Best Resources for Poets and WritersWinning Writers

The New Winning Writers Debuts

Jendi Reiter Wins Alligator Juniper's National Writing Contest

Accessing The Best Free Poetry Contests

Now Open:
War Poetry Contest

Now Open:
Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse

Award-Winning Poems

Featured Poem:
"Because We Are in Love"

Special Offers for Poets and Writers

Getting Your Writing Past Contest Screening Judges


Newsletter Archives

Winter 2005-6 Supplement

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Welcome to our Winter newsletter supplement. These quarterly supplements contain award-winning poems, timely Winning Writers announcements and special offers for poets and writers. This issue also highlights common mistakes that doom contest entries. We'll release our next regular newsletter on December 15.

The New Winning Writers Debuts
We are pleased to roll out our new Winning Writers website for your enjoyment at

Here are special links to note:

War Poetry Contest (opens today)
Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest (no fee)
Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (opens today)
Tom Howard/John H. Reid Short Story Contest
Tom Howard/John H. Reid Poetry Contest (opens December 15)

Poetry Contest Insider ($6.95/quarter, free 10-day trial)
Advertise in the Winning Writers Newsletter

Database specialist Alice Greer of EyeArchitect has worked around the clock to make Winning Writers the best site possible. She and designer Dariane Hunt deserve great praise for their heroic efforts.

Jendi Reiter Wins Alligator Juniper's National Writing Contest
We just learned today that Winning Writers editor Jendi Reiter won Alligator Juniper's National Writing Contest with her poem, "Dugan's Shift". This poem was inspired by an anecdote from the life of poet Alan Dugan (1923-2003). Alligator Juniper, the literary journal of Prescott College, was itself recently honored with the Directors' Prize for Undergraduate Literary Magazines from The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). Alligator Juniper's annual contest offers prizes of $500 for poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. The next deadline is October 1, 2006.

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Accessing The Best Free Poetry Contests
We have established individual accounts for all our newsletter subscribers so you can access The Best Free Poetry Contests on our new site. This free online database now profiles over 150 quality free contests. To login, please go to this page:

Login with your own email address and this password: writers

A few of you may have changed your password. In that case, please login with the password you chose. If you forget your password, you may have it emailed to you at any time. Just go to:

If you'd like to change your password, please login with your current password, then click the Customer Service link on the left of the Welcome page.

The Best Free Poetry Contests is a subset of our Poetry Contest Insider database. Poetry Contest Insider has grown to profile over 750 poetry contests, plus over 100 quality prose contests. Request a free 10-day trial. If you like it, continued access is $6.95/quarter. Read about the good results poets are having with Poetry Contest Insider.

If you need Customer Service, please go to:

As always, you may contact us if you need help. Please be patient as there may be an unusual volume of requests for help as we transition to the new website. It may take us a few days to respond. If you lose days from a Poetry Contest Insider subscription, we will restore them to you at no charge.

Now Open
2006 War Poetry Contest
We seek 1-3 original, unpublished poems for our fifth annual contest on the theme of war, up to 500 lines in total. We will again award $3,000. Your entry fee of $12 includes three months of online access to Poetry Contest Insider, a $6.95 value. Submit online or by mail. Postmark deadline: May 31, 2006. Judge: Jendi Reiter. See the complete guidelines and past winners at:

Now Open
2006 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest
Now in its third year, this contest seeks poetry in traditional verse forms such as sonnets and haiku. Both published and unpublished poems are welcome. 30 cash prizes totaling $3,500 will be awarded, including a top prize of $1,000. All winners of cash prizes will be published in an anthology. The entry fee is $6 for every 25 lines you submit. Postmark deadline: June 30, 2006. Submit online or by mail. This contest is sponsored by Tom Howard Books and assisted by Winning Writers. Judges: John H. Reid and Dee C. Konrad. See the complete guidelines at:

Read the winning poem from the 2005 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest, "Love's Labor Found" by Osmond Benoliel.

Like What We Do? Please Nominate Us!
Writer's Digest is calling for nominations for its 2006 "101 Best Web Sites for Writers". As you know, we were grateful to be named to this list in 2005. Please consider sending an email to Put "101 Sites" in the subject line and include a brief note about how Winning Writers helps you. We appreciate it!



Waverly 216
by Paul Hendricks
Winner of the 2004 Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Student Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: December 23
This high-profile award is sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. US high school students can win $250 for an unpublished poem. Hendricks' mature, tragically real poem takes us inside the mind of a boy whose friend is yet another casualty of Baltimore's drug-related gang wars. This student author has great potential.

