Making the Cut

by B. Lynn Goodwin

Ever wondered why your writing didn’t make the cut in a writing contest? Although you have no control over the quality of other people’s submissions, you can make yours as strong, professional, and accessible as possible.

Here are some criteria that help me pick finalists for Writer Advice’s Flash Contests. Though there is no formula, these clues may help.

• Tell a story that will engage readers because of its honesty, originality, and specifics.
• Leave room for me to care and to empathize.
• Avoid self-pity.
• Tell an original story.
• Or turn a familiar story into an original one.
• Make every word count.
• Use memorable, accessible language.
• Be specific, aka show – don’t tell.
• Expand the meaning beyond your own life if you can.
• Say something the reader has not heard before.

I’ve included some very short examples below and explained why I liked them. Usually flash prose, whether fiction or memoir, will be outstanding because of its overall effect, but that effect comes from a series of moments that work. See why these worked for me.

Short Excerpts I Loved:

“I have countless items of his I cannot discard – out of both love and respect: mugs, framed degrees, yearbooks, ties – even his old employee I.D. I’ve kept this collection close, as if throwing it away would somehow erase his existence.” —AW
So like me, though my collection is filled with driver’s licenses, dishes, candlesticks, a 1940s office stapler, and handwritten cards. Loved the specifics and hers triggered thoughts of my own.

“My parents spoke their own language: a series of snorts, harrumphs and silences that communicated a deep-seated hatred that none of us children could translate.” —DD
What a way to show an entire family dynamic in one sentence.

“Always in a suit, Mr. Knott has pin straight hair and an Adam’s apple that bobbles when he talks.” —JV
Love the description – especially “bobbles.”

“Some of the letters melt away. Others fly into the air curling upward toward the blackboard.” —VM
Shows a seizure described by the person experiencing it while she’s in front of a class. Vivid!

“…tossing out worries like pieces of banged up, mismatched luggage.” —SV
Love the spirit here.

“I’ve just finished a master’s degree. I don’t have enough money to move back out of Boston.” —CO
Common problem for so many recent graduates and I already care about the narrator and want to help him.

“Her husband was a lawyer in a white-shoe practice on Charleston’s tony Broad Street, she, a steel magnolia of the first magnitude and one of the highest-ranking people in our English Department. ‘That man must think there are no women professors.’” —PC
I like her cause and the way this lifts the memoir from a personal story to one with larger overtones.

“How many times did he pick the scab that was his memory?” —SC
How many times have I done the same thing? The emotional truth is so strong.

If any of this helps, please comment, telling readers what worked and why. Thanks!


Lynn Goodwin owns Writer Advice, Her recent memoir is Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62. She’s also written You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers and Talent, which was short-listed for a Literary Lightbox Award, won a bronze medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and was a finalist for a Sarton Women’s Book Award. Goodwin’s work has appeared in Voices of Caregivers, Hip Mama, Dramatics Magazine, Inspire Me Today, The Sun, Good, Purple and many other places. She is a reviewer and teacher at Story Circle Network, and she is an editor, writer and manuscript coach at Writer Advice.

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