Hal Prize Nonfiction Screening Judge: Judy Ann Ritter

We asked the group of local screening judges for the Hal Prize to share with readers and writers what they’re looking for when they go through submissions: Why does one piece of writing make it to the final round, but not another? These columns will illuminate the screeners’ process and help those who want to improve their writing – and are perhaps writing with the intention of submitting their work to the contest. 

Let me introduce myself. I am one of the first to read and judge your nonfiction story. Because of this, I am going to talk about what is important so that your submission has the best chance of being passed on to the final judges.

First, please read and follow the submission guidelines carefully. These are very important so your submission can continue to the final judges.

If I encounter any grammar or spelling errors, it makes me feel that you aren’t serious about competing with the other authors. Please have someone who is fluent in grammar rules and a good speller read your story before submitting it. Also, several excellent software programs can help correct your mistakes. I use them as the last thing I do before I send my nonfiction books to a publisher.

There’s a multitude of nonfiction genres, but they broadly fit into these categories: expository, narrative, historical, persuasive and descriptive. I will evaluate somewhat differently depending on the type of nonfiction.

Well-written expository nonfiction gives information and uses words that clearly show what the author wishes to communicate. The composition remains focused on the topic and lists things in chronological order. The purpose of this type of nonfiction is to educate using reliable sources.

Narrative nonfiction tells a true story that happened to you or someone you know. Here, I seek a compelling opening that makes me want to continue reading. I like the pacing to be appropriate for the unfolding story and to move rapidly enough to sustain my interest. Your story should have a satisfying tie between its opening and ending. Using different sentence structures and lengths adds welcomed variety to the reading. Be sure there isn’t any extraneous detail that doesn’t contribute to the overall effectiveness of the piece.

Historical nonfiction involves recounting a historical event or describing a specific period. Although writers can frame how the information is presented, all information must be verifiable, factual and historically accurate, so please do thorough research.

A persuasive essay aims to persuade readers to adopt the writer’s point of view on an issue and agree with a suggested course of action. The story includes a beginning, middle and end, and within that, writers must develop a logical and reasonable argument that supports their opinion. A well-written persuasive essay relies on sound reasoning and detailed and relevant evidence while considering alternatives. In a persuasive essay, I will look for a clear, direct, supportable position where others could have differing opinions. The thesis must be supported by evidence and narrow in focus. The author should clearly convey the importance of the issue, and in the end, restate why the topic is important, review the main points and recommend how the audience can take some action.

The primary aim of descriptive nonfiction is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. To do so, the writer should use words that are rich in detail. With descriptive nonfiction, the writer uses figurative language, rich elements and sensory words to help readers understand the information. After reading descriptive nonfiction, readers should be able to close their eyes and imagine the scene.

I hope these suggestions help you to compose an excellent nonfiction submission.

Judy Ann Ritter writes nonfiction stories and taught middle school science for 27 years. She has published two books.