Placing in contests is no small feat. Congratulations! Figuring out how to make the leap to the winner’s circle can feel like a mystery. Your best course of action is to keep writing, continue to strengthen your work, and submit more. There are few ways to anticipate what a judge is looking for. Most reputable contests are going to value strong craft and some contests give a brief description of what they hope to see in a winning entry. You could read work that has won that particular contest in the past. This will be most useful if the contest has had the same judge for several years. Many, though, have new judges each year. But, ultimately, what you can do to gain insight into a particularly judge’s criteria is quite limited. Different judges will value different elements. In an article detailing the deliberation process for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Michael Cunningham describes what each member of the jury most valued. Maureen Corrigan was “drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story.” Susan Larson was “a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book.” Cunningham describes himself as “the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences.” All readers are captivated by something a little different and that’s going to come into play anytime writing is assessed.
While there are certainly standards of craft that most can agree upon, there is always a subjective element to the reading experience. Perhaps Michael Cunningham says this best in that same article:
Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components . . . they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.
While this doesn’t necessarily demystify a process that can feel quite mysterious, it can give you the freedom to relinquish yourself from further work in trying to figure out how to please the judges. Write. Continue to challenge yourself. Improve your writing. And keep sending those submissions.