Thursday, December 6, 2012

Please Welcome Our Guest Erica Vetsch

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.

Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon
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
Seekerville Posts

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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5. How long does it take you to judge an entry? (15 pages and a synop.)
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.


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.
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  1. Erica!!!

    I have Sagebrush Knights. Uh, still need to write my review. But I told you what it would say ;).

    I've been working on a contest entry today actually. Taking fdk from an editor on a different MS and turning this from 1st person to 3rd. Oy. But the same editor is a final judge.

    The best feedback I've gotten is probably from Golden Heart last year when a judge sought me out and said really wonderful nice things [as well as pointed out a few things].

    I tend to email the files to a friend to read for me and let me know which ones are easier to read and which ones are harder. Then I can decide which to read when - especially in the middle of something like NaNo where it could stop me dead in my tracks for a while.

    I'm coordinating a category for First Impressions right now. The amount of work that goes into the whole contesting world astounds me.

    Since I always forget to send thank you notes [the people who attended my 9yo's baby shower are still waiting too... ;)], THANK YOU JUDGES!!!!!!!!!!


  2. Oh wow! All of Seekerville's posts are amazingly helpful, but this post takes the cake! I learned so much! Thank you, thank you! God bless!!!

  3. Coffee's on!!

    I've enterend and judged contests. I haven't judged a lot, but I learned a lot from it.

    Thanks to all of you for sharing, and of course to Erica for compiling.


  4. I love judging. I've learned the most about my own writing from doing it. I've found the hardest entries to judge are the ones the read newbie all over it.

    There is a lot of great advice here. It has encouraged me to press forward in what I am doing right now. *g*

  5. What popped into my mind as I read this was that I used to have a really consistant, great critique group, when I first joined ACFW years ago. Those ladies taught me SO MUCH about writing. I can still hear Christy Barrett echoing in my head things like, "This line right here stopped the action dead."
    Then I'd critique her book and I'd say, "This line right here stopped the action dead."

    It was weird. It was like we could see it in another's work but not in our own. It was such great training.
    So don't be afraid to judge these contests. What Pammy said about being a READER is really true. Even if you can't say exactly why something isn't working, as a reader, you know when it isn't.

  6. I'm sure I've never mentioned it before, because I am COMPLETELY OVER IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    But did you all know that I once got a ONE in the Golden Heart contest.

    I mean they must have meant that, right, because black ink on white paper written in English deserves a stinking TWO.
    I mean it's not like I typed out the TELEPHONE BOOK FOR 100,000 WORDS!!!!

    But never mind because I am completely over it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. Well, Amber Perry, welcome to Seekerville.

    Have a cupcake!

  8. Erica, you did such a nice job on this post.

    I almost feel sort of bad admitting I am a tough judge.

    But truly it was my tough judges who helped me grow.

    And if we don't grow, what's the point?

    Note to self: remember to use more more smiley faces.

  9. What a wonderful post! This reminds me to forward a "thank you" to my judges for this last contest. I've only entered twice, but I've learned so much thanks to hard, but considerate judges.

    Last year I entered for the first time and my average score was a 5 and a couple judges were really generous and easy on my horrible writing, to boot, lol. This year, in the same contest, it was an 8. When I opened the scores and started seeing 9's and 10's, I was giddy and silently blessing those judges who gave me those 4's and 5's. They helped me grow so much!!

    I have one question, I'd love to learn more about how to go about volunteering to judge, for learning's sake. Do you email the coordinator? This sounds like something I would love, but I don't have years of experience in the writing craft. Are there certain criteria I should try to meet before volunteering?

  10. Mary, you're killing me! Haha, I needed that laugh, though. Bless you.

  11. You done good, Erica. This is a great post chock-full of helpful information.

    If I were to say one thing to those considering entering contests, it's this: go for it! Contests are a great way to get your work in front of a publishing pro. I consider myself a contest success story. I sent off 46 entries in a three-year period, learned oodles from my awesome contest judges, and received an offer of representation from my agent, who was serving as a final round judge. She sold the story she read in that contest.

