Judging a contest is an important responsibility, challenge and privilege. Judges don’t want to short change anyone who submitted an entry developed over weeks or months of blood, sweat and tears. As writers we’ve invested so much of ourselves in our work it’s hard to expose our manuscript to anyone, let alone strangers who probably won’t be as kind as our friends. But we do it anyway and hope it’s worth our entrance fee and the long wait to get the results.
We deserve a judge who takes our submission seriously, regardless of what stage we’re at in our writing career. Judges know this because they’re writers too. Contestants are at all different levels in their craft.
Contest judges offer advice and encouragement, pointing out weaknesses along with strengths. Negative comments can stick in the throat and gag us. They’re hard to digest. We want constructive criticism—as long as it’s positive and flattering—though we probably benefit more from those helpful hints and blunt assertions that say our writing isn’t perfect. At least we know where we need to improve. We’re professionals, or hope to be soon. We can take criticism, right?
When I was first asked to judge a contest, I hesitated. But I realized I should give back a little bit. After all, I’ve received so much from the writing community, including comments from lots of judges in many contests. My writing has really benefited from their help.
What surprised me was how much I learned from judging. I discovered some contestants write much better than I do, sorry to say! This unfortunate fact makes me more determined to work harder, learn more and improve. I also learned to empathize with judges. They have to state the good and the bad without crushing anyone’s ego. (And we writers often have fragile egos.) Judges want to encourage, not discourage a writer, but they’re not cheerleaders. I saw how seasoned contestants plunge right into the action of their story to grab my attention. They create likeable, lively characters with obvious goals, motivations and the potential for strong conflict. On the other hand, some manuscripts wander around without apparent purpose. I spotted some of my own flaws in a few of the entries and I noticed how others avoided those same mistakes.
Overall, I was amazed at how many wonderful writers are out there in the land of the unpublished. I hope they’ll soon be discovered—right along with yours truly! And I hope if you have the opportunity to judge a contest, you won’t hesitate. I promise you’ll receive a lot in return.