Friday, June 8, 2012

Writing Tip: Write to Express, not Impress

For decades, my writing approach has been, “Write to express, not impress.” It’s a lesson I learned early in my writing career and attempt to use whenever I craft a story, an essay or an article.

Last year I wrote a blog post titled “Writing Tips from a Contest Judge,” which was published on the Walrus Publishing website in January 2012, and which included the advice “winners write to express, not impress.”

While the purpose of that post was to express my opinion, it must've made an impression.

In April “Writing Tips from a Contest Judge” won second place in a Missouri Writers' Guild contest sponsored by the Kansas City Writers Group/Whispering Prairie Press. That was exciting!

Because others have found merit in some of the tips included in my January Walrus Publishing blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to share the entire post today. Here goes.


Writing Tips from a Contest Judge

by Donna Volkenannt

After more than a decade of judging writing competitions I’ve noticed similarities among winning entries. The entries that rise to the top of the stack are not only well written, they are also ones I remember long after judging is done. Here are some tips to help your prose rise to the top of the judge’s pile.


Read the contest guidelines carefully and follow them precisely. This might seem obvious, but surprisingly, some talented writers hurt their chances for winning because they don’t follow the guidelines. A recent contest I judged called for essays or short stories. One writer submitted a well written article which didn’t place because it was neither a short story nor an essay. In another contest, one great story exceeded the word limit. It didn’t win either. Exceeding, and in some cases skirting, a word limit also hints a writer has not polished her work. If contest guidelines are unclear, call or e-mail the contest coordinator for clarification.


A title should be a hint of what’s to come and an introduction to the writer’s style. About one-fifth of the entries in the contest I recently judged were untitled. A couple entries were noteworthy but didn’t make the cut because they didn’t include a title. Not giving your piece a title is like not giving your baby a name. Please name your baby.

Word Choices

The strongest entries use concrete nouns and active verbs as the workhorses for their stories. For example, the noun “mansion” is more concrete than “house,” and the noun “cardinal” is more specific than “bird.” Eliminate passive or weak verbs (is, are, was, were, would, have, had, looked, went, saw) and replace them with stronger, active ones. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Eliminate filler words such as: just, very, only, little, so, that. Winners write to express, not impress.

Vivid writing

One way top-of-the-stack entries sparkle is by including the five senses: sight, scent, touch, hearing, and taste. They also include color and have varied sentence lengths. Dialogue punches up writing. They use dialogue when appropriate, but not as an info dump or to point out the obvious. Dialogue is for conflict, not agreement, and works best in short snatches.

Setting and Time

Stories don’t need exotic locations like Paris or San Francisco or the moon. Daniel Woodrell’s critically acclaimed novel Winter’s Bone is set in the Missouri Ozarks. Wherever you set your story, readers need to be oriented to the setting fairly quickly and have an idea of when the story takes place.

Character, Voice, Action and Conflict

In a winning story I look for well rounded characters, a strong and unique voice, compelling action, and conflict. In winning stories, change occurs. Something happens. Action and conflict occur before the story is resolved.


Even the most skilled writers make mistakes, but the strongest entries have correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. When I’m judging, if I come across an occasional typo, misspelled word, or grammar hiccup, I overlook it. Having a lot of mistakes shows carelessness. And don’t overuse exclamation points!!!!! They are screaming on paper.


Polish your work until it shines. During revision, eliminate unnecessary or repetitive words. Don’t rely on spell check. Print out a hard copy to proofread. Reading a story backwards can help catch double words and other mistakes. Ask a writing friend to read your story or get feedback from a critique group. Put the work aside for a day or two, then re-read it again. Be sure to read it out loud to eliminate awkward or clunky-sounding writing.


Like playing the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t enter. Plan ahead so you’re not scrambling at the last minute. I’ve missed more than one deadline because my printer wasn’t working, my ink cartridge was dry, or I didn’t have enough postage on hand to mail an entry by a deadline. Remember to include the contest fee, and double check the mailing address. I received one entry from a contest chair a couple days after I had finished judging. The entrant mailed her entry on the deadline date but sent it to the wrong address. By the time I received it I had already picked the winners and sent the names to the contest chair.

Entering writing competitions stretches your writing muscles. Placing in contests boosts your ego and gets your work noticed. Winning contests validates your talent, can earn money, and be a step on the road to publication. So, don’t be afraid to enter contests. Send your babies out into the world, but when you do, make sure to submit your best work — and please don’t forget to name your babies.


Hope you enjoyed reading the above.

In writing fiction and nonfiction, “write to express, not impress” is a tip that has served me well.

What about you? Do you have a special tip to share with other writers?


  1. Something I've learned is this:

    Just because it's part of the real story doesn't mean it has to be part of the written story. There are often details that we include, during our first draft, because we're telling the story. But if the details are not integral to the story that's being focused upon, cut them out when revising.

    I've also been doing a "Shirley McClaine" this week. I've been channeling some characters in order to work on some fictional short stories. This is new for me, because I usually stick to memoir/personal essay writing. But trying to get into a made-up character's head has been an enjoyable stretch.

    Donna--Great post, as usual. I can see why it won an award.

    1. Thanks, Sioux. Good luck with your short stories. I bet they will be great!

  2. Cheers on another win, Donna. Great job!

  3. Those poor nameless babies! What if a contest has a link to submit your story, and you only type the title into the information boxes and not on the body of the story? Does that count as being nameless, or is it okay because the title was in the required information field for the contest entry?

    1. :o ?????

      Unless the title is the entire story, I'd say you need more than a title.

    2. Oh, dear. It seems that once again, I've shot an elephant in my pajamas. What I meant was:

      You put the title in those information boxes, like with name, address, etc. Then paste the text of the story in the box for your entry, without having the title at the top of the story. Would that show up as your story not having a title?

      I was wondering if that could be an explanation for so many entries without titles, if they were electronic submissions. Of course, that wouldn't apply to mailed entries. No excuses there!

      Sorry to be so confusing!

  4. Wow! Thanks for sharing so much valuable information!

  5. Donna, I swear I have never read your article until right now, but I'm sure you think I lifted your words for the workshop;) Great minds think alike, and experienced writers know the tricks of the trade. You deserve every award you receive.

  6. Hi Mary,
    You are welcome.

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks, and you may be right about the great minds comment.


  7. I've entered a contest and won, which led me to another contest where my work was roundly torn apart. I was too new to take that well and it set me back. I finally cranked up my courage to re-edit the same material and send it out again to see if I was wasting my time or if I really had something worth working on. The second round was much more uplifting, no win but educational. Your words have challenged me to once again dust off some material and stick it out there. It really is like stretching the muscles and hoping not to get a cramp! :)

  8. Great advice, Donna! Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. Great advice - write to express, not impress. I'm definitely going to remember that, especially when I get stuck - I'll ask myself what is it I'm trying to say, to get across, what do I want people to know... Maybe that will be the kick in the pants to getting unstuck. :)

  10. Very sound advice. The only thing I might add is that if writing is your passion, put aside temporary frustration and never, never, ever give up!

    Critter Alley

  11. Hi Donna, I particularly like your advice about dialogue and using the senses.

    In longer pieces I find myself "screenwriting" sometimes by accident. I just hear the characters talking and I write it all down--but that can end up being "voices in space" on the written page if I don't go back and and fill it in with all the other sense.

    I think I'll head back over to my current work in progress and apply your advice today.

    1. Hi Amy,
      Thanks, but you are such a talented writer I should be taking lessons from you!

  12. Hi Sally,
    Go for it!

    Hi Jennifer,
    You're welcome!

    Hi Madeline,
    Don't kick too hard.

    Hi Pat,
    Your advice is so true: Being a passionate writer is critical--and never give up!

  13. Hi Donna, good advice. Revising is one of my favorite parts of writing. That's where you can add meat to the bones, check for your senses, kick those verbs out and make it shine.


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