He Saw the Pale
by Linda Rogers
Winner of the 2005 Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by January 27
This prestigious contest from the Welsh Academi offers a top prize of 5,000 pounds for unpublished poems. Exclusive submission required. Inspired by the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, but universally relevant, Rogers' subtle, carefully-paced poem shows how our common vulnerability to disaster indicts our arbitrary caste systems.

Agnus Dei
by Gayle Elen Harvey
Winner of the 2005 Don Russ Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: February 28
This prize for an individual poem awards $500 and publication in The Kennesaw Review, an online journal. Harvey's poem appeared in the spring 2005 issue. Her beautifully textured lyric finds hints of eternity and resurrection in the darkness before dawn.

We are gathering a growing library of award-winning poems in Poetry Contest Insider, over two dozen to date. Enjoy a wide range of today's best work. Sign up for a free trial.



Writer's Digest Poetry Awards
We're pleased to announce the only Writer's Digest competition exclusively for poets! Regardless of style—rhyming, free verse, haiku and more—if your poems are 32 lines or fewer, we want them all.


First Place: $500

Second Place: $250

Third Place: $100

Fourth Through Tenth Place: $25

Eleventh Through Twenty-Fifth Place: $50 gift certificate for Writer's Digest Books.

The names and poem titles of the First through Tenth-Place winners will be printed in the August 2006 Writer's Digest, and winners will receive the 2006 Poet's Market.

Postmark Deadline: Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Competition Rules
  1. The competition is open to poems 32 lines or fewer. Entries outside the line limitation will be disregarded. Judging is blind. Type the line count on a separate cover sheet along with your name, address, phone number and email address.

  2. The entry fee is $10 for your first poem and $5 for each additional poem. You may enter as many poems as you wish. You may send one check (in US funds) and one entry form for all entries.

  3. All entries must be in English, original, unpublished, and not submitted elsewhere until the winners are announced. Writer's Digest reserves the one-time publication rights to the 1st through 25th-place winning entries to be published in a Writer's Digest publication.

  4. If you are submitting your entry via regular mail, all entries must be on one side of 8-1/2 x 11 or A4 white paper. Poems will not be returned.

  5. Entries must be postmarked by Tuesday, December 20, 2005.

  6. Winners will be notified by March 1, 2006. If you have not been contacted by this date, you may assume that your entry is not a finalist and may be marketed elsewhere.

  7. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped postcard with your entry if you want to be notified of its receipt. We cannot notify you personally of your poem's status before the winners are announced. If entering online, you will receive a confirmation email for each entry you submit.

  8. Winners' names will appear in the August 2006 issue of Writer's Digest magazine. Their names and poem titles will be posted at

  9. The following are not permitted to enter the competition: employees of F&W Publications, Inc., and their immediate families and Writer's Digest contributing editors and correspondents as listed on the masthead.
Visit for an entry form or to enter online.


The Litchfield Review Winter Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28
The Litchfield Review seeks original, unpublished poems, essays and short stories for its new contest. We provide a forum to both emerging and established writers; our only criterion for acceptance is excellence. We look for good stories beautifully told, quality poetry of substance, and creative nonfiction that lingers long in the minds of readers. The overall winner will receive $250. Other prizes of $100 may also be awarded. The reading fee is $10 per essay, short story, or set of 1-3 poems, or pay $15 to submit an unlimited number of prose and poetry entries. All prizewinners will be published in The Litchfield Review. Runners-up may also be published. All writers we publish will receive a free copy of the issue in which they appear.
     Please submit two copies of your manuscript and make your reading fee payable to The Litchfield Review. Essays and short stories may be up to 3,000 words long. Poems may have up to 45 lines. Your entry should be typed, double-spaced, on one side of letter-size sheets of paper. Staple multiple pages together. Include a cover page with your name, address, phone number, email address (if available) and title for each submission. Indicate the word count (prose) or line count (poetry) on the cover page. Include a self-addressed stamped postcard if you want us to acknowledge receipt of your entry. Mail your submission to The Litchfield Review, 7 Bonna Street, Beacon Falls, CT 06403.
     You may submit the same work simultaneously to this contest and to others. Please notify The Litchfield Review if the work you submit is accepted elsewhere. Questions? Please email Theresa C. Vara-Dannen.


