Friday, May 7, 2021

How Will Your Story Rate in a Contest? Evaluation Criteria

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

How do you think your unpublished novel or short story would rate in a writing contest? Do you think it's ready to send to a literary agent? And how will your readers react to it, once it's published? Will it get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down? 

Here's a list of MANUSCRIPT EVALUATION CRITERIA to guide you, point by point, before submitting your story to a contest, editor, or agent (or publishing it yourself).

I was recently asked to read and review the first 50 pages of some unpublished novels that had been submitted to a well-respected contest. Below are the criteria I was sent, with a few points I've added myself. 

These questions will also help anyone wanting to publish their novel (or short stories) themselves, send it to an editor, or pitch it to an agent or publisher. 

Ask some friends, your critique group, or some other savvy beta readers (who read avidly in your genre) to read your first 10-30 pages and reply to these questions. Then collect their responses to see how your novel or short story would measure up to contest judges, agents, or readers. Then it's likely time to do some revising, editing, and polishing before submitting.

1. Intro/Beginning:       

- Does the opening hook you in?

- Is tension established early on?

- Is there too much backstory in a lump? Or maybe too little information provided?

- Does the beginning compel you to keep reading?

2. Characters:

- Can you identify with the main character? Do you care what happens to him/her?

- Is the protagonist interesting and complex, with some desires, secrets, and regrets?

- How well are the characters developed?

- Does each character feel unique? Or are they run-of-the-mill, flat, or stock characters?

- Are extraneous characters bogging down the story?

3. Grammar, Sentence Structure, Mechanics:

- Does the author have a strong command of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and mechanics, or will he/she require significant editing help?

- Does the author vary sentence structure to create rhythm, or does the writing feel monotonous?

- Does the writing meander or go on and on? Does it need tightening up to get to the point?

4. Setting:

- Does the author treat setting like an afterthought, or has it been given an attentive eye?

- Does the story have a real sense of place?

- Does the author get too hung up on describing setting when it is not integral to the progression of the story?

- Is the setting shown from the viewpoint of the character, and does it include sensory elements and character physical reactions to it?

5. Dialogue:     

- Does the dialogue seem natural, organic? Does it seem forced?

- Does it drive the story forward or simply fill space?

- Do the characters use many clich├ęs?

- Are conversations interesting or are they too mundane?

6. Premise/Plot/Pacing/Conflict/Tension:

- Does the basic premise of the story make sense, and is it believable within the story’s context? 

- Does the story move along at a good pace? Do things drag on too long, or get passed by too quickly?

- Does there seem to be something really at stake throughout?

 - Does tension drive the story forward, or does it fizzle out and fall by the wayside?

7. Voice:

- Does character voice feel unique? Does it feel apropos to the character’s nature and background?

- Does the authorial voice tell too much instead of showing?

- Could the story work better with a different POV?

- Is the authorial voice unique, or does it feel like a regurgitation of similar works?

Once you and your volunteer readers have examined your story with these elements in mind and you've done any needed revisions, your novel or short story should be much closer to being ready to send to an editor, contest, agent, or publisher.

Good luck!

I could add more points/questions but don't want to overwhelm you. How about you? Can you suggest a point or two that should be added? Let me know in the comments below. (Comments will appear after being approved.)

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website:, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.

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