    Receiving feedback from contest judges is great training for that glorious someday when you sell and you get revision notes from your editor.

  12. Yep, Tina is a tough critiquer. I sent her an extremely rough,practically stream-of-consciousness, draft. You wouldn't have known I devoured
    seven years worth of books in a market. What was I thinking?

    If she hadn't been tough and slapped me around, I wouldn't have the manuscript I am working on now. Night and day.

    Other Seekers have worked on each successive draft but the first one was so newbie, Tina made it easier for them.

    I have improved incrementally so hopefully will be entering contests in the coming year.

    Thanks to all of you who have helped me along.

    Now to print this post out, Erica! Thank you.

    Peace, Julie

  13. Wow, amazing post!

    As my first year judging (First Impressions) this is really timely.

    I loved contests. I lvoe the thrill of wondering whether I would final or not. I lvoed picking contests because the final judges were editors I wanted to see my work.

    And I will never forget Keli Gwyn's encouragement on my historical. And then she sent me an e-mail and 'outed' herself and told me again how talented she thought I was.

    I won't ever forget it because it was the first time I was ever encouraged my someone who wasn't directly related to me!!

    I still have her comments hanging at my desk.

    I clung to those kind words and they helped me hitch up my boots and keep working. And I had a LOT of work to do.

    So, as I'm judging this year, I'm trying to remember how scary it is to open those comments and how great it feels when someone says they loved this line, or that character.

    Poepe don't decide to write because they think they'll get rich and famous (none that I've met, at least). They write because they feel it deep in their soul, that they NEED to tell their story.
    And I want my comments to respect that calling.

  14. Oh, I'll never forget the contest I amde it to the final round and was so excited to have my (women's fiction) ms in front of an editor...

    And her only comments on the entire sheet were the words 'UNORIGINAL'.

    Three times.

    Three separate places.

    Not cool.

  15. Well, I haven't entered any contests...yet. But this post has been truly helpful in helping me to decide to enter contests. Thank you.

    I would love to be entered to win a copy of Sagebrush Knights. Thank you.

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  16. The most frustrating thing about receiving a contest scoresheet is when there are no comments. I don't know a contest where the judges are not encouraged to do this, at least where they give a lower score.

    As has often been said here, contests prepare you for publication because you learn that everyone is not going to love your book, or 'get it'.

    Thanks Erica and all the wise judges. I'm sure I owe a few of you personal thanks anyway!

  17. Hi Erica,

    This is a very interesting topic.

    I've judged contests before and I think I'm a tough but fair judge. Maybe the contest entrants I judged didn't think so though!

    But like others stated, my intention was to show them where there manuscripts needed work, because unfortunately most rejections are generic and a writer never knows what they're doing wrong.

  18. Good morning, Erica! You put this all together and summarized it very, very well! I'm one of those who said judging a contest entry takes me HOURS. Those who entered paid quite a bit of money and garnered a lot of courage, so I take contest judging and critiqueing very seriously and give it a lot of time and thought. I have a big printer paper box full of contest "stuff" from my unpubbed days so I can see how far I've come (and still have a long way to go!!). :) And it's so true that different judges see different things in an entry, often having an awareness of the areas they themselves have struggled in and mastered so they have an "expertise" in those specific areas and can help others work thru them, too.

  19. Morning Erica and welcome back to Seekerville. What a great post and reminder to ENTER CONTESTS. I am going to do that right now. smile

    Yes, Contests really did help most of us get published here at Seekerville. In fact, that is how we all met. smile

    Thanks again Erica. Great job.

  20. I've learned a lot from contest judges. In my very first contest, comment explaining passive voice was extremely helpful. The judge pointed out how to spot it and how to go about fixing it.

    She also pointed out the positive aspects of my entry, saying my MC was well developed and memorable, and the story was "highly evocative". The words "highly evocative" encouraged me more than I can say. :)

    Love this post. And Sagebrush Knights sounds interesting!

