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Write On! Features: What I Look For When I’m Judging Book Awards by M.D. Neu

By M.D. Neu

Over the past several years, I’ve been a book judge for multiple contests and, believe me, I’ve read some outstanding books; sadly, I’ve also read some not-so-great books. Based on this experience, let me share with you what I look for when I’m judging (this is completely different from reading for pleasure, or even research).

To start, each book competition will have its own criteria for judging entries. So, my suggestions and comments will be more general, to help you win awards and ensure you are presenting your best possible work.


This seems simple, but honestly, putting your novel in the wrong category is the biggest no-no I can give you. When you enter your novel in an award contest, make sure you submit it to the correct category. For example, if you write erotica, enter your erotica book in an erotica category. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can enter the novel in Romance or, say, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or any other category (unless there is a sub-category for erotic stories like Erotica-Fantasy). That is the quickest way for me, as a judge, to give you low marks. There are categories for a reason, so please do this for all your novels. If I’m planning on evaluating a Fantasy story and you entered your Sci-Fi story in the Fantasy section, I will not be a happy judge and you will end up with low marks.

My advice: Check the category, re-check your story, and ask a friend if they think your book belongs in the category you want to enter. If there are no categories that fit, then find another competition for your work. There are plenty of book competitions each year. Basically, don’t be lazy!


OK, here’s the thing: we all make editing mistakes. If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you know by now that spelling, grammar and punctuation are major hurdles in my writing. Believe it or not, each blog post has been edited and I use editing software to help catch mistakes. Still, there are major editing mistakes all over this blog (for me, my blog is casual writing, so I don’t sweat these mistakes too much). Errors happen and that’s fine, but if I’m reading your book for a competition and you didn’t take the time to have your manuscript edited (and this means professionally edited), then I’m going to nail you for that when I judge your book. If I can find mistakes in your work, then you clearly did not do any editing, and that’s a big issue.

My advice: Self-publishing or traditional publishing or hybrid… editing is key. Nothing will be 100% but do everything you can to ensure your product (yes, your book is a product and a piece of art) is as polished as possible. I may be more forgiving if you are self-published, but will not give you a pass, entirely. If your work is traditionally published, I’m really not going to allow any slack! Basically, there’s no excuse for sloppy work. Plus, you can find professional editors online. Always ask to see a sample of their work and ask them to provide you a sample edit of your work (one page or 500 words seems reasonable).

Novels, Novellas And Short Stories

Know the difference. Pay attention to the length of your story. Novels are 50k words to 100k words, or 200 to 400 manuscript pages. Novellas range from 17,500 words to 40k words, or about 100 to 200 manuscript pages. Short Story length is always between 1,000 and 10,000 words, or roughly three to 30 manuscript pages. Why this is important is because, as a judge, I have certain expectations. If I’m reading Sci-Fi, Mystery, Fantasy or Urban Fantasy stories, I’m planning on something close to 100k words. If I’m reading Romance, I’m good with 50k–70k words. I don’t want to read a Sci-Fi story of only 10k words, unless I already know it’s a short story (which should be in its own category). Submitting a short story or novella in a category clearly meant for longer books is a fast way to receive low marks.

There’s nothing wrong with novellas and short stories. In fact, I love them, but they need to be entered in the correct categories and it’s up to the author to ensure that this is the case.

My advice: Make sure you know what you are entering and what the expectations are. If you wrote a beautiful short story, enter your work in a short story contest, and don’t enter your book in a category where you are up against full-length novels; chances are you won’t win. If the competition you want to enter doesn’t have a short story category, then look for another contest (there are plenty out there). You can also check in with the folks running the contest and see if they will add a short story category. They might not, but asking doesn’t hurt!

Write Your Story

There’s nothing worse than reading a story that’s been written solely for the mass market but wants to be put up against other works that were created to tell a unique and different story. There’s nothing wrong with mass-market stories (again, I love them and I’ve judged several), and many of them are well worth an award. But if you’re writing a book for the commercial market, enter that novel in a contest designed for mass-market books (there are several). Not all authors write the same thing, and many authors write stories reflecting their lives and their experiences. In my opinion, these works are held to a different calibre, especially when I’m judging said works. We know the difference between a mass-market book and something else, and I can assure you mass-market books are judged differently and often much more harshly.

I don’t want to read about generic and interchangeable characters having generic and interchangeable stories. I want to read your story, something you created out of love. Mass-market novels up against other works will get you nothing but low scores from me.

My advice: There are so many competitions out there. Why spam one contest with your work? If you write for the market, great, but maybe, when looking for book award contests, find appropriate contests to enter. Personally, own-voice stories rate and score so much better when I judge. Also, ask your friends, ask your publisher and ask your editor if they think your book would be good enough for the competition you want to enter.

Know Your Audience

This is so important. If you write, as I do, LGBTQIA books, make sure you enter your queer fiction books in the correct contests. Conversely, if you write other types of stories, make sure you’ve entered your novel in the right category. Don’t count on the contest organisers to sort this out. Many times, the organisers will kick back your book or, worse, enter it and let it fail. Yes, I’ve seen both. So, don’t risk putting your book in the wrong place!

My advice: Simple. Pay attention to what you enter, and don’t set yourself up to fail. Don’t rely on the contest organisers, either. They’re busy and may miss something (it happens). As I’ve said, there are hundreds of book competitions out there. You can find the right fit for you and your masterpiece.

Here are a few lists of contests to look at:


Reedsy. Click here.

The Novel Factory. Click here.

For LGBTQ books, do a Google search for: LGBTQ book competitions.

Wrapping this up. Keep in mind there are no rights or wrongs when you write your story, but there are a lot of dos and don’ts when it comes to a book award competition. Everyone believes their book is a winner. That may be the case, but if you want to save yourself a world of hurt (and plenty of money in entry fees), pay attention to which contest you enter.

The most important piece of advice I can give you, and I hope you will take it to heart, is the editing. Nothing will do your work more harm than sloppy editing. Yes, professional editing isn’t cheap; however, you and your book are worth the investment. I hope this information is helpful. Good luck with your writing and your next book contest!


You can connect with M.D Neu on his website:, on Twitter: @Writer_MDNeu and on Instagram: @authormdneu.


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The most important piece of advice I can give you, and I hope you will take it to heart, is the editing. Nothing will do your work more harm than sloppy editing!