Tuesday, March 1, 2011

3 Common Mistakes I Found While Judging a Writing Contest

I was honored when asked to return as a judge to a regional writing contest this year. After judging for several years, I've noticed a trend in things that I've found with contest entries. And let me start off by saying that it's WAY easier to judge than to write. Just because I observed these things in the writing of others doesn't mean that I'm not guilty of doing them myself. As anyone in a critique group knows, it's easy to be objective about a book...when it's someone else's book!

Here are the 3 most common mistakes I found:

1) Starting the story in the wrong place. In the contest entries I reviewed, the writer often started out by showing the MC (main character) in their ordinary world before getting to what made the story unique. The result was, well, ordinary. This isn't the place for the character to sit and reflect on their life, or to start a normal day. Cut this part out and get to the unusual part. If you don't hook the reader in the first paragraph, you probably won't, and you definitely won't hook them by describing how the MC brushes their teeth. (NOTE: None of the contest entries began with a character brushing their teeth--or any other body parts. Any examples are fabricated entirely by moi.)

2) Telling instead of showing. This is something that every single writer out there has struggled with at one time or another. If you haven't, please leave a comment below and let us know your secret.
Telling: Jack was so angry that he threw his glass of orange juice at me, then emphatically stormed out the door which slammed loudly behind him.
Showing: Jack's hand tightened around his glass of orange juice. I ducked as the glass shattered against the wall. "There's your daily dose of Vitamin C," he said as he walked out the door. (Not perfect but you get the idea)

3) Over-writing. Adding multiple modifiers to your sentence does not make it stronger. In fact, excess adjectives and adverbs take away from the impact of what you're trying to convey. Remember Stephen King's quote, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." It's a case where less is more. (TIP: use the FIND function in Word to search for -ly words. This catches a ton of adverbs)

Over-writing: The scorching, sizzling sun blazed brilliantly overhead, causing a cascade of sweat to drip down my already overheated body.
Simplified version: It's flippin' hot out.

Do any of these ring a bell with you? Any other common errors you've noticed in your own first drafts?

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