  21. Contests has helped me so much.

    Even when the feedback is inconsistent, if it constantly is inconsistent, that tells me something. Right? There's something about my ms that bugs people. Or some people.

    I've only judged one contest, and I fretted over the scores and feedback I gave. I first gave what I thought the ms deserved. Then I thought they were too low and went back to make them a little higher on all the sections. After I turned them in, I still worried.

    One thing I had noticed when I entered, published judges always seemed to give higher scores than unpublished judges. This stuck in my mind.

    Connie Queen

  22. Erica, what a wonderful post. I think you covered all bases of contest judging.

    I have to admit, I judge for the kick-in-the-pants entrants offer me in reading their work. I mean really, where else can you find such a diversified stack of writing styles at 5 to 55 pages a pop? Like Mary said about her critiquing experience with Christy Barritt, you can see issues in others' work that you don't see in your own. For me, just reading the flaw in someone else's work helps me identify the same flaw in my own. To me, judging isn't a chore, it's a win-win experience you can't get anywhere else.

    I thank the entrants who give me the opportunity to judge their work. Those brave souls are awesome!! I

  23. Virginia,
    I'm sorry what happened once you finally got you ms in front of the editor, but it's also funny because it's so typical!

    I always knew once mine reached an editor's desk, she'd love it. NOT.

    Connie Queen

  24. As i think all Seekervilles know by now, i am a reader...and yes, i read the posts meant for writers. i appreciate the work that goes into the judging, and now i know why there are contests. Thanks for an interesting post.


  25. I think it was a great idea to give the judges a 'voice.' They seem less daunting and more helpful. :)

  26. Erica,

    Thank you for such an informative post. It really helps to have this "behind the scenes" perspective. My contesting question is: what do you do when you have a missing score sheet? There were two initial judges for the contest and of course, the one that I never got back (despite repeated requests to the coordinator) was the low score. The other judge loved it.

    I was told that the missing score sheet was from a judge who had a family emergency. I am okay with that--life happens. Still, though, after months went by (as well as my entry fee), I felt that someone from the contest should have provided that second score sheet, if the initial judge could not do it. I guess it is too late to get someone to read an entry after the contest is over, but that missing score sheet still bothers me. Was this a matter for the coordinator? Or someone else? I just don't know if I will enter that particular contest again.

    I certainly appreciate all of the hard work that the judges put into their work, because it is helpful to know specific ways to improve. Sometimes, I feel that the missing score sheet might have contained some helpful information that could have improved my performance in subsequent contests.

    Or maybe not.:)


  27. Carol Moncado - I'm glad I'm not the only one who is behind in thank you notes. I still owe one from my wedding...and the person who gave me the gift has passed on. I think it's too late. I'll never catch up.

  28. I've only got a minute, but I had to say I loved this post. It's so good to hear comments from the other side of the red pen. I plan to come back later on and read comments, so hopefully, I'm not asking something that's already been asked.

    How does a judge know when a writer is close to publication. What are they seeing in the writer's submission. I have a couple of other questions, but haven't decided if I want to put them out yet. :)

    Thanks, Erica for this helpful, encouraging post!

  29. Hey, Erica! Great post on contests!

    Contests really helped me a lot, helped me polish my first published novel, The Healer's Apprentice, as I sent it out for two years getting all kinds of feedback. The best advice I got was probably from Jill Elizabeth Nelson, who took the time to teach me what Deep POV was! She pointed out specific passages in my ms. where I could change it to Deep POV, and this also helped me understand Show Don't Tell. It was a light bulb moment!

    Honestly, I dislike judging contests because I'm always afraid I'm being too harsh. I'm too busy imagining how my comments will make the writer feel, and I end up praying I didn't crush them! I try to be honest, though, and tell them things that will help them make their book and their writing better. But you never know how the person will take what you said! I do try to be encouraging and point out the strengths, so hopefully I haven't crushed anyone too badly.

  30. Erica!!!

    Great topic! I'm in the middle of judging my first contest, and it's been a real blessing.

