If you count the annual contests when I worked for the university literary magazine, I’ve been judging writing contests for over thirty years. Not continually, thank goodness. I have no idea what the process looks like for big, fancy awards but for flash fiction? Yeah, done a few of those.
The ideal situation is several judges, who all bring something different to the table, doing blind judging. That last bit is crucial. No matter how impartial a judge intends to be, knowing some of the authors will color decisions.
Flash fiction is a hellaciously difficult type of story to write, even when the word count is as high as 1,000 words. It’s still a tight, concise piece that has to do a lot in a tiny space. So what do flash fiction judges look for? First, we have the three C’s:
- Completeness – Flash fiction is a short story form. A ridiculously short story form, but it still needs to follow the basic structure of a short story. It needs to convey a complete idea – whether that’s a traditional story arc or a point the author wants to make. Complete is the key. Something that feels like the first scene of a longer work to the judges will probably be scored lower.
- Criteria – What did the contest ask for? Always read the criteria for a contest carefully and make sure your story hits those key items. There’s often a lot of leeway for interpretation, but your intent still has to be discernible to at least some of the judges.
- Concise – This is why writing flash is an excellent writing exercise even without a contest. With a limited word count and the need to convey a complete idea, every word counts. Tighten up that writing! Are you using unnecessary words? Weaker phrases where a stronger single word would do? Adding extra backstory that your central idea doesn’t really need to make its point? Slice and dice – be ruthless!
Beyond that? Every judge will approach stories differently, depending on their likes and dislikes, their experiences and mindsets. But in general, try to create something different, either beautiful or horrific, surprising, shocking, touching, or funny. Make something new and wonderful. Even if you don’t win, you’ve helped your own writing and created something fabulous that didn’t exist before.