The Benefits of Judging a Writing Contest

Sunday, November 12, 2017
If you have the opportunity to be a judge for a writing contest, whether or not you get paid, I highly suggest you do it. I don't usually suggest working for free (or for mere pennies), but I'm going to make a strong statement here...

Being a contest judge will improve your writing as much as, or even more than, taking a writing class.

Which, by the way, you usually have to pay for!

Why do I think this? How do I know? I have judged a lot of contests, including the first round of entries for some WOW! contests. Through these experiences, I have learned:

  • Some subjects are completely overdone. I hate to tell someone NOT to write about a topic that is personal and close to them; but if you are going to write about a common topic, such as surviving cancer or aging parents, then you need a fresh and unique spin or a flawless voice. 
  • Humor almost always succeeds. Humor is difficult; and if you are clever and witty, then you will find your voice in the literary world. 
  • You or your characters should not boast or play the victim. In conversation, no one likes to hear someone else go on and on about themselves--either bragging OR saying how horrible things are for them. However, readers want to read heartbreaking and emotional stories. You really do have to show these emotions, but definitely don't tell them to the reader.
  • The beginning line and paragraph are really as important as everyone says they are.
  • A good edit is worth every penny and every minute.
I have been judging contests for so long that I can almost tell from the opening paragraph how well I am going to like the story or essay, even though I read them all to the end (of course). This totally challenges me to make my own writing better, to come up with a unique subject or angle, and to model my writing after the many entries I have read and thought: Holy cow! That was so amazing. 

What I am suggesting here is not any different than the advice Stephen King gives in his memoir/how to book, On Writing. He tells writers that the most important thing they can do is to read. I'm just going one step further and saying, Judging really causes you to think about what makes a story/essay/poem great and what makes it mediocre; and how can you take your writing to a great level? 

If you don't know anyone who needs a contest judged and you belong to a writing group, you can certainly make your own contest. You can open it up to other writers or just keep it in your group or both. Writers LOVE contests, so you will probably find yourself full of entries to judge if you have a reasonable entry fee and nice prizes. 

Have you ever judged a writing contest? Did you find the experience invaluable? 

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. To take her novel writing course, which starts the first Friday in December, please see the details here. To find out more about her, please see her website:

balloon photo by alibree (


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I recently served as one of the judges for the St. Louis Youth Poet Laureate. It was incredibly fun to read what high schoolers are writing these days. (And yes, I said, "Holy cow!" too many times to count as I read the submissions.)

Margo Dill said...

Awesome, Sioux, thanks for sharing your experience!

Joanne said...

Great post, Margo. I used to run a "Writers Read" event for writing students in our county adult ed program. We solicited writing and chose 7-10 readers for the event. Your remarks are right on. I wish I'd had them prior to running these events as they would have been really helpful for the people who submitted stories. Thanks for sharing these insights.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Great points, Margo! I've helped with final round judging in our contests and it's so incredibly tough because all the stories that make it to that round are fantastic, so you really have to nitpick. The first round is much easier. In final, I read and re-read stories over and over and read them to people out loud (which helps a lot) and agonize over deliberation. The one tip I will add to your list that makes a good story great (and this is always the deciding factor for final round stories) is the ending. The story with the best ending will rise above the others.

Renee Roberson said...

It is a very helpful experience to judge these types of contests! I believe it helped me when I was submitting a short story to a contest recently. I kept going back and tweaking the ending. I didn't want it to be trite, and I wanted it to have a clear ending that wasn't so "in your face." I thought about which endings of stories turn me off and tried not to do that.

And I won't pick on particular subjects here, but there are some that are WAY overdone and the writing has to be really flawless for me to move past that.

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