    I've thought some pretty awful things about judges here and there, but I've learned so much from entering contests. They certainly thicken a newbie writer's skin, too!

    Comments from the judges are so valuable - I'm making plenty of comments on the entries I'm judging. And yes, I'm even remembering to put in a smiley face or two :)

  31. Jeanne asked How does a judge know when a writer is ready for publication? Well, it's all subjective, but I'd say it's usually kind of obvious. If the writer is making very few or no mistakes, and the story holds my interest and follows basic guidelines, they're probably ready. That's not to say they WILL sell that story, or that it won't still take them a while to get published, because there are just too many factors involved in whether a person gets published. But they are ready when they can write an exciting story and follow the basic guidelines of Christian fiction and good writing.

  32. Let me rephrase what I said. I don't "hate" judging contests. I like to feel like I am giving back after receiving so much from contests. But I do feel very conflicted a lot of the time and tend to worry after it's too late that I may have been too harsh. But at the same time, I think I tend to score on the high side.

  33. Mary's score of ONE.

    Why am I not surprised to see this crop up again....

    Erica, you know she'll be in the fetal position for days over this.

    Pitiful, pitiful...

  34. Erica,
    This was immensely helpful and encouraging.

    I wish every new writer could read this to reassure them of a budding gift.

    I wish every intermediate writer could read this to spur them to better their gift.

    I wish every advance writer could read this to remind them of basics and what the journey felt like.

    Thank you to all who participated in this post!

  35. This is such a thoughtful post! Thank you Erica, and all the participants/judges...

    I've found the writing community to be so giving...

    Thank you!!!

    I'm not a big contest participant. Each time this subject is discussed, I get the bug... but have to watch the expenditures. Hopefully next year I will make a conference or 2. Didn't get to any this year. Sigh.

  36. VIRGINIA, Wow that IS NOT COOL. Shame on her.

  37. There is nothing I like better than to be reading an contest entry and all of a sudden I'm done.

    I realize I never even thought of my job as judge. I was just so into the story I was gone.

    To me when I get an entry like that, I'm excited. It's got what I think of as the X Factor, that hard-to-explain something extra that just makes it fun to read.

    And a lot of times that is so hard to define.

    I remember judging Naomi Rawlings now-published book in the Genesis and I was just THERE. I was in those woods, scared, transported.

    Great work.

  38. Piper, I'll bet that was frustrating but think of it as the abuse you have to take to get tough.

    So when those one star reviews start pouring in from Amazon you can think, "Big Deal, I've been kicked around by way nastier people than you, loser!!!"

  39. I used to use this sort of free association style of judging where I'd just type in impressions.

    "I don't like the heroine right here."
    "Men don't talk like this."
    "You jumped POV here."

    I felt like that was a fair way to do it, give them my gut reaction.

    Until the time I wrote something like (I'm making this up because I don't remember exactly what I said, so.....)

    "Are you a doctor?"
    "This sounds like he hates everyone of his patients."

    See, I didn't mean 'are you a doctor, it sounds like YOU hate everyone of your patients, but the way I stacked up the comments made it sound like that.
    Anyway, the entrant complained and said she felt 'personally attacked' and I read it and flinched and apologized (anonymously)

    And quit doing that judging style.

    And I'm very, very sorry and may God have mercy on my soul.

  40. OH, WOW, what a GREAT post ... definitely a printer-offer, Erica!! LOTS of great research here, my friend.

    And ... ahem ... I would like to point out that my responses were some of the shortest in this blog, so back off Carol Moncado!! ;)


  41. Amazing post. I'm waiting to hear back on my first contest entry and its nice to have this for perspective. I'm hopeful that the comments will be good, but now I'm looking forward to the negative comments as a means to grow as a writer. Thank you so much for putting this together!

  42. I wanted to enter GH this year, had even planned on it, for sure. But as the date rolled closer to when I was to hear from an editor I told God I'd much rather have a contract than enter GH.

