone, action and tension

WRITING TECHNIQUE…Creative figures of speech…use of the 5 senses…scene transitions…attention to typos, grammar, punctuation…prose dynamic, easy to read, dominated by active verbs

OVERALL…Are all the elements woven together to produce a promising story?

Each category had to be sub-totaled with a number from 1 to 5 and then averaged for a total score. Any overall score under 3 had to be fully justified within the MS itself. By multiplying the final overall score by 2, we could give a “grade” somewhere between 20 and 100, where 100 would be ready to submit as-is.

And there you have it. Before I send my next MS to a publisher–actually, well before–I promise myself that I will look at my own entry with the same eyes that I graded these competition entries.

I hope my own experience may help other writers, too. I look forward to reading your comments and answering any questions you may have.

Erin O’Quinn 

Erin O’Quinn is a writer of historical romance whose setting is 5th-century Ireland. She earned a BA (English) and MA (Comparative LIterature) from the University of Southern California and lives far from the emerald isle in a small town in central Texas.

Erin O’Quinn blog:

Storm Maker:
The Wakening Fire:
Captive Heart:
Fire & Silk on Strand:


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  1. The list of categories is excellent, Erin – a superb checklist for every writer! I am printing this out for future reference!

  2. Elena Ahmadi says:

    very interesting Erin with very vauable points that I should keep in mind.

  3. Thanks, Paula!! It really helped me a lot. I’ve even begun to edit my own stuff using the “show comments” format that my own editors use. It was an eye-opener to me how much the RWA group ephasized voice, action verbs, and depth of characterization.

  4. That’s a great experience for any writer, Erin! Thanks for sharing such a comprehensive list with us.

  5. Dear Elena,

    I’m happy that you found some help in what I learned about the writing process. I certainly will never look at one of my own manuscripts in the same way again. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. xErin

  6. Dear Rosemary,

    Really glad that you came by. You’re right–it was an unforgettable experience. I hope they’ll invite me back next year. Now I’ll look for other opportunities to do the same. I certainly did put myself behind the keyboards of those writers and felt every pain and surge of imagination.

  7. Before my guest spot here is over, I want to thank Ron Knight for kindly allowing me to express my thoughts. That recent judging experience was one I’ll carry with me a long time, and it WILL affect my writing and the way I submit MSS to publishers. I hope the readers will have learned a few pointers, too, and I wish each one of you the next best-seller in your field.

    Warm regards, Erin O’Quinn

  8. thank you for such valueable advice ….i write short stories…….actually i’m a new writer…….and i’m constantly learning ………..thank you…….i write poetry ,as well and lyrics , writting is my passion…….

  9. Dear Melissa,

    I applaud your passion, and I actuallty share in those fervent emotions. I try to infuse my writing with the poetry that’s leaking through my soul, and sometimes it even works. Keep up the intensity, and I promise it will pay off.
    Best of success to you! Erin