Thoughts From a Short Story Contest Judge
Header illustration by Raúl Gil for Reedsy
I’ve been helping judge the Reedsy Prompts contest since 2020. In this weekly short story contest, we supply five loosely themed prompts, and writers must base their stories on one of those five. Winners earn $250 and the chance to be featured in Reedsy’s anthology, Prompted.
Two things I’ve been thinking about when reflecting on my time as a judge are the arbitrariness of a story succeeding or failing in the eyes of its creator, and how writing to prompts affects the resulting stories.
“Winners” and “losers” are more arbitrary than you think
The way our contest works, judges whittle a longlist down to a shortlist, then we take a vote on the remaining stories. Each contest’s shortlist is made public, but our individual votes and tallies are not, since all shortlisted stories are considered equal.
Interestingly, that means that when a story finishes as a close second, its writer will have no idea that they almost won, or that they did “better” than the rest of the shortlist. Ultimately, they’ll just hear that their story did not win, but was shortlisted. They won’t know, for example, about the handful of judges who thought their story should have won, only to be narrowly outvoted.
The current shortlisting system exists for good reason; it streamlines the administrative process, making it possible to get the contest’s results out week on week, and it also gives equal fanfare to all shortlisted stories. If even one of the final judges saw something in a story that they liked enough to add to their top three, the writer is rewarded with a shortlist spot.
But at the same time, this system, whereby close seconds and personal comments aren’t included in the results, occasionally pains me. So many of the writers in the Reedsy Prompts community are new to creative writing or eager for their stories’ first publication, so I’d imagine many would love to know that they came tantalizingly close to a win (although I’m sure, for some, this would be torturous). Similarly, someone whose story made it to the longlist but not the shortlist won’t know that, and may assume their story ‘failed’ or was completely terrible.
To the writers who enter the contest, the judges’ decisions seem black and white: the best story, the good stories, and everyone else. But things aren’t so simple behind the curtain, as I hope every writer will remember — no writer can really know how close they got to being awarded a prize or making the shortlist.
Even for stories that don’t make it to the longlist, it’s very much true that we are just a bunch of humans with personal tastes and opinions. There are different things that speak to each one of us, and we are not the divine word of judgment: we are just a few people running a contest as thoughtfully and respectfully as we can.
The same is true of every literary magazine and writing contest out there. So many stories or books or poems won’t win awards by a narrow margin, emerging the “losers,” when that label misrepresents the experience of the judges as a purely negative one. Sadly, many writers will simply accept failure or rejection as their true worth, handed down to them by almighty judges.
All this to say: not winning a contest doesn’t make you a bad writer. It only means that the specific story you submitted, compared to the rest of submissions this specific time, did not agree with a set of specific judges’ very specific interpretation of what makes a story emotionally resonant or meaningful. Or perhaps it did, but another story chimed even closer with the judges’ predilections. Either way, you should keep trying.
Standing out with a prompt-based story is tough, but rewarding
Our prompts are pretty flexible, offering writers a few different ways to approach a first draft. Some prompts give a way in which writers must open or end a story (e.g., “Start your story with someone vowing to take revenge,” “End your story with someone saying: ‘What a day.’”), others provide a setting (e.g., “Set your story in a cat shelter”), or a phrase spoken by a character in the story (e.g., “Write a story that includes the phrase ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’”).
We’re constantly experimenting with different prompt formats, our aim being to offer writers multiple story seeds they can choose from. From a judge's standpoint, though, this sometimes means reading many submissions that begin or end with the same scene/sentence, or share inciting incidents and narrative arcs, which can get repetitive.
Everyone already knows that having a strong first line is imperative, but this is also true for second and third lines, especially if your first line is exactly the same as tens or hundreds of other stories. Sharing an opening doesn’t mean you no longer have to work to capture your reader’s attention — it just means that you do it a line later than you usually would.
I sometimes worry that our prompts can get too prescriptive, as with a prompt from last year that went “You are the only one in the supermarket during a blizzard. Feeling creeped out, you decide to leave, when suddenly you find a baby abandoned on the floor.” It’s a fun prompt, but once you read a few dozen stories featuring all the same story elements, you begin to wonder whether the prompt has actually helped writers come up with unique emotions, or hindered them by restricting them too much.
Well, the great thing about judging a short story contest is that I’m always surprised. 200 writers submitted takes on the above blizzard prompt, and one of them, Natalie Strawbridge, ended up winning the contest with a story titled ‘Intro to Disaster Preparedness.’ Instead of foregrounding the blizzard, the supermarket, and the baby, Natalie set a motherless protagonist at the center of the story, and had the idea of a natural disaster take on a greater meaning.
My conclusion from reading so many stories over the past three years is that a story with a strong emotional core won’t struggle to overcome its similarities with other submissions — but the possibility of similarities is something that writers need to be conscious of while they’re writing. From a judge’s perspective, it’s an honor to find yourself reading a story that can take a prompt as demanding as the blizzard prompt above, share so much with 199 other submissions, and still stand out for the way it makes you feel. You’re left with so much respect for writers who manage to stand out — which leaves you with more respect for the practice of writing stories to prompts, too.
The surprising takes of Reedsy Prompts writers, and their ability to take a prompt in a direction we had never even considered, is one of the great joys of being a judge; we are constantly learning from the authors whose work we are reading.
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