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Poetry contests have become increasingly popular in recent years for both the amateur and professional writer. Organized open competitions can be a proving ground for a new writer as well as a challenge for the veteran poet. Most poetry contests feature prizes ranging from awards and certificates to cash and publication. Some may charge nominal entry fees, while others are offered as free to all comers, with outside sponsorship providing the prizes. Whatever the particulars of the contest, competitors all hope to share in a piece of the glory. As with most other contests, however, there can only be a limited number of success stories. Here's a peek into the judging process of an average poetry contest, and how you can improve your chances of winning.

Judges are looking for clarity of thought, depth of emotion, relevance to the theme of the contest, and technique. They have been handed deep stacks of entries, and asked to find a clear set of winning efforts. The first cuts to be made are brutally quick- lack of clarity is the first sign of a losing entry. If the piece makes no sense after the first reading, it won't make sense after the fifteenth reading. Save your experimental and rant-driven poetry for another day- stick with what has been proven to work in the past. You want the judge to have a strong reaction after reading your work the first time; do not expect the poem to 'grow on him' down the line. It won't. Clarity is what will get your poem past the first cut.

The second cut can be a little harder to judge. Often, the surviving poems are given to different judges, for more objective opinions. These new judges may not even agree with the decisions made by the first judges, so your poem is back on square one. Emotional impact is a strong determiner the second time around. The judge does not have to agree with the subject matter of the poem personally to evaluate its emotional impact, so a judge may score a strong poem with a disagreeable subject higher than a weaker poem on a popular one. Whatever your take on the contest's theme, present it with fire and passion for a better chance of surviving the second round.

The final decision-making process is a combination of objective evaluation and personal judgement. There is no standard yardstick that can fully measure or quantify 'great' writing, so the finalists are really on equal footing right up to the very end. Judges lean towards solid technique over passionate but disjointed works, but even that is no indicator of how a committee of judges might vote. This is where you will be glad you did your homework before submitting your entry. Judges want to see the basics of good writing covered expertly- no misspellings, no misplaced modifiers, no punctuation errors. But above all, they want to see excellence. They want no doubt to exist about whether or not this poem deserved to win. Do you honestly feel that way about your own work? If you're not convinced that a piece you've created has everything the judges are looking for, then don't enter it in the contest. Poetry contests are almost like those gardening contests where the best rose in town wins. You know that the gardeners who enter those contests select only the roses they feel have every chance of winning. You should consider your entries with the same care and judgement, if you really want to do well in any poetry contest.

Judges have an incredibly difficult job ahead of them when selecting winning poems, so do everything you can with your craft to make their jobs much easier, and your pockets a little fuller.