The system I developed for scoring entries is called P.E.T.S. Voice, which stands for (P)acing, (E)ntertainment Value, (T)echnical Use of Language, (S)Storytelling, and (V)oice. Each element carries a possible score of 10 points, with the exception of voice, which has a maximum of 5 points. The reason for treating voice differently is that it is difficult to establish a unique voice in 250 words. When all of the categories are added together, the total possible points for an entry is 45. Please note that because only 10 points are given purely for the story concept (entertainment value), the result of my system is that a good story expertly written is going to score higher than a great story with significant writing problems.
In a way, the categories represent an expanding scope of review. Technical scoring looks within the sentences themselves. Pacing describes how well the sentences build on each other. Storytelling considers the flow of paragraphs and what you chose to portray to give your story life. Entertainment scores the idea itself, and voice reflects whether your writing has a clear, overall identity.
How do I score? Basically, I expect a story to be effortless in taking me into its world. I hold to the old writing advice that the words should create a continuous, uninterrupted dream. If an entry pushes back against me in any way, if it is not effortless and I am pulled out of the dream, I begin to deduct points. In any given category, 10 is perfect, 9 has one thing slightly bothering me, 8 has at least two definite rubs, 7 has multiple points of friction, 6 and below needs major revision in that category.
Keep in mind that a writer always becomes too close to a story to adequately judge for him/herself whether the story unfolds effortlessly. You can only read a story for the first time once. After that, your brain is contaminated. That is why it is a good idea to share your entry with a good critique partner before submitting it.
Now that I have scored between 1000 and 2000 entries in 12 contests, I find that entries scoring 42 - 44 are very strong and need only minor tweaks (the uncommon 45 entries practically fly off the page). 40 - 41 are very well done, but probably have at least one area to sharpen. 37 - 39 are good, but have multiple areas to sharpen. 35 - 36 have promise, but need substantial sharpening. Those under 35 need major revision. Of course, my theories on writing are not the only ones out there. You should review the results of the prior contests to make sure that you want to be subjected to my judging style.
As the size of the contests grow, so do the number of high scoring entries. How are the winners chosen? All of the top scorers in the 40's are collected, and my judging shifts to my sense of originality and impact. Of course, these elements are highly subjective. I also strive to have a mix of genres among those recognized.
What are common issues that cause deductions?
1. Telling Instead of Showing. Most of the time, a story is strongest when it's portrayed in real time for the reader, not narrated by the author in a kind of summarized, Cliff's Notes fashion.
Example: Stephanie was so tired of her mother staring at her. Her mother asked so many questions all the time. She accused Stephanie of not caring. Nothing was ever good enough. Stephanie thought that she didn't even have the energy to respond anymore.
Rewrite: Stephanie pushed away the coffee cup she didn't ask for. Mother stood by the table. Angry and waiting. Stephanie sighed, the fatigue pulling at her. "I'm sorry, mother," she said finally. "But I really don't know what to say to you anymore."
2. Over-description. If a single sentence has more than two adjectives, you're in danger of diminishing your impact. Example: The long, winding road was filled completely with a permeating, oppressive darkness.
3. Unbelievable Dialog.
Example: "What are you going to do with that hammer that you are waving in your hand?"
"I was thinking that maybe I should drive it through your skull and into your brain. In fact, I've been thinking about murdering you for ages upon ages."
Rewrite: "Put the hammer down!"
"I'm going to fucking kill you."
4. Mismatch. Mismatches can be in intensity, such as when powerful words are paired with a non-powerful moment.
Example: "The parking ticket thundered into my hands and demolished my every chance of having a glorious day."
Descriptions should generally fit the importance of the moment in length and intensity.
Mismatches can also be in time. Don't use lengthy descriptions to portray a very quick action (unless you are specifically going for a slow-motion effect).
Example: His fingers extended toward the door, and as he touched the brass, his hand curled around knob. With a twist, the door unlatched. He pulled it open and entered.
Reading these words takes about four times as long as the action itself.
5. Weak Verbs. Example: The sky was dark. The motorcycle was idling. He was eager to go. Rewrite: The clouds piled in the sky. The motorcycle engine sputtered. He flexed his hands, ready to go.
6. Unnecessary Words/Tightening. Example: When he sat down on the chair, he thought he saw her go out of the door and out of the room. Rewrite: As he sat down, he saw her rush from the room. (Stronger verb too.)
7. Cliches. Example: He needed her like he needed to breathe.
This weekend, I'll be leaving feeback on the entries which scored lower than 40. Here is a quick guide on how to interpret my comments:
If I say your best element was:
Pacing - The progress of your sentences carried the story well. The story didn't stumble on how it moved in time.
Entertainment Value - Excellent, creative idea!
Technical Use of Language - Your sentences were well constructed, strong, and vivid.
Storytelling - When you take your idea and translate it to 250 words, you have to make decisions about what to portray and how. Your decisions made the story live.
Voice - I got an identifiable sense of your voice. A uniqueness.
If I say you might need more attention in:
Pacing - Your sentences may not have built in a seamless way. The writing felt disjointed.
Entertainment Value - The idea might be improved by giving it more depth or a more unusual take.
Technical Use of Language - Sentences themselves stumbled and pulled me from the story. Common reasons are overdescription and unbelievable dialogue.
Storytelling - Your idea may have been portrayed more strongly with different choices in what to show us.
Voice - The writing may have felt too generic. Not unique.
Thanks again for a wonderful experience!