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What Wows Writing Judges?

30 January, 2008

What wows judges of literary competitions?

After evaluating over 300 manuscripts, the three judges of a prestigious Australian competition provided a general response to this question. Their comments are somewhat general, probably because the competition attracted both fiction and narrative non-fiction. The complete response is available at

I’d like to comment on 3 of their suggestions to writers:

  1. Give due attention to the two major writing stages.
  2. Make an immediate impact.
  3. Connect your story’s ‘world’ to readers.



1. Give due attention to the two major writing stages.

When we write, we go through two major stages: 1) conceptualising and then 2) executing. I prefer the terms that writing guru, Peter Elbow, coined years ago: making the voyage in, and then making the voyage out.

The voyage in. When you start writing, you begin the ‘voyage in’. This trip takes you into the treasure of your unconscious. You may tap into the ‘big’ items of a story, e.g., images, themes and symbols.At the end of this stage, you have a first draft that may seem chaotic and at times contradictory, but importantly it contains the bones of whatever story you want to tell.

The voyage out. Once you have your major ideas down, you can start stage two, the voyage out. Here you shift your attention from creating to rewriting, with the aim of fine-tuning your work for readers beyond yourself.

    The judges warn about curtailing your voyage in. I think this means giving yourself a genuine opportunity to create, i.e., the chance to:

    • Dredge up the big ideas, images, and symbols connected with your subject matter
    • Play with the plot and follow odd leads
    • Add depth and individuality to your characters
    • Let yourself be surprised by what jumps out of your mind.


    You sabotage this voyage in if your tinker with your work prematurely. Maybe you let your Internal Editor slip back in before you’re ready. Maybe you seek others’ comments too soon and as a result lose the gist of what you wanted to convey.

    You may think that because you’re on your 5th or 15th draft you’ve progressed. But, according to the judges, if your changes are premature, the truth may be that you’re still only on draft one, but have wasted time tinkering with unimportant aspects of it 5 times–or 15.

    The problem of premature comment made me wonder about critique writing groups. If a group gives you feedback too early in the writing process, does this confuse more than it helps? It could be better not to get feedback until you’re on the voyage out, where it’s valuable to know how readers react to your work.

    2. Make an immediate impact.

    An outstanding manuscript gives readers a ‘clear and irresistible’ invitation. You may have an interesting, meritorious work, but if it does not actively invite readers in, it won’t fly. According to the judges, your first paragraph needs to excite readers, make them curious to read further, and also make them confident that what they read is worth it.

    I agree that the first paragraph is important. But can one tiny paragraph realistically fulfill these major needs for readers? Is this focus on the first paragraph getting things out of proportion? Think how often an attention-grabbing first paragraph turns out to be a cheap trick, where the rest of the story does not rise to or fulfil this first promise.

    When reading, I need time and space to take up residence in the writer’s narrative world. I tend not to judge the story until I get to the end of the first chapter. (But perhaps I’m not a normal reader–years of teaching has programmed me to read everything put in front of me, no matter how bad!)

    It seems more realistic to take the heat off the first paragraph and talk instead about your introductory material, whether this is one paragraph or more.

    And yes, it does need to make a positive impact on readers. Just having an interesting topic isn’t enough. I’ve picked up fast-paced murder mysteries that turned out to be deadly boring because they didn’t invite me in. And when readers get to the point where they don’t care what happens in a story, they stop reading.

    To evaluate how well your introductory material connects with readers, you can ask yourself some questions. When doing this, remember that you’re not trying to write for every reader but for a particular desired audience. (If you don’t have a sense of your readers, it could be helpful to identify them now.)

    • Does my beginning invite readers into a world that will make them curious and excited? If so, how do I know this?
    • Does my beginning give an irresistible invitation? If not, how can I recast it?
    • If I imagine my beginning as a door that brings readers into an ‘unknown space’, does this door encourage them to enter? If so, how does it do this? If not, what can I do?
    • What kind of conversation or connection does my beginning open up for readers? Is it the kind of conversation/connection I want? Or does it go off on an unproductive tangent?
    • If a stranger were to read my beginning, how might s/he react? Why? Is the reaction what I expect or want?

    3. Connect your story’s ‘world’ to readers.

    An exciting manuscript has a buzz about it. Producing a genuine buzz does not mean inserting lots of sex or violence into your writing, but rather producing a narrative world that causes your readers to ‘feel astonishingly at home’.

    I like the word astonishing. It suggests the magic when readers enter a writer’s narrative world, and -regardless of how strange this world may be- they feel enough at home to immerse themselves in its ‘realness’ or ‘rightness’.

    For example, I am presently reading Amy Bloom’s novel, Away, which is set in the 1920s. The protagonist, Lillian Leyb, a Russian Jew who thinks she’s the only one of her family to survive a pogrom, makes her way to the USA to start a new life. But when she hears that her daughter may still be alive, she starts the long journey to Siberia to find her. Lillian differs from me in nearly every important way I can think of, but once I entered her world, astonishingly I felt very much at home in it. That to me is a sign of good writing.

    One Comment leave one →
    1. 9 February, 2008 5:32 am

      This is excellent advice. Thanks for posting it. I love that idea of the voyage in and the voyage out.

      It must be part of a writer’s maturity to be able to recognize when they have fully made the voyage in and are ready to move to the next phase.

      A writer’s self-assurance about their material is a big part of this. And by that I mean being fully at home in the fictional world they’ve created, and also knowing what it is they’re trying to achieve by situating a story within that fictional world. I guess the complicating thing about writing is that those things often don’t come clear to the writer — except in the process of writing.

      I know that in the past I’ve spent far too much time putting a high surface gloss on material that was incomplete. It effectively encases a story in a hard shellac, making more fundamental revisions difficult, if not impossible.

      Patience and faith are good.


      Hi Greg, What a brilliant description of how we often go wrong, i.e., putting time and energy into creating that ‘high surface gloss’ prematurely. Is it any wonder we’re unwilling to crack the ‘hard shellac’ after putting so much work into it?
      I agree with you that we often don’t know what we’re trying to achieve with a story until we are writing and rewriting and rethinking. Maybe the writing process needs to be seen as a series of voyages in as we dredge up more of what the story means–rather than settling on what the first voyage suggests.
      I have always liked and used the voyage in/ voyage out images because they capture the idea of two important phases, each one requiring a sense of exploration and an acceptance of the unknown.


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