The other side of the score
What contest judges are thinking
As a newbie to writing contests, I had no idea what contest judges were thinking, why they seemed so harsh, or why, according to them, I should be encouraged by the red marks covering my beautiful manuscript. I had no idea the time, effort, and expertise that went into judging fiction, and at the time, I didn’t appreciate what I considered gratuitous violence applied to my shining prose. Now, as both a published author and an experienced contest judge, I have a better idea of what happens on the other side of the score-sheet. But, because judging is an individual sport, I’ve enlisted the help of several of my writing buddies to get their take on contest judging and some of the ‘why’ behind the scores.
1. How does your experience having participated in writing contests affect the way you judge writing contest entries?
Glynna Kaye: I know what helped me most--SPECIFICS. A judge giving me a low score or a general negative comment with NO explanation about where in the manuscript this "offense" occurred or how it might be fixed, well, that wasn't helpful at all. But if another judge actually pointed out the specific faux pas, where it occurred in a manuscript, and offered a "you might want to try..." suggestion of how to correct it, that was always appreciated. I believe in finding genuine positives in any manuscript and bringing those to an author's attention, too. A few sincere words of praise from judges kept me going during discouraging times.
Julie Lessman: I go to GREAT LENGTHS to point out the good I see in an entry before I gently point out what needs work.
Georgiana Daniels: After having entered contests, I know how anticipation and excitement can be crushed instantly upon seeing the scores and comments. That's why I try to word my comments so the entrant knows specifically how to fix whatever problem I'm pointing out. Also, I try to praise the good parts of their work. It's important to stay hopeful!
Myra Johnson: On the one hand, I try to be more sensitive about not crushing a budding writer's dreams. On the other, I feel it's important to be honest about specific weak areas. It's important to do more than simply point out weakness, though. I try to give constructive advice and examples. It's equally important to praise really strong entries and encourage writers whose work is close to being publishable.
THE TAKE AWAY: Contest judges are not trying to crush your dreams! They truly are trying to be honest and evaluate your work for the sole purpose of helping you reach those dreams you’re striving for. The reason there are often a plethora of comments is due to the fact that they want to give specific instruction that will be useful.
2. What is the most common comment you find yourself making on entries?
Stephanie Morrill: POV is a big one. It's such a tricky thing to get the hang of. The other thing I often suggest is using more action or thought beats instead of dialogue tags.
Janet Dean: My most frequent comments are usually about the need for characters to have stronger goals, motivations and conflicts. In historical entries, I often find words that are not in usage at the time of the story.
Pam Hillman: Many times I suggest the author consider starting the story a bit later. Sometimes there is a section a few pages in that grabs me, and that seems like the best place to start.
Sandra Leesmith: Show don't tell
a) There are a lot of ‘big issues’ that can make or break a contest entry. If you don’t know what Point of View, Show don’t Tell, or Goal, Motivation and Conflict are, find out before you spend your hard earned $ on contests.
b) Each judge might have a different area they point out, one that they might’ve struggled with themselves, or one in which they are particularly strong. Pay attention to what each judge says, even if they are the only one who pointed something out.
3. What is your favorite writing "how-to" book that you recommend in your comments on an entry?
For this one, I’m going to list the books in order of popularity amongst those polled.
Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King
The Story Within by Alicia Rasley
From the Inside Out by Susan May Warren
Elements of Style by Strunk and White
Write Tight by William Brohaugh
Plot and Structure, Revision and Editing, and The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
The Hero’s Journey by Vogler and Hauge
And one judge recommends reading great fiction above all else to learn how to write it.
THE TAKE AWAY: There are a lot of great how-to books available, and judges are pretty savvy about matching up their recommendation to the particular weakness they perceive in your entry. Start building your writing-craft library. A smart idea is to check with your local library, test-drive the recommended books, then choose which ones you want to purchase.
4. Do you consider yourself to be a 'tough' judge or an 'easy' judge, and why?A caveat here: The answers to this one were so good, I couldn’t choose just a few.
Tina Radcliffe: A tough judge. Again, they paid money for that critique. If they don't grow from it then they just wasted a lot of cash that could have been spent on paper or toner.
Mary Connealy: The better I think an entry is, the tougher I am. If you're clearly a beginner, I give broad, general suggestions—Learn what POV is. You're telling when you should be showing. Back-story, cut it, it doesn't belong here—But in a really strong, polished entry I figure you can take it. I hope you've done a lot of this and want straight talk, and I'm much more likely to be very direct in my critique. But I will also say things like, 'I think this is great, remember that when I'm noting things I find that need attention. Take all my comments with it in mind that I think you're really talented."