    I remember my first contest. The coordinator sent out a comparison sheet of how the entry held up against all other entries. I was so honking thrilled I wasn't last. Third from last and great comments. I entered multiple contests with that same entry over two-three years. Experienced rude comments, no comments and awesome comments. I even had one contest where my scores were something like 98/100, 92/100, 40/100. Fortunately, the contest policy was to use a discrepancy judge and I received 99/100. It went to the final judge and I received 3rd our of 4th. No feedback from the editor. That next year I entered the same contest with the same ms got 2nd and nice email from the editor saying I really should have had 1st but because of one little element she gave me 2nd and to keep writing. I've since put that ms down.

    For those who have never entered contests I have a formula I used before entering.
    *Who is the final judge? If it's one of your top 5 agents, Yeah. If it's an editor you can't query without an agent and you really want to get in front of, Yeah.
    *# of first round judges. 3 with lowest score dropped is optimal
    *I always look to see if synopsis is required and judged. If judged I usually shied away because I don't do well.

    Having entered a lot of contests the ones I got the most from have been unpublished Maggies and The Genesis.

  43. Mary,

    Yeah, I guess I can look at that missing score sheet as a phantom head-scratching one-star review...thanks for the different perspective.


    I think your formula is a good one for those who have entered contests before as well. Thanks for sharing.


  44. I give writing contests credit for getting my work before editors. That being said, contests can be just as detrimental as helpful. The true process is learning to weed through the comments and figure out when to believe in yourself.

    For instance, I had a judge tell me you *can't* start a book in the hero's POV. That never bothered my editor.

    I had a judge who *hated* a character in a book, and told me to write her out. The editor who bought the book loved that character and asked me to write a book with that character as the heroine.

    One judge told me the hero and heroine can't like each other in the beginning. Again, didn't bother the editor of that book.

    Often you get a judge who is well-meaning, but is simply telling you how 'they'd write the book.' And it isn't helpful to squash someone's voice.

    When I'm judging, I always take a step back and remind myself that in this capacity, I'm a reader. Would I read this book?

    Don't forget, the vetting process for a judge is...Are you willing to judge this contest? Which isn't always the best criteria.

  45. Julie -

    I just figured there was editing involved ;).

    /ducks and hides/

    Like Christina, I look at multiple factors when deciding which contests to enter. I don't usually enter contests without an inspie specific category.

    I'm gearing up for Great Expectations [the entry I've been working on] and still contemplating GH. After that is Genesis and then I'm done for a while. Actually, I'm really hoping I won't be eligible too much longer, but that could still be just a pipe dream ;).

    I get what Tina and everyone are saying about learning more as a judge, but I just can't bring myself to offer yet. I don't feel competent enough - like I know enough. Especially since you can't judge a category you've entered.

    GH judging has changed this year:

    The Romance: Between 1 and 20 points, with 1 being the lowest (poor) and 20 being the highest (excellent)

    The Plot/Story: Between 1 and 10 points, with 1 being the lowest (poor) and 10 being the highest (excellent)

    The Writing: Between 1 and 10 points, with 1 being the lowest (poor) and 10 being the highest (excellent)

    The Characters: Between 1 and 10 points with 1 being the lowest (poor) and 10 being the highest (excellent)

    The total possible points for any entry is 50.

    So even without feedback, if they give you the break down, at least you'll have an idea where that judge thinks you're weak/strong...

  46. I've also seen people get into a loop where it's almost like they're addicted to good feedback. They win contest after contest and you start wondering, "Why haven't they sold the book?"

  47. I think it's really hard to judge contests because you really want to get it right and help the writer. Sometimes it's hard to be both tactful and truthful.

  48. Oh, Sherri, you are so right. I had a writing friend who entered every single contest that came along with multiple manuscripts. She was addicted to the feedback. And then I've seen others write the first chapter, enter then scrap it just to write another first chapter.

    As a judge, I try to judge it as a reader, but offer examples to show the writer. Like with showing vs telling. I still struggle with this and don't always feel like I can comment but when I do recognize it I try to offer an example of how to restructure the sentence.

