Tuesday, April 15, 2008

“It’s a little telly, Dawg!”

Tip of the Day: If you are in the position of judging a contest, I’ve found the easiest way to dwindle down the potential winners is to create an “automatic pass,” “automatic rejection,” and then a “questionable” pile of entries. Then start tackling the “questionable” pile to eventually get to your final selections.

This week I’ve had to channel my inner Randy, Paula, and Simon because I’m judging a High School Writing contest. And instead of saying everything is “pitchy,” I’ve found the No. 1 thing I’m repeating over and over as I’m reading entries is: “all tell” or “telly.”

Granted I have been very impressed with their writing abilities for their age group. And in fact, I think their short stories are far better developed than one of my own short stories I wrote in high school, which borrowed major plot elements from a Lifetime Original movie. I’m sure you can guess how well that intricately plotted movie involving kidnap, psychic visions, an orphaned girl, and mother-who-didn’t-know-she-had-a-daughter fit into an eight page story. However, even if they are better off than I was at that age, I can’t help but realize how easy it is now that I’ve grown in my writing ability to spot beginning mistakes in writers that are just learning and fine-tuning their writing.

Here’s the Top 5 mistakes I’ve seen in the more than 70 entries I’ve read for this contest:

  • All tell, no show. The vast majority of the entries are written more as an essay than a creative writing piece. I’m not sure how lenient to be on this or not, but what I have learned is that seeing an absolute lack of any sort of “show,” has really sealed the importance of this concept in my own writing. And subconsciously the only entries I’ve wanted to put onto the next level in the contest are ones that at least try to show (you know, have at least one sentence of dialogue), even if their grammar or writing voice isn’t as good as some of the other pieces. Merely because it’s very hard to get into a story when it’s “all tell.”

  • No story. Clues such as titles including these words: “event,” “incident,” and “day” should have clued me that the story in fact had no real “story” to tell. Granted good stories could come from these titles and the other titles, but it just happened that about 75% of the stories are about events and include no conflict or story arc.

  • No character arc. Granted it’s an eight to ten page story, but about 90% of these have nothing happen to the character that shows any growth what-so-ever. The reason this isn’t higher on the list is because these are short stories, I’ve been more lenient on this and found myself not writing it on the entries as much as the other two, which have more to do with story-telling and general writing ability in my opinion.

  • Bad formatting. This surprising hasn’t been as bad as I anticipated, but several entries do have major formatting issues that make it nearly impossible for me to read. Basically, they have lumped together dialogue sequences of five or more people talking into one sentence, making it hard to follow.

  • Switching Point of View. Several of the entries start in third person and switch to first person. It’s very hard to follow.

All in all, the writing and grammar itself weren’t as bad as these other mistakes in my opinion. Although, picking a select few to pass onto other judges in these entries has been very challenging. I’m looking forward to seeing what stories the other screener picked out and how she saw their writing flaws compared to mine, since she’s a library media specialist and not a writer. I’m just curious, if the “all tell, no show” was my own personal criteria I was most harsh on for these new writers.

--Emily, Miss Awaiting an Agent


Kate Fall said...

This is really neat, Emily! I hope you get to find out what happens to your finalists.

DeenaML said...

"Telly" writing to me = boring. That's why I was so impressed with my entries this year at the lib -- at least the winning ones. :) They had stories and were very vivid!

I commend you for sifting through these. :)

Kristina Springer said...

I love that word-- telly!!

Hey, do they win anything from this contest? Just curious! :-)

Emily Marshall said...

Kate, yep, I'm curious to see who wins, since I'm technically a screener and it moves onto other judges past me.

Deena. Telly is boring. And there are some good ones in there, just the majority are all tell.

Tina. Yep they win money. $250 for first prize all the way to $100 for 3rd prize. Not bad, eh?

Lisa Schroeder said...

How cool! I think it would be fun to read those stories! Those are good tips for all of us. :)

Emily Marshall said...

It has been kind of fun, Lisa. Kind of work, but kind of fun at the same time.