Missy Tippens: I probably lean more toward being an "easy" judge. Not because I go light on feedback, but because, overall, I tend to score higher than other judges.Sandra Leesmith: Tough. See answer #1 (which was: My previous experience makes me more conscientious in judging as I know how important it is. I tend to be more honest because of this. In other words, I don't necessarily sugar coat my comments. I'm honest and blunt. But I do try to balance tough comments with complimentary. I think it is just as important for a writer to know their strengths as well as their weaknesses.)
Janet Dean: I lean toward tough, but when I say tough, I don’t mean harsh. To final in a contest and get work in front of an editor, writers should be ready. Judges don’t want to send an unprepared writer before an editor who might associate poor writing with the contestant’s name or see judging the contest as a waste of time.Myra Johnson: Definitely tough. While I try to be encouraging, new writers need to know what they're up against. This is a tough business.
Georgiana Daniels: I'm one tough cookie when it comes to judging because I figure the entrant really wants feedback to improve their work, not just affirmation. (That's what friends are for, not contests, lol.) That said, if there are too many issues with the entry, I'll only focus on the major ones rather than every single problem to avoid discouraging the writer. I always try to find good things about the entry so the writer knows what their strengths are and how they can capitalize on them.
Julie Lessman: Tough in that I expect a lot. Easy in that I believe in a spoonful of sugar to get the medicine down.
Glynna Kaye: I try to be a balanced and compassionate judge. Praise where praise is due and suggestions for improvement. If an entry appears to be written by a more seasoned writer, you can dig a little deeper, get a little pickier, and help them bring their manuscript to an even higher level. With newbies, you're careful to "triage" only one or two of the most critical needs of the contest entry so you don't discourage them. I never ever want to crush a fledgling writer's spirit by overwhelming them.
Audra Harders: I know I’m not a tough judge because I remember my feelings being decimated by judges who had no concept of respecting author integrity and creativity. Totally blunt and tactless to make their points. I don’t think I’m too easy either because that doesn’t help anyone. I like to judge as if I’m a reader with the background knowledge of how to write a book. I make suggestions rather than telling someone they’re doing it wrong. To me, there’s nothing worse than a judge who wields their power like a razored guillotine.
Keli Gwyn: I like to think of myself as a fair judge, offering a balance of constructive criticism coupled with a generous helping of encouragement. If I were pressed to choose one of your options, I'd go with "easy." I've had entries where I could have given a very low score, but I don't have it in me to crush someone by doling out a series of ones. I prefer to use my comments to convey my suggestions for improvement and build up a writer rather than resorting to low scores alone to convey my impressions of a writer's skill level. That's not to say I mislead an entrant by giving inflated scores. It's more that I realize a three or four out of ten can let a writer know I saw a major weakness in an area as well as a one but does so far less brutally.
Stephanie Morrill: Yikes, I don't know. Probably tough. I typically judge YA, and I'm passionate about young adult novels. My goal is to be honest but also encouraging.
Pam Hillman: Middle-of-the-road. If an entry is "almost there", I have no problem telling an entrant that it's just a matter of time, the right story, the right editor, because their work is ready. But I am careful with entries that need a lot of work. Since contests are blind, I have no way of knowing if this might be the very first time an author has put their work out there for scrutiny. I remember those early days when my heart pounded with dread and excitement when I opened the results of a contest. I want to encourage someone, not crush their dream.
THE TAKE AWAY: Did you see how many judges consider themselves to be ‘tough’ judges? The tougher the critique, the more value the entrant receives for their money, the more honest feedback is given, and the more potential the entrant has for growth. Even those judges who consider themselves ‘easy’ make a point of giving plenty of feedback and encouragement.
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Again, for the sake of space, I’m going to summarize here.
1. The shortest amount of time was twenty minutes for an entry that was really stellar. 15 minutes to read about it and 5 minutes to gush about how wonderful it was.
2. The average was 45 mins. to an hour per entry.
3. The longest amount of time for a single entry was…HOURS! And several of those polled said it can take them hours to judge an entry.
THE TAKE AWAY: At an average of an hour per entry for purely volunteer work, the number of hours a judge spends on contest entries racks up in a hurry. Remember when you’re going over the judge’s comments, that they are volunteering their expertise, that they took a considerable amount of time to read and understand your entry, and that they do it because they love writing and writers. They’re looking for a way to pay forward the help they received through contests, and that they truly want to be helpful.6. Do you have anything that you’d love to tell contest entrants?