    Carol, an inspy category is important. There are some writers out there who highly dislike inspirational entries, and even hate inspirational categories. I've heard multiple rants. Makes you want to bury your head in the sand and disappear. BUT, I have seen inspirational fiction final and even win their categories in the mainstream.

  49. Cara, isn't that the truth. I have a difficult time with the scoring system because I know as an entrant I'd see those first. Comments don't mean much after that, you know. So as a judge I don't want to crush, but how can you give a 5 when it's for sure a 3?

    There are times when I don't like judging. And then there are times when I absolutely love it!

  50. Man, here I am late to the party.

    I can't thank my writer buddies enough for answering my poll questions. I was encouraged by their responses myself.

    Carol, thanks for reading Sagebrush Knights. :)

    As a category coordinator for the Genesis, the amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a major writing contest is staggering! Thanks for working on the FI this year!

  51. AMBER: I'm glad you found the post helpful. I LOVE Seekerville. It's a wealth of knowledge, and when I'm struggling with something, I can always find a post related to my struggle to help me out.

    HELEN: Good morning! It was my pleasure!

    CHRISTINA: I think the entries that are the hardest for me to judge are the ones that are in-between. They aren't newbies, they've begun to master the basics, but now it's time to dig deeper and really craft their fiction. I find those entrants to be the most...sensitive?

  52. MARY: Thanks so much for inviting me to be on Seekerville again. You know how I love it. I've been in some amazing crit groups in the past, and I learned so much from the experience, both in writing and in life.

    About that score...I'm sure it was a mistake...I'm SURE it was.

  53. TINA: Don't apologize for being tough. Like you said, what's the point if you don't say anything helpful. Though I do like smiley faces. :D

    NATALIE: Congratulations on such a dramatic upswing in your scores! It shows how hard you worked and how teachable you are! As to volunteering to judge, I can only go from my own experience, which was that I was invited to be a judge in a contest that I had finaled in the previous year. That's how I got started. I think it depends on the contest, but if you've got an agent, and/or if you're consistently finaling in contests, etc. I would think you could email the contest coordinators that might be familiar with your writing (You've entered and done well in their contest) and offer to be a judge.

  54. KELI: I agree, contest comments are excellent precursors to editorial letters. :) Thanks so much for participating in my survey!

    JULIE STEELE: YAY! Congrats on honing your skill and prepping to enter contests. And yay to Seekers for their generosity and helping ways. :)

  55. VIRGINIA: Congrats on judging your first contest! It's like a rite of passage. :) And I agree, Keli is one of the most encouraging women I've ever met. I treasure our friendship.

    As to the UNORIGINAL comment? That stinks. And it's kind of...unoriginal...

  56. Erica, thanks for this post! Seekerville is all about contests. Everyone of the Seekers have benefited from entering and from judging.

    I take hours to judge an entry. I always tell contestants this is my opinion and I could be wrong and to ignore what doesn't feel right in their gut. Yet, I hope they will think about the suggestions. I truly want their success.

    I remember the first contest feedback I got. I didn't understand so much about writing. I couldn't have paid for all the info I got. I was so excited by all those comments! They made sense and gave me suggestions for what to do to make my writing better. Wasn't getting that info from my friends and family.


  57. CINDY W. Be sure to let us know here when you take the plunge with your first contest. We'll be cheering you on in Seekerville!

    DEBRA: I agree. Low scores and no comments are the WORST contest experience. It's as if I can hear my entry fee mocking me as it flies out the window. I try to make scads of comments on every entry, both positive and instructive.

  58. ROSE: Tough but fair. That's all an entrant can ask. I remember being so frustrated by generic rejection letters and not knowing what I was doing wrong. Contests sure helped to point all those areas out for me. :D

    GLYNNA KAYE: Thanks so much for responding to my survey. I thought your answers were so thoughtful and helpful.

    I've often heard the advice that unless two or more of your contest judges point something out, then ignore it if it comes from a single judge. I cringe at that, because every judge has their own strengths and weaknesses. I'm better at POV, