Welcome to this week’s blog. You’ve caught me trying on my fetching gown and wig! Well, what I get up to in the privacy of my own little corner of the internet is strictly my business. No photos please – I’m being blackmailed by too many people as it is.

The reason why I’m dressed in this ridiculous metaphorical garb – and wielding a nasty looking gavel – is that I’m gearing up for the judging season. In the next few weeks I have two writing competitions to adjudicate (that’s just another word for judge, which proves I do use that thesaurus Santa brought me for Christmas), and I’m really looking forward to both of them.

I’m invigilating (so many synonyms, so little time…) two very different contests:

The autumn round of Flash 500’s competition for stories up to 500 words (closing date Sept 30) Click here for details.

And the Writers Bureau annual competition for stories up to 2,000 words (closing date Nov 30). Click here for details.

For me, it’s a thrilling prospect. Day after day I’ll get to snuggle down on the sofa with a huge cup of coffee and a plate of choccie biscuits, and read my way through a mountain of super stories. I love it.

It’s also a huge honour – like being given the keys to my own personal book shop. All these talented writers weaving wonderful narrative spells – all just for yours truly to enjoy!

To say thanks – and help you to make the most of your chances and not waste your entry fees – I thought it would be useful if I offered some pointers, some exclusive insight into what I’m looking for. I’m not talking about general “received wisdom” about what makes a compelling story or how you can catch a judge’s eye. There are plenty of other blogs and websites where you can pick up tips like that.

No, I’m talking about revealing what THIS judge likes and dislikes. What, if you’ll pardon the expression, floats my boat. What I dream of reading and what makes me shudder.

The following list isn’t necessarily defensible, logical or even fair. It may clash dramatically with a list any other judge might compile – but that’s one of the joys and gambles of entering competitions. Each adjudicator is different and the judging process is very subjective.

Okay, let’s dive in.

First thing to reveal is that I’m not looking for a writer who is a clone of me; some sort of mirror image. I’m shallow – but I’m not THAT shallow.

Of course, I’m known for writing humour so you might assume that if you enter a comedy story it will have an advantage. However, I also write other types of material under different pen names – gothic horror, dark fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, even romances. What’s to say I won’t be attracted to an entry from one of those categories?

So don’t study my work. Study what has won previous competitions I’ve judged. That’s a better guide to what I seek. You can see the winning four stories in last year’s Writers Bureau competition on their website, plus read my comments on what impressed about the story that grabbed first place.

The next thing to say is that I’m not looking for any specific topic. I’m looking for a quality: and that’s BELIEVABILITY. I want you to make me believe in the characters, their dilemmas, challenges and emotional struggles. I want them to be credible three-dimensional personalities; even if the story is only 500 words long and they only appear for a few short moments.

You as writer must believe in them if you expect the reader to. They can’t just be ciphers, cardboard cut-outs that you’d invented purely to service the plot or move around like silent chess pieces.

Don’t confuse believability with realism. I’m not saying your story must be a kitchen sink drama peopled by the kind of souls you encounter every day. Your main characters can be talking toasters or three headed mountain trolls – as long as you’ve imbued them with credible motivations, behaviour traits and feelings.

And this is just important when considering your setting and the environment in which your characters operate. I want a story to ooze AUTHENTICITY. I want that backdrop to be properly sketched, even if only in a sentence or two. You don’t need to know all the ins and outs of a particular location or how a specific profession operates. You could be writing about a search and rescue pilot on the moon in 200 years time. But convince me that it’s real – even if you’re bluffing. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief if you meet me half way.

My third plea is to avoid all the over-used, overplayed, predictable story set-ups. I see dozens and dozens of stories about people being diagnosed with cancer, middle aged couples dealing with an elderly relative with dementia, and tortured souls contemplating suicide. They are, of course, important subjects but too hackneyed to stand out. That also goes for by-the-number stories of murderers themselves being murdered, conmen being conned or ghostly yarns where the narrator in peril encounters a friendly helper who later turns out to have been dead for years.

Picking up the pace…

A swift guide to my major likes

Twist-enders where I didn’t see it coming.

Anything with a historical setting.

Pastiches of famous books, films or TV programmes.

Shorties where the author understands the unique nature of flash fiction and crafts a complete, well rounded, logical yarn that isn’t a longer plotline crushed into the small box.

Any story that elicits a strong emotional response from me… a smile, a tear, a shiver or even just a groan at an unexpected comedy punch line.

Any story with a fantastical element.

A story with a strong female protagonist.

Any story where the main character escapes life-threatening jeopardy in an ingenious way.

Stories that feature unusual settings or look at a familiar setting in a way that makes it suddenly fresh and intriguing to me.


My major dislikes

Any story that was clearly written for a women’s magazine instead of a competition. I can spot them from miles away.

Tales that have no plot and are just a character study.

Any story that has a page and a half of scene setting or character briefing before the plot begins.

Bad sci-fi where all the characters have names that start with the letter ‘Z’.


Gratuitous sex or violence.

Entries which are overly showy and baroque – where the writer is saying “Look at me. Look how lyrically I can arrange words.”

Stream of consciousness rubbish.

Contrived slapstick comedy where the action is cartoon-like and all the players have silly joke names.

Any entry that contains a message to the judge – an apology for not finishing the story, two alterative endings and the request that I choose the one that most appeals, a phone number above a lipstick kiss, any helpful explanation of the plot in case I’m too thick to understand it and any begging for special favours because you’ve not been writing very long.

Gosh, I sound picky – really picky. But that’s probably because I am. But I CAN be won around by a smashing story. Get cracking and write it. I’m waiting…


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Author: IainPattison

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  1. I am working on one of these competitions at present. Thank you for the very helpful guidelines above.

    • Best of luck, Denise. I don’t get to see names of competitors – all entries are judged anonymously so no-one has an unfair advantage – but I’ll be thrilled if one of the stories I choose turns out to be yours.

  2. It’s good to get competition advice straight from the horse’s mouth, Iain! many thanks.

    • My pleasure, Sally. But as your stories are frequently shortlisted, and often win, I don’t think there’s much you don’t already know!

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  5. Hi, Iain,
    Thanks for publishing the useful list – it should be required reading for anyone thinking of going in for a competition. I’ve done a lot of judging myself and I totally agree with you – and I have one or two black beasties of my own!

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