Glynna Kaye: For me, entering unpubbed contests was the equivalent of an ongoing writing course using my own manuscripts as the training tools, the hands-on testing ground. It wasn't all "theory" but application. I don't believe I'd be published today if it hadn't been for some really awesome judges who encouraged me and helped me learn the craft. I think the biggest thing to remember when entering contests is NOT to give up when you don't win, final, or even get much in the way of positive scores and comments. In some of my earliest contests, my best score was for formatting!!!! So determine deep down inside: "I WILL NOT GIVE UP!"Audra Harders: As an author who has spent a fortune entering contests, I believe every penny invested in the feedback and instruction I received, well worth it. I know if it hadn’t been for contests, I never would have matured as a writer or persevered to grasp the golden ring of publication. I learned to sense which judges had my best interests at heart--the judges that encouraged as they pointed out flaws, the ones that explained why certain techniques didn’t work. God bless each and every one of them.
Myra Johnson: While contests can be an excellent way to get feedback on your wip, don't use them as a substitute for a skilled critique partner. Beginning writers would be wise to let their critique groups help them decide when their work is contest-ready. Otherwise, a low score and negative comments could be devastating.
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Tina Radcliffe: I learned the most from contests when I became a judge. Do yourself a favor. Volunteer to judge.
Stephanie Morrill: I would say keep in mind that it's one person's opinion. I've judged contests where pieces I loved didn't final, and where pieces I think need considerable work do.Also, my Genesis entry in 2007 did so-so, but the feedback inspired a rewrite. And that rewrite hooked an agent, and that agent got me a contract with Revell, and Me, Just Different released in the summer of 2009. I had felt crushed when the manuscript hadn't finalled, but it still led me to something bigger.
Janet Dean: I want to encourage writers, whether newbie or experienced, once they’ve done their best to enter contests. You could final and get your story in front of an editor or agent, everyone’s dream. But no matter what happens, you’ll be putting your work out there for evaluation, something all writers must do if they want to sell. Judges will either give you invaluable, consistent information that will improve your story or offer conflicting advice. Don’t let the latter upset you. Differing feedback is a teaching tool, too. Look at your story with both ideas in mind. Trust your gut and go with the suggestions that work for your story, your style. The harsh truth is that judging—and what editors love or don’t—is subjective. I’ve never had a mean-spirited judge, but if a judge tells you to forget writing and take up knitting, that judge should be reported to the coordinator.
Sandra Leesmith: Writing and reading likes and tastes are so subjective. What I might not like, someone else might love. So take all comments with grain of salt and get more than one opinion. If more than one judge makes the same comment then it is more than likely something you need to focus on. But if comments are not consistent, then go with your gut.
Missy Tippens: I'd like to add that I think judging contests is a great way to learn to write better! It's much easier to spot problems in someone else's work. Then I take what I learn and apply it to my own writing.
Mary Connealy: I give a writer's contest credit for the fact that I am published today. I believe in them and I also know they can really hurt and they cost a fair amount of money, especially if you enter a lot of them. So I salute anyone who has the guts to put their precious creation out into the world to be critiqued. It's not easy. God bless you all.
THE TAKE AWAY:
a) These ladies are giving, conscientious, and learned judges who, I feel, typify the breed.
b) Contest judges are not out to maim your work or your hopes as a writer. They truly only want to be helpful, even if their advice might be difficult to swallow, especially at first.
c) I have some amazing friends to so generously give of their time to help me with this post, and I’d like to thank all of them.
Question for you: What is the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received on a contest entry?
Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a copy of Erica's latest release Sagebrush Brides.
Is there something you’ve always wanted to ask a contest judge, but haven’t had the chance? Ask here and I’m sure one or more of these fine ladies will be happy to answer you.
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Sagebrush Knights: Journey along with the four Gerhard sisters as they head to Wyoming Territory in search of husbands and discover that happy endings are not ready-made. Evelyn arrives in Wyoming with a secret and a grudge, only to find her prospective groom holds a secret, too. Jane vies for the attention of her workaholic husband who is bent on saving his ranch even if it means losing love. Gwendolyn’s would-be husband dies, leaving her to the will of another man. And Emmeline’s knight-in-shining-armor herds sheep instead of cattle. Will love prevail, or will their journeys have not so happy endings?
Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and reading, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical fiction set in the American West. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two terrific teens, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and avid museum patron.Find Me On Facebook
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