What Are They Looking For?

Since the start of the Hal Prize, the Peninsula Pulse’s creative-writing and photography contest, there has always been some type of screening process for submissions. Initially, members of the Pulse staff – and representatives of Write On, Door County when the organization joined as a partner – would whittle down the submissions to a manageable number for the judges to consider.

As the contest grew to hundreds of submissions, however, we knew it was time to change things. So in 2022, we recruited a panel of screening judges from our talented, local literary community to take over this process. Their contributions have been an important step in the growth of our contest and have added a valuable influence and perspective.

As we enter the final few months of our submission process, we wanted these screeners to share with readers and writers what they’re looking for when they’re going 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. 

Grace Johnson
Editor, 8142 Review

Carrie Sherrill
Poetry screening judge

Carrie Sherrill. Submitted.

When I receive the hundreds of entries in the poetry category, I take a deep breath and dive right in. 

The first criterion I use is whether the guidelines for the contest were followed. This includes making sure that the contributor’s name does not appear on the submission, that the poem is submitted in a standard 12-point font, and that it does not exceed a single page in length. Any violation of these guidelines means the poem is rejected immediately. I do not look at it again for any reason.

Next, I read the poem silently and look for any spelling errors or misuse of words (for example, “two,” “too” or “to” used incorrectly). I study the format on the page, structure of lines and stanzas, use of punctuation (or not), use of capitalization (or not), and consistency throughout the piece. 

Then I read the poem aloud, paying attention to line breaks, pauses, etc. I note alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, repetition of words and/or lines, and whether the poem is written in a specific form (sonnet, haiku, pantoum, villanelle, etc.). If a form is used, the poem needs to fit the form and still be effective in its message without feeling constrained due to rules of the form. If I encounter words or phrases that are unfamiliar, I look them up.

The poem’s title is extremely important and can make or break a piece. It should not be “cutesy,” and it definitely needs to have a strong connection to the poem itself. If there is an epigraph, I note its connection to the poem as well. 

When studying the body of the poem, the first line must draw me in, make me want to read more. And the last line should be an appropriate ending, but not a “Well, that’s a wrap” kind of ending. Each word in the poem must be essential. The poem should be distilled until it conveys its message in a fresh, concise and powerful manner.

Most poems have some sort of a “leap” or “twist.” It is really satisfying to find poems that are able to successfully transition from one idea to another without losing the reader or damaging the integrity of the poem.

After an initial read of each poem, I divide them into three categories: yes, no or maybe. 

Once I have made my first pass, I do not look at the “no” poems again. I go through the “maybe” and “yes” poems multiple times and sleep on it in between. I have been known to dream about these poems, sometimes wishing I had written them! 

I continue to sift and sort the poems until I have pared them down to 20 “yes” poems – which I then submit to the Peninsula Pulse editorial staff, and they take it from there.

Carrie Sherrill writes passionate poetry from her Southern Door farmhouse. Her recent poems appear in Moss Piglet and Bramble.