Utmost Christian Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: February 28, 2006
The Utmost Christian Poetry Contest seeks poems from Christian poets. Over US$3,000 in cash prizes will be awarded in our 6th annual contest, including a first prize of US$1,000. There are many special categories, including "Best Poem by an Unpublished Poet", which will be awarded US$200. Winning entries will be published at Entry fee is US$15 per poem (Can$15 for Canadians). Entries are now being accepted. This is the largest annual poetry prize in North America available exclusively to poets of Christian faith. Please see the complete rules and submit using our entry form:

We are pleased here to present the 2005 winning entry, "We Take the Sky".

We Take the Sky
by Susanna Childress

We take the sky, as if red is something we could own,
something we might find in the stillest moments,
as if the earth is humane and wouldn't break
our bones. (None of His were broken. Not one.)

Red is in the land too, is in the way we look at each other, the hardness
of our sleep, the need to fall down, to tell of the pox that swept Aunt Jess,
the drink that ushers Father, the path that never leads to wealth or rest
or health—but the one we always take. Shalom, we say. Buena Suerte.

We always take the sky, fold it over ourselves,
the soil, run it across our skin and cling to it,
savoring the tart of a lemon, palming a bar of soap
even when our hands are clean, naming the insects

that fly across the white bulb of moon late at night,
rakishly loving the one who knows our smell,
saying (as if they are not questions), Isn't this how
we stay alive
and Why shouldn't I burrow here.

This is how we drum on, cold and ungrowing—
what more to be than alive? It all hums: so we die in small bits,
so the egg-shaped hollow that sits behind our stomachs,
so He died and rose again on the third day, so (what).

We take the sky, we scatter on the land. We fall down,
grab the everythings, the tiniest cures, fall down again,
wash ourselves in red and know, unwittingly, it is not enough.
More certain than anything: it will never be,

and then here, in the stillest moments, the story rushes again
(veil splitting, stone rolling, Mary, Peter, John, running,
linen and spices like a limp cocoon, the blur of angels, the one red
splash of a second—like a rose breaking open—when we know),

and somewhere inside us a small green seed pricks the dirt,
coiling for air. He soothes and stirs, fingertip-sized holes in His
hands, roaming the soil and the sky for our broken bones.
And the shaking on earth is our brand new lives:

Alleluia, we say, feeling even the empty oval of our stomachs rise.

Copyright 2005 by Susanna Childress

Former US poet laureate Billy Collins recently selected a poetry manuscript by Ms. Childress for the Brittingham Prize in Poetry, which offers $1,000 and publication of the winning manuscript. Learn more about Ms. Childress.


"One Day You'll Find Out", the conclusion
Growing up in the 1930s, the war years and beyond—last of a two-part story about a youth's upbringing in a small farm community facing difficult times. Christmas in wartime. Gathering around the radio for Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny and Bob Hope. The trimmed tree, presents. Delivering the local paper. Quarry hanky-panky. Farm on Butterfly Lane—the other grandmother's pet peeves, her salty tongue and strong religious streak. Leaving town for the great unknown. College and choosing to work in another region. Returning years later to find what had been home irrevocably changed.

Excerpt, set during the late 1940s, at Nanny's (the maternal grandmother's) farm just outside of town.

Her place, a small, dilapidated farmhouse just outside city limits, was surrounded by cornfields. With a war on, help was hard to come by; her soil went untilled. In summer, insects hummed steadily. Sure enough, butterflies bobbed en masse in wildflowers. . . . Model-Ts ambled by the shady front yard. Tar bubbles snapped and popped during scorchers. Nearby hills turned radiant when foliage changed color in autumn and after snows. When electrical storms rumbled over them, Nanny would say, "Good Lord's havin' a shindig in the heavens."

She primed the pump to coincide with my expected time of arrival and thrust a tin cup into my hands, then urgently embraced me. "My little lumpa gold," she'd say as the spring water splashed from the cup.

The parlor stayed dark and off-limits unless company came. Nanny heeded Arthur Godfrey and God's Word on the radio. She disliked interruptions. Behaving, I was that "lumpa gold," otherwise "a dirty sacka shhii—coal!" Around me, she'd refrain from outright vulgarisms.

I had more freedom at the farm than at home. I'd mount the rickety outhouse roof for better views of the countryside or capture grasshoppers and feed them to spiders. If the spider looked formidable, I'd toss grasshoppers onto its web, where they would be ensnared. Once, I found a dead mouse in a field and brought it inside. "You're Satan himself," she shouted. "Take that thing out of here."

Allowing insurance salesmen to enter without warning constituted a capital offense. I'd tell them she was indisposed, but they'd say, "I just want to leave some information for her" and slip past me. When they got in, she'd have to be agreeable and listen politely to the spiel, offer coffee, indicate she could buy a policy if she wanted because money didn't enter into it. "I don't like them to know how well off I am," she said. "They won't show no respect they see you're wanting. Might pull some trick to take what little's there."

Nanny, besides being old, had lived alone for some time. Her husband, my granddad, was long gone . . . I wasn't told why and didn't ask. Perhaps he lacked religious zeal and hers repelled or bored him.

Sheila Bender's Writing It Real and LifeJournal for Writers
Author of eight writing books for Writer's Digest Books and other presses, poet and essayist Sheila Bender puts her knowledge and classroom-tested writing exercises, discussion, and revision techniques to work for Writing It Real subscribers. If you write from personal experience or teach others to do so, visit to read five sample articles, learn about LifeJournal for Writers, a software tool for building an effective writer's journal on your computer, and browse previews of recent articles to experience the flavor of the weekly articles. On the homepage, you'll also learn how to study with Sheila online or in person. When you subscribe now for access to three years of archives as well as a year of new weekly articles, you will jumpstart your writing, observe Sheila guide authors from early drafts to fully realized essays and poems, and hear from well-published authors who write from their personal experience to create successful stories, poems, novels and memoirs.



Congratulations to Poetry Contest Insider subscriber David Silverman. His poems, "A Simple Prayer" and "Because We Are in Love", won two honorable mentions in the 2005 International Reuben Rose Memorial Poetry Competition sponsored by Voices Israel. Mr. Silverman has kindly allowed us to share this poem with you here.

Because We Are in Love
by David Silverman

Because we are in love
in Jerusalem, I do not mind
that I can see my breath,
as winter rain blows in sheets
against our leaky window.

Because we are in love
in Jerusalem, nighttime is our palette.
We talk until dawn in strokes and swirls
of incandescent hues.

Because we are in love
in Jerusalem, we ignore politics,
religion, the price of bread,
everything that matters here.
We, a community of two.

Because we are in love
in Jerusalem, I do not mind
that the electric heater is
on your side of the bed.

The effrontery of it—to be young
and impudent in this venerable city.
This is a serious city. A city with
its own arithmetic—every experience
squared, cubed: the hamsin is more penetrating,
the stones are weightier, the tefillin
are bound tighter. This is a city
of epic battles—of swords, of bombs,
of political deals. A city where
the end justifies the means. A city
of blood and pain, sins and penitence,
not desire.

But you are exquisite.
And I am no mathematician,
no soldier, no penitent, no politician.

Copyright 2005 by David Silverman



Southern Revival: Deep South Magic for Hurricane Relief
Fundraiser and Call for Submissions

We at Margin and Periphery wish to aid in the restoration of the Deep South by devoting our 2006 edition of Periphery, entitled Southern Revival, to library recovery efforts. The editor pledges to absorb all production costs and to forward all sales, donations and support culled from Periphery to, First Book's comprehensive effort to provide millions of new books to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our goal at Periphery? $2,500. That amount will provide support for the delivery of 5,000 books to those displaced by the hurricanes, to schools and libraries supporting the evacuees, and to replenish the schools and libraries ultimately rebuilt in the Gulf Coast.

Call for Manuscripts: We're looking to capture, in some way, the magical essence of the Deep South. While our usual focus is magical realism, the editor has expanded the possibilities this time to include all imaginative literary forms. We are interested in diverse voices and ideas. Forms: free verse, flash fiction (up to 1,000 words), creative nonfiction (up to 1,000 words), digital artwork and prose poetics. Possible subjects: faith healing, voodoo, haints, curses, miracles, legends, fish stories, vampires, devils, preachers, black cats, owls, thunder and lightning, snake oil salesmen, black magic, mardi gras, witchcraft, planting by the moon, superstitions, ghost armies, sleepwalking, and all things haunted. From these submissions, we will select the best work to fill 24 pages.

As this is a fundraising event, we are not offering payment to contributors. Instead, we request that potential contributors include a minimum entry donation of $10 with their submission. Please postmark your submission by February 6. Individual donations without entry to show support are also welcomed. See the complete guidelines at:



Tom Howard/John H. Reid Short Story Contest
Postmark Deadline: March 31, 2006
Now in its 14th year. Prizes of $1,000, $600 and $400 will be awarded, plus four High Distinction awards of $250 each. The top entry will be published in a triennial anthology. Other entries may also be published. Submit any type of short story, essay or other work of prose, up to 5,000 words. You may submit work that has been published or won prizes elsewhere, as long as you own the anthology and online publication rights. $12 entry fee. Submit online or by mail. Early submission encouraged. Winning Writers is assisting with entry handling for this contest. Judges: John H. Reid and Dee C. Konrad. Guidelines:

Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest - No Fee
Online Submission Deadline: April 1, 2006
Now in its fifth year. Sponsored by Winning Writers. Prizes of $1,190, $169, $60 and 5 honorable mentions of $38 each. A humor contest with a special twist. No fee to enter. Judge: Jendi Reiter. Submit online:

Now Open
2005 War Poetry Contest
Postmark Deadline: May 31, 2006
We seek original, unpublished poems for our fifth annual contest on the theme of war. Submit 1-3 poems, up to 500 lines in total. $3,000 in prizes will be awarded, including a top prize of $1,500. The entry fee is $12. This fee includes three months of online access to the Poetry Contest Insider database, a $6.95 value. Judge: Jendi Reiter. Submit online or by mail. Guidelines:

Now Open
Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse
Postmark Deadline: June 30, 2006
Now in its third year, this contest seeks poetry in traditional verse forms such as sonnets and haiku. 30 cash prizes totaling $3,500 will be awarded, including a top prize of $1,000. All winners of cash prizes will be published in an anthology. The entry fee is $6 for every 25 lines you submit. Enter online or by mail. Early submission encouraged. You may submit poems that have been published or won prizes elsewhere, as long as you own the anthology and online publication rights. Unpublished work is also welcome. Winning Writers is assisting with entry handling for this contest. Judges: John H. Reid and Dee C. Konrad. Guidelines:

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Do you have a personal story that belongs in today's bestselling anthologies, like Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, and Chocolate for Women? You could get published and receive money for your work! Julia Rosien, a publishing veteran and editor at ePregnancy Magazine, will mentor you and show you how to turn your memories into essays that warm the heart...and sell.

2006 Poet's Market
The 2006 edition of Poet's Market is on sale for $16.49 at Amazon. Published each August by Writer's Digest, this is the best annual guide to 1,800 journals, magazines, book publishers, chapbook publishers, websites, grants, conferences, workshops and contests. Helps you find publishers who are looking for your kind of work. Also updated are Novel & Short Story Writer's Market and Writer's Market for works of prose. Writer's Market is "the most valuable of tools for the writer new to the marketplace," says Stephen King in On Writing.

WriteSuccess Newsletter
Sign up now for WriteSuccess's free newsletter for freelance writers. Editor Mary Anne Hahn has a knack for finding the most interesting literary sites and markets. It's easy to feel lonely as a freelancer. Mary Anne's inspiring attitude and success notes from readers create a sense of community.

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Advertise to 16,000 Poets and Writers
Promote your contests, websites, events and publications in this newsletter. Reach over 16,000 poets and writers for $35. Ads may contain up to 100 words and a headline. Place your reservation at:

"The ads we have run in the Winning Writers newsletter have garnered more response and inquiry than any other ads we have run in 20 years of publication."
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"Thanks for the great advertising value your service continues to offer. Your subscriber base continues to serve as the foundation for our submissions."
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Literacy and the Riots in France

As reported by The Associated Press, 11/11/05...

Night after night of rioting across France in which children as young as 10 have hurled firebombs and torched cars has prompted many people to ask: Where were the parents?

The rampaging in the impoverished, mainly immigrant neighborhoods underscores not only tensions in French society but also troubles in the homes where many of the rioters have grown up.

Many parents are struggling to make ends meet, leaving them little time for their children. They often can hardly communicate with their sons and daughters: Many parents are not French citizens and never learn to speak French, while their children don't learn the language of their ancestors....

Fatna, an Algerian immigrant who agreed to speak on condition her last name not be used, insists on the innocence of her 21-year-old son, who was sentenced to two months in jail for a role in the riots....

"Life is very difficult here," Fatna said in Arabic. She, like her husband, is illiterate and doesn't speak French despite having lived here for more than 25 years....

[Fatna's son] Khaled, who dropped out of school after failing his high school exams, is unemployed. He worked for eight months and then stopped, but his mother said she didn't know what kind of job he had.

"I don't read, I don't write," she said. "I don't know anything."...

ProLiteracy Worldwide helps parents and children build successful, literate lives together. ProLiteracy’s International Programs Division builds on work begun more than 70 years ago in the Philippines. In 54 developing countries around the world, thousands of parents are improving conditions for their families and their communities through ProLiteracy’s 103 grassroots partner programs. ProLiteracy uses its unique methodology to provide training, technical assistance, and targeted local grants to support tailored programs that combine literacy with economic self-reliance, health, education, peace, human rights, and environmental sustainability projects.

ProLiteracy America, the US Programs Division of ProLiteracy Worldwide, represents 1,200 community-based volunteer and education affiliates in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. ProLiteracy America provides accreditation, advocacy, and technical assistance as well as program and professional development services. In addition, its affiliates benefit from an annual conference and regional training programs.

Support ProLiteracy's vital mission. Click here to learn more. Click here to contribute.

Send this page to a friend and we'll donate 15 cents to ProLiteracy for each friend you refer.



by Kurt VanderSluis of WritingItReal

Strategies from one who has read thousands of entries

About seven years ago, Sheila Bender, principal of WritingItReal, agreed to judge a personal essay contest for a writing magazine. Her task was to choose and rank the ten top essays among the submissions. Told to expect about 1,000 essays, she was surprised when 3,500 showed up at our door with only three weeks to choose the winners.

I knew that in order to do the job within the available time frame, Sheila would require help winnowing the number of essays down to a manageable size from which to select the winners. I suggested she and some trusted readers divide the pile of entries and do quick reads to sort out those that were obviously not contenders. I also shared a system for screening the entries I called a "demerit" system. Any essay that received three demerits on the first page was immediately disqualified. To help with the task, I lined up three skilled writers to help weed out the definite rejects. They would all come over to our house and we would make an evening of it.

I didn't easily sell Sheila on this system. She has the uncanny ability to spot a diamond in the rough and help the author develop it. We had to remind her that for this contest, the writers would not get a revision opportunity after receiving her comments. She had to judge the entries as they were.

When the evening came for the winnowing, all five of us gathered with Sheila and read. At first, every time one of us placed an essay on the reject pile, Sheila asked, "Why are you rejecting that one?" and we would have to read the offending passages aloud to the group. I was touched by the way Sheila sympathized with the writing and knew what would work to better develop it, even if the rest of us took it at face value and were howling over it, but after more than an hour of reading the demerit-worthy aloud, I was glad when she decided to trust us to help find obvious rejects as long as we all promised to count only the very worst offenses as demerits.

I've since learned that most writing contests, such as the Associated Writing Program's annual poetry contest, are organized with behind-the-scenes screening judges. In fact, in many of the contests, screening judges receive a portion of the entries and select only two or three contenders to pass on to the judge who has been announced as the decision maker.

If you are thinking of sending your work to contests, considering our demerit system will help you avoid having your work quickly thrown into the reject pile.

Demerit #1: The Unnecessary Preamble

In the contest entries, an alarming number of writers used the preamble to present their credentials, telling the reader what good writers they were. Telling judges how many of your relatives and friends love your work or how your eighth-grade English teacher really thought you had potential will only lead the judges to giving you an immediate demerit.

Even if your preamble is not self-flattering, it still may be annoying to the screening judges. We all flounder around in some way as we begin a piece of writing (tech-related magazine and newspaper articles are my experience) and writing a preamble can help us figure out what we have to say. But when the piece is ready for someone else to read, that opening preamble usually isn't necessary anymore and needs to be removed.

Demerit #2: The Line that Takes You Right Out of the Essay

That night, we read many essays with passages like this one:
This is a story about my grandmother who worked as a Rosie the Riveter during WWII. She was also a great cook, but that's another story.
I think there might have been over 200 with a line like "but that's another story" somewhere in them. Here's the deal: If you are not going to use your grandmother's fantastic cooking skills as part of the story you are writing, it's just a distraction. Pointing out the distraction doesn't make it less distracting. It leaves the reader wondering why you aren't telling that other story. If a piece of information is important, use it. Otherwise, let it go for another piece of writing.

Demerit # 3: The Unsatisfying Metaphor

When a metaphor works, it communicates information exactly and efficiently. For the reader, a well-built metaphor is a nugget of pleasure. But a poorly built metaphor creates confusion and even irritation in the reader. When you look over your essay before submission, take a look at your metaphors to see if they have any of the following features:

A Partially Used Metaphor

If your metaphor only catches a corner of what you are describing and you use it only in passing, consider either taking it out altogether or making better use of it.
The Vice Principal suddenly rose like an orca, saying that if we couldn't have a football team, he didn't see why we needed an orchestra.
The use of the orca metaphor here may be, in the writer's mind, a very apt description of what happened, but readers don't have enough information to see the analogy and are left wondering how the vice-principal moved.
During the summer, we hammered out the details of the coming year's budget in the school's sweltering, airless conference room. Mr. Poretta, the Vice Principal who had once played professional football in the CFL, had been silent for most of the proceedings. Suddenly he rose from his chair, sweat flying from his neck like water off a breaching orca. "If we don't need a football team, I don't see why we need an orchestra," he proclaimed.
With enough information, readers receive a fuller experience and better "get" the metaphor.

The Cliché

Another type of metaphor is the tired one, the one we hear so often it brings no freshness to a description and means nothing more than a simple adjective or adverb. For instance, "It's raining buckets" doesn't mean more to us than "It's raining hard."

It's certainly OK, though, to quote a person using a cliché, especially if their use of the cliché reveals something about them:
While settling into his recliner for his evening ice cream sundae, Dad ended the argument by saying that he felt my brother had gotten his just desserts.
The Smothered Metaphor

A good metaphor carries information more concisely and succinctly than a non-metaphoric description. If you have a good metaphor, let it do the work for you rather than belabor it with an unnecessary prose envelope. For instance:
There was something about how those lawyers looked as they sat smiling in our company's beautiful atrium lobby awaiting the decision. The self-satisfied look of pleasure they had on their faces reminded me of cats basking in the sun after a hardy meal.
Would be better rendered as:
The lawyers waited for the decision in our atrium like cats basking in the sun after a meal.
The Over-Extended or Telegraphed Metaphor

It's enjoyable when a writer extends a metaphor to deepen the analogy to his subject and draw out new aspects of the parallel. However, each extension of a metaphor must bring something fresh to the description or you'll test the reader's patience.
When the chairman asked for our thoughts on the tree maintenance proposal, all of us suddenly transformed into children. The meeting turned ugly. Our voices now had a whiny quality to them and everyone spoke only of the complicated issues in terms of how they affected them personally. Everyone agreed that tree and hedge management were important issues as our community moved into its fifth decade, but no one could see any point of view but their own. In less than a half hour, the name-calling started and along with it came huffy posturing and vague, empty threats. Those who favored no regulations at all were called tree-huggers and hippies and those who wanted to adopt the eight-foot tree height limits were called "golf course Republicans" and "Californicators". We all needed either an overdose of ice cream or a spanking; I wasn't sure which. If we were still in school our teachers would certainly send us home with a note and we would have to spend our recess periods in detention. Our parents would be very cross with us, that's for sure!
Somewhere in this passage, the image of spoiled, petulant children becomes tiresome. The metaphor ceases to inform the reader but continues on, far past its usefulness. The reader is forced to linger in the metaphor as the writer finds ways to continue to riff on the image. Fixing this situation requires taking something out. Perhaps without the "all of us suddenly transformed into children" early on, the ending use of metaphor would have more energy and freshness behind it.

I'd also consider taking out the exclamation point at the end of the passage. The writer is trying to use the exclamation point like the hypodermic needle it resembles to inject more meaning into the sentence than the text carries. Exclamation points are often mini-demerits. Any time you see one in your writing, regard it with suspicion. If you use one anywhere but in quoted speech, you probably have an important something that isn't fully captured yet. I think exclamation points are often the writer's signal to the reader to fill in the unexpressed thoughts on their own. That's just lazy!

The Mixed Metaphor

Some qualities of a metaphor might be in opposition to others that you intend to invoke. For example:
As he talked to me, my anger welled until it became an ocean.
Here, the writer uses the ocean metaphor to signify the size of his anger, but the image of "ocean" may bring to the reader's mind contradictory attributes such as "cold water", "fun", and "life-giving", among others. In this passage, it would be better to choose a different metaphor or simply leave the metaphor out and rely on the word "welled", which already has a mental picture built into it.

Demerit #4: Getting Your Facts Wrong

With the Internet, it's pretty easy to fact check someone's essay. For example, if you assert in your essay that there are no female soldiers' names on the Vietnam War Memorial, I'm going to go check that out. OK, you get two demerits—there are eight female soldiers' names on the wall and the name of the memorial is the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.

Demerit #5: A Clever Reference to Something Topical

Suppose that twenty years ago, I wrote something with the clever phrase "arms for vestiges" to capitalize on a big news story of the time, "arms for hostages". That bit of cleverness would have no currency today and would be a distraction.

If your story is going to have any shelf life, you have to have a purpose for the clever reference to the issues and people of the day that goes beyond just a quip. The reference has to show something about time and place. For example, the phrase "Weapons of Mass Destruction" lends itself easily to parody today, and you may be tempted to make a humorous passing reference to it and incur a demerit from me. But I wouldn't give you a demerit if put the reference to work for your essay's occasion and speaker's tone:
During the fall of 2003, while the Bush team was searching the hinterlands of Iraq for Weapons of Mass Destruction, I was turning my parents' attic upside down searching for my old Elvis Presley records, a task that distracted me from the fact that my marriage was falling apart.
Demerit #6: The Snarky Aside

Breaking the fourth wall, as actors refer to it, is always a risky proposition. When you address your audience directly, the narrative flow of your writing comes to a halt, however momentarily, as you insert yourself into the presentation. An aside can only work when there is common ground and trust between the writer and the reader and the reader wants to know more about the way the writer thinks. If you haven't already established trust with your reader, if you are narrow in your vision or injudicious with your humor, you risk losing the reader instantly with an ill-placed aside.

Let's say that I was writing an article that contained some thoughts about the "what-not-to-do's" of writing the personal essay or narrative and I issued this aside:
My point here is that you shouldn't drag out all the unnecessary details (like women do to their husbands when they insist on describing all the minute details of their perfectly ordinary day).
You are very likely instantly insulted and alienated by this aside. If you are a woman, I have thrown you into an opposite camp from me. If you are a man and laugh at this aside, you aren't really getting the lesson about details—details are there for the shaper in us to choose among and often as we write we have to see them all in order to choose. This aside is wrong, unhelpful and insulting, but there's another reason this aside might alienate the reader—it contains an obviously over-reaching statement.

If you find that you have included an aside in your writing, ask yourself why you put it there in the first place. Does the aside's credibility or tone or message differ from the larger piece in which it's contained? If so, you should probably reconsider the aside.

The Nature of Demerits

For me, a primary source of pleasure in reading is making a mental link with the author. I feel connected to this person separated from me by time and distance. The writing is a vehicle of conveyance as our minds travel together through the subject matter.

When the writer incurs a demerit, it's because I got bounced out of the vehicle. The vehicle has to come to a complete stop so that I can climb back in. Our minds are no longer linked. Instead, I am noticing the writer's mind, commenting on it, judging it, deciding whether or not I want to climb back aboard. After a couple of jostlings, I have become an uncomfortable passenger who is now scanning the road ahead for bumps and potholes. If the jostlings continue, I will terminate my journey.


Before there's ever a piece to enter into a contest (or to publish), we as writers had to have started somewhere. "I'll never forget the time that I helped judge 3,500 personal essays" might lead to a demerit if I left it in my writing, but it's a phrase I thought and wrote to begin this article. I'll also never forget the apartment of one the graduate students who helped us—6 filthy, expensive mountain bikes crammed into the foyer. But that's another story, and perhaps one I'll write some day.

Scanning your work for potential demerits is something that you should only do as you're shaping and editing your work in revision. That's when you must look for the phrases, passages, and metaphors that could bounce your reader out of the story. When you find one, look for a way to fix the writing—sometimes by using the delete key and sometimes by thinking of the "demerit zone" as a placeholder waiting for you to fill in better images and details.

Copyright 2005 by Kurt VanderSluis

About Kurt VanderSluis
Kurt VanderSluis is the tech guy at Sheila Bender's WritingItReal. He's been a computer professional since hard drive space cost half a million times more per byte than it does now (since 1983) and is the author of Troubleshooting Macintosh Networks (M&T Books, 1993). Kurt was also a columnist for MacUser magazine in the early nineties.

After many years of helping large corporations all over North America solve network performance problems, Kurt now helps out home and small business computer users in and around Port Townsend, WA through his company, PTTechHelp.


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