For the past two years I have volunteered to judge Better Newspaper Contests through the Minnesota Newspaper Association. Just as we enter articles, photos, advertisements and layout designs to be judged each year, newspaper personnel from other states do the same. This year, volunteers from Minnesota judged entries from Indiana. In turn, Indiana volunteers will judge our entries later this fall.

I do not consider myself to be a newspaper expert, but having been in the business for the past 18-plus years, I do know what I like to read and as an English education major, I do have a fair knowledge of grammar and story development.

The newspaper association does provide a few criteria and some guidelines, but the process is quite subjective. I may place more emphasis on grammar and readability, while another judge may go strictly by content.

Last year, I judged sports columns and political editorials. It was difficult as neither is what I would consider enjoyable things for me to read. However, I learned a lot about both genres through the process.

This year, I was asked to judge in-depth feature stories and story packages in addition to shorter feature stories. There were 32 entries in the shorter feature story category and 12 in the other - but each package may have up to five stories included in one entry. To put it lightly, I spent a lot of time reading at my computer.

The topics ranged from personal profiles, to special events and community improvement efforts. There were stories about musical festivals, children overcoming adversity, historical war ships visiting a community, a fallen firefighter and a package involving a community-wide health initiative.

I enjoyed reading almost every one of the stories - but several touched me on a personal level, giving them an edge over the others.

I found myself tearing up as I read about a young, developmentally-challenged girl learning to do things for herself through her therapist - a gentle and affectionate dog.

Another story about a community remembering how 9-11 affected them brought back my own memories of that day and I could relate to the residents as they shared their activities of the day and how their lives were forever changed.

My favorite was a story about a principal from India who visited an Indiana school where her niece was attending and took notes about activities and procedures while the local principal gave her a tour. Both principals were women and both were looking to improve the quality of education for their students - they respected their differences, considered their differences and appreciated any suggestions for growth.

The topics were so varied and the writing styles differed in great extremes. Some writers were "wordy" like me and others were very concise. The top writers were able to tell their stories with a good combination of both.

I was a stickler for accuracy and with 32 entries in one category, I had to be picky. I overlooked one or two typos, but if there were more errors than that, I ranked them low enough to know they would not be considered when choosing the winners.

It was a very difficult process, but eventually, I narrowed the field down and was able to choose the top three in each category. They will never know who judged their entries, but I wish they could know how much I enjoyed being able to see their work.

I was inspired by several to explore some new topics and liked how creative some writers became when formulating their openings and closings. I was reminded how important it is to have a good introduction and summarization. As a matter of fact, one story was so good I was considering it as one of my top choices until I got to the final paragraph. The story simply stopped - abruptly and awkwardly. I felt cheated, so I cheated that reporter out of an award.

These entries are judged through a website dedicated to newspaper contests and the stories are submitted as they appear in the newspaper. This is wonderful as I was able to see how other newspapers package their stories - with photos, quotations and graphics. The trend is to use larger, fancier styles of types and allowing more space between elements on the page. I admit I fall into a trend of trying to fit as much into the paper as possible so at times the design suffers. I saw a lot of great design and many attractive pages that gave me a few new ideas for our local publications.

Judging these newspaper contests is a big time commitment, however, the investment is well worth it as I acquire a lot of good ideas and knowledge in return.