What the judges want

Monday, May 21, 2018
Vikki Petraitis interviewed by Elisa McTaggart

a portrait of vikki petraitis
Vikki Petraitis

How do you make your story stand out from the crowd in a writing competition? Ahead of her Writers on Wednesday workshop on Entering Writing Competitions, we spoke to Vikki Petraitis about what judges are looking for in a winning competition entry.


Can you tell us a little about what it’s like being a judge and going through all those competitions entries? What are the things that stand out most, good and bad?

For over a decade, I have been asked to judge a lot of writing competitions from local library writing competitions to the Scarlet Stiletto crime writing competition to the Ned Kelly Awards. Every now and again, there is a spate of similar stories in a competition pile. This might be because people who enter a story believe it has to be a dramatic one or a big tragedy to win. As a result, a judge can get 15 child abuse stories in a pile of 60 stories. Or murders, or running away, or violence. Writers who can tell a deep truth in a simple small story stand out from these.

Have you judged any competitions recently? Can you share with us what you and your fellow judges really loved about the winning entry?

Last month, I judged a writing competition where there was a clear winner. While some stories were well written, they spoke only of what happened. The winning story told a deeper truth than a simple recount of events. It stood out because the reader was left knowing something more about their world and the human condition.

How do judges use the competition requirements/ guidelines to make their judgements?

I once read a story in a crime writing competition where no crime occurred. Even though the story was well written, it couldn’t win because it didn’t meet the requirements. The same goes for word count – if a competition has a word count, make sure you don’t go over it.

Is there anything glaringly obvious that writers can do now to improve their competition chances?

Learn the rules! Let’s compare writing competitions to cake baking competitions. If you were going to enter a cake baking competition, here’s what you would do: you would take a cooking course, research recipes, look at past winners, and learn the secrets of cake baking. You would cook the recipe over and over again, tweaking it, sharing it with friends and getting their opinions. You would practise until your cake was the best it could be, so that when it sat among the other cake entries, it stood a fair chance.

The same strategies apply to writing competitions. If you enter, but don’t set your story into paragraphs, or include correct punctuation, or set out direct speech properly (and not have too much of it!), to the expert judges, your work looks amateurish before they even start reading. It tells the judge that you haven’t bothered to learn the rules, that you haven’t got someone to proof read for you, that you aren’t taking it seriously. At the same time, the judging pile of stories will contain ones written by people who have learnt the rules, and who have drafted their stories until they are as good as they can be.

Do you have any advice for those writers who are working up the courage to send off their first entry?

Even though in essence, writing is a solitary pursuit, I always advise writers to join or start a writers’ group and share their work. Get feedback. Give feedback. Be open to constructive suggestions. The company of other writers is a thing of pure joy. Share stories and apply the feedback. This might be the very thing to give emerging writers the courage to enter their work into competitions.

About Vikki Petraitis

Vikki Petraitis is a bestselling author, has judged writing competitions for many years and shares an insider’s point of view on what helps entries to stand out from the crowd. Vikki has written 13 books, mostly in the true crime genre, and is working on her PhD in Creative Writing.

About Elisa McTaggart

Elisa McTaggart is the Program and Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She works freelance as a writer, photographer and project manager, while establishing a wilderness photography and nature writing art practice.