It has been "score writing contest entries" at my house. This is an annual or semi-annual event that I often lend my expertise to for several reasons. One is that I also entered writing contests for unpublished writers once upon a time and have since gone on to publish several of those books that entered and did well. So, I'm paying it forward, or back, whichever works for you. The second reason is that I can only say "No, but thank you for asking" just so many times before you've worn me down. The third reason is that somehow I might just make a difference in some new writer's perspective on their work.
So in this latest round I have to tell you three things that occurred regularly that drove me to distraction and did not garner high scores.
1. Story matters. It doesn't matter how nicely formatted your manuscript is or how grammatically correct each sentence is - well those things do matter, but -. First and foremost if you have not crafted a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end you lose points. Every time. A well polished first three chapters only tells...well three chapters worth of the story. This is why many contests for the unpublished include a synopsis portion. That's so the judges can tell if you can actually write past the first three chapters, or whatever the contest requires. Learn to tell your story.
2. Grammar matters. Sorry, I know you all think that someone else will fix your passive sentence structure, poor noun/verb relationships, and correct the spelling errors that slid by your spell-check. No so much. Make your story easy to read by following the rules of writing in whatever language you are writing. Okay, English isn't the easiest to master, but if you graduated high school in most locations in the United States, you had to pass basic grammar. The importance of good grammar is in clarity. It helps to clarify what you are portraying through your word usage, sentence structure and punctuation. If you can't be clear enough to get your idea down on paper, you lose readers, and in the case of writing contests, you lose points.
3. Characters matter. Who is your protagonist and why should we root for him/her? What motivates your protagonist, and equally important, your villain? In a romance novel, what attracts the hero/heroine to each other? Clue, it has to be more than skin deep. Delve deeply into your characters so you can form truly three dimensional people that your readers want to know and understand. Each character should have internal and external goals, motivations, and conflicts. These three things drive the story. For a really great book on this, try Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation & Conflict. It is clear and easy to read and by the time you finish, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Were there more things that I saw over and over again as a contest judge that troubled me? You betcha, but these three were the biggies. Learn how to tell a story, use proper grammar to tell that story clearly and effectively, and make your story better by creating three dimentional characters that your readers care about.