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Behind the Scenes: Judging Style for Writing Challenges

Good morning Writing Forums,

After judging 19 entries, mostly averaging 650 words, my latest LM critiques concluded with a 17,337 word count. I officially became the 38th recipient of the Star Judge 5. I judge both the CoF and LM on a monthly basis. If you have submitted something in the past, you might have caught a glimpse of how I critique. I am going to dive deeper behind the scenes and extend more light into my judging style. This may be used as a guide to improve your scores on my behalf.

The Title

Imagine if your short story was published in a newspaper, magazine, or beautifully placed on a book shelf. Would the title captivate my interests? Forget the cover. Focus on the message. Are you selling your story effectively? When I read titles, I want to feel the need to continue reading the entry. Yeah, I am a judge. I have to read it. However, push that aside. I don't want to feel obligated to read it. I want to naturally read your submission because it's interesting. Not for the sake of another entry to judge. By the end of the story, I will know whether or not your title was effective. Some critiques will have this comment located in the concluding comments. I will comment on word-play, connection and direction.


Don't be bland or ambiguous. Don't give me something random. Sell your story. It's only 650 words. Shine the spotlight on the stage before the characters act. Introduce your play before it begins. Connect and engage the reader to something relevant.

The Introduction

It's a short story. I can't flip to a blurb to determine I want to read it. I have to read it as it's introduced. Open your story with something engaging. When you're writing the entry, take a moment to read it over. Ask yourself, "Does this sound intriguing? Am I introducing characters? Am I establishing ambiance? What is the setting?" Try to focus on the main message. I understand you want to say a lot here, but save that for the meat. This is where you should sell your story. Treat it as a free sample. The meat is the product for the reader to take home with them. Give me more, and you will peak my enthusiasm.


Write something you would read while waiting for a bus, plane or to pass time. Question everything you write with a, 'but.' "But why?" "But how?" "But what?" Sell the reader in the beginning, not in the meat. Ladies, this is another way of saying, "Don't flash. Reveal the bra."

The Meat

The core of the story should be engaging, concise, and full of clarity. Most entries will hold effective dialogues while others take a jab with sentence structure and sentence fluency. This is when you notice that I critique the way I read. I don't ever read a story from start to finish. I critique start to finish. As I read, I critique. As I critique, I read. I want you, as the writer, to know what I feel, as the reader, the moment I read it. I want you to be there on the scene with the first impressions. Why? Believe it or not, the most rewarding part about reading and critiquing as I go is when you, the writer, connects to my critique in the following sentences. There are times when I am like, "Ah ha! See? You answered my question! We're on the same page!" It's a fascinating experience. This also helps you understand whether or not you expressed the right message, especially without revealing too many details. When the reader understands you, before anything further, you know you're doing your job effectively. Pay attention to this!

I don't always critique every sentence. There are some entries that will not all be treated the same. If the dialogue is a mess, I will generally summarize to inform you. If there isn't much to say, including any SPaG, I will keep it clean. In brief, I will critique only when I feel it's necessary and feel as if you will learn more if I go further into explanation. I am not going to lecture you on something we both agree upon. I will use my time in the right places.

Breakdown Bullets

In the meat, I will usually have the, "Breakdown Bullets." This is my creative approach to guide you through sentence fluency and structure. Please let me know if these help. I put a lot of effort into them. It requires me to rewrite the entire sentence in bullet points.

Example (not from any entry):

Original Sentence:

"Ashley Anderson was the hottest girl in the Montville High School because she had the most angelic face with dimples the size of dimes, and I knew she liked me from the way she stared into my dark brown eyes, but her football star athlete boyfriend Ryan Richardson would not approve of our secret affair."

Breakdown Bullets:

1. Ashley Anderson was the hottest girl in Montville High School
2. because she had the most angelic face
3. with dimples the size of dimes,
4. and I knew she liked me from the way she stared
5. into my dark brown eyes,
6. but her football star athlete boyfriend
7. Ryan Richardson would not approve
8. of our secret affair.

In most cases, the breakdown bullets range from between five to ten bullets. If you have a lot, try to focus on how to effectively express your ideas. Be concise. In this example, I would suggest something more concise for you to analyze.

Example Revision Sentence:

"Ashley Anderson, the hottest girl in Montville High School, had the most angelic face with dimples the size of dimes. She secretly liked me, but Ryan Richardson, her boyfriend, was too busy with the football season."

A Real Example:

I am going to use this actual example from the latest LM challenge because I admire the work I put into this specific critique for the breakdown bullets.

anonymous said:
The trees were ancient towering braches, puckered and wrinkled with age, that curled, leefless, around the heavy fog, casting shadows on the dark road.

1. The trees were ancient towering branches
2. puckered and wrinkled with age
3. that curled, leafless,
4. around the heavy fog
5. casting shadows on the dark road.

Read it over. Shred it. Recreate this line. Ask yourself what’s more important. The second line doesn’t add anything the minute you wrote ‘ancient’.


“The ancient towering trees, swaying with curled leafless branches, began to cast shadows on the dark road.”

At this point, the heavy fog isn’t necessary. You can effectively express a stronger message without the extra words.


For the love of proofreaders, could you please look over your work? There are times when a simple spacing error cost you a few points. I get it. The competitions are exciting. Feedback is great. Scores are mesmerizing. Please proofread your own work before it's finalized and submitted. Thank you.

The Conclusion

Well, what's next? Where do we go from here? This area is generally a summary of what I felt about your piece. I will mention if I felt lost, engaged or even sympathetic for your characters. Sometimes I will list the judging categories and review each one with a brief explanation. I may include SPaG, effect, and overall impression. This area includes any final thoughts to clarity, character development and anything imperative to your growth as a writer.

Questions, Comments, Rants, or Praise

Feel free to drop them below.


This is invaluable, doesn't belong as a blog, and should be at the top of a forum with a sticky on it.
Put it in a forum and i shall probably return to it.
I agree, invaluable information right here, I feel like you should post this as the first entry to every competition so people know what to expect and judges can borrow from it too. Your advice and critiquing is incredibly useful from every entry I've ever submitted, I'm glad you let us take a peek behind the mask to see what you're doing as you read.

Thank you for all the hard work and dedication you give us, it really is so amazing. :)
Anthony, with your permission I will copy this and paste it to the Side Trips Challenge as advice on how to write a good short story and make it a sticky...Bob
I could always start a thread. Thank you. I appreciate that! I appreciate all the feedback. There's a few minor changes I'd make to this.
Every writing challenge board now has it posted. I hope this encourages more participants, both judges and entrants.

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