From the Editor:  On Writing Contests

September 24, 2013
I launched ARDOR in September of 2012 and one of my primary goals was to create a journal which supported and honored extraordinary new writing through publication and with payment. I’m proud that every writer we’ve published during our first year received a check in the mail, and I’m especially proud of the success of our inaugural Short Story Contest. In Issue Three we published the winning short story, Their Own Resolution by David Armstrong, and we also published two of the contest finalists – Tom Howard’s The Savage Angels and Natalie Sypolt’s Watching.

Since we’re nearly half-way through the submission period for our second writing contest (our fall Flash Fiction Contest), I thought it would be a nice time to share some details about how our first contest operated and how we’re managing our flash fiction contest.

We received over one hundred submissions to our short story contest this fall – most of which came to us online (about twelve submissions came via post). Anonymity was an important part of the contest and helped to guarantee that each submission received a fair evaluation. 

Postal submissions were assigned a number and each manuscript was separated from its cover letter. I allowed these hard-copy submissions to sit until submissions closed to ensure that I would forget the names of the writers that had mailed each submission. Online submissions came through Submittable and before the contest began I set the contest “blind” level to conceal the name of the writer and hide the “Cover Letter” submission field entirely. I was only able to see the submission title and the manuscript. This is one of the many great features Submittable offers and we’re taking advantage of it again during our flash fiction contest.

The first stage of the review process began when I read each submission from beginning to end. The evaluation of short fiction is subjective, but during this initial round of reading I asked myself several questions:

1.       Is the writing good on a sentence level?
2.      Was my time well spent reading this story?
3.      Did the story matter on every page?
4.      Was this story necessary in a new and surprising way?

Once I finished each story I spent ten minutes or so reviewing the piece – re-visiting the first pages with a new understanding of the arc and trajectory of the narrative. 

While every story submitted had merit, asking these questions and answering them honestly allowed me to slowly narrow the list. One day I would read a story that was terrific on a sentence level but I’d be forced to let it go if it lacked substance and relied too heavily on being clever. I'd read another story that impressed me in the way it dared to approach significant emotional truths ... but if it was plagued by technical and sentence-level issues I made the tough decision to set it aside. There were several pieces that were very good, that met all of my screening criteria, but they felt familiar in subject and execution. These, too, failed to make the cut.

Ultimately the list was narrowed to 14 stories that satisfied most or all of the criteria we’d established. These stories are listed in our results post.

I took a week and a half away from the fourteen long-listed stories and when I returned I offered each one a fresh, full read – narrowing the list to the six narratives which resonated most sharply. These were stories which featured characters, circumstances and/or prose that lingered even after weeks apart from the work. 

These six stories were then sent (again, without any identifying information) to our guest judge, Chris Offutt, and he selected Armstrong’s Their Own Resolution as the winner. Once I received word from Chris I called David to share the good news and verify that the story was still available (it was!). Next, I revisited the remaining five pieces one final time, accepting Watching and The Savage Angels at our standard publication rate.

One of the greatest moments of this contest came when I lifted the veil of anonymity and saw, with surprise, that two of the contest finalists were written by Tom Howard.  The voice and style of these pieces were markedly different and I never would have guessed that they were penned by the same writer. This confirmed that the blind review process had worked – allowing strong writing to rise without permitting me to doubt my instincts. Anonymity created a level playing field where each story was allowed to stand alone and was evaluated solely on its merits without external influences (the way it should be).

After paying $600 to these three writers the remaining entry-fee funds (after a cut went to the credit card companies and another cut went to Submittable) were re-invested in ARDOR, allowing us to increase the amount we pay writers and enabling us to accept more work (Issue Three is our longest yet). Eventually I hope we'll have funding to run a fee-free writing contest or two, but for now every penny we receive is returned to the writers that appear in our pages.

I hope that this peek behind the editorial curtain offers some insight into the thoroughness and fairness of our process and encourages you to consider submitting next year (or this fall, to our flash fiction contest – open to submissions through the end of October!). 

I’m grateful to Chris Offutt for serving as our guest judge and to all of the writers that sent us their work. It was a pleasure to offer each of your stories the time, care and consideration it deserved.

Joe Hessert, Founding Editor

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