Trust my 10th graders to ask a really provocative question.  We had a local creative writing conference and contest at Colorado Mesa University, and I gave extra credit to enter the writing contest.

One of my kids asked, “How can we make our poems competitive.”


So this is what I put up on the board for what the judges would be looking for.  It is, of course, also a description of what I think makes writing artistic.  The overlap of art into competitiveness is inevitable but not complete.  This is an interesting way of looking a story writing too, where “competitive” becomes “publishable.”

  • Unique
  • Specific
  • –   details and appeals to the senses
  • –   individual incident instead of summary
  • Sound (for poetry, all the sound features like rhythm, rhyme, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc., but also the language working hand in hand with the content by emphasizing the impact)
  • Language
  • Connections
  • Synthesis

So, in terms of writing short stories where judges are replaced with editors, this is what I meant by each term.

Unique:  Editors respond to fresh treatment of ideas.  They will not like a familiar idea phrased in a familiar way. The key is not necessarily a brand new idea but a fresh handling of it.  A brand new idea, of course, is cool too!

Specific:  Buyable stories focus on details and make appeals to the senses so the reader has a chance to participate in the performance of the narrative.  They relate to tightly focused incidents.  Powerful short stories transport readers to fully realized experiences.  They don’t read to find out what the characters feel or think; they read for a moment to feel or think those things themselves.

Sound:  A story is on one level all about speech.  Even if it is never read aloud, clumsy phrasings, ill-considered clashing of sounds, and distracting rhythms will detract from the performance of the tale.  This is why so many instructors suggest writers read their work out loud as part of the editing process.

Language:  Words are what we use to build sentences and paragraphs.  A significant part of the power is in word choice and word arrangement (diction and syntax).  The language should have an interest all on its own.  Part of this takes us back to what I said about “unique” above, but it’s also about recognizing the medium.  A song is not just the tune; it’s about how it’s played.  A story is not just the plot, it’s about how it’s told.

Connections:  The interesting stories are hardly ever about just one thing.  The poet and critic, John Cirardi said that poems are essentially “duplicitous,” appearing to be about one thing but being about something else, like Frost’s “Two Roads in a Yellow Wood Diverged” appears to be about a choice while hiking, but it’s also about choices in life.  A good story will also make connections, where the events in the story reveal or explore a larger issue or question.

Synthesis:  Everything has to work together.

I know this probably sounds theoretical and far removed from the story you are writing at this moment, but I think the deeper thinking about theory and language plays out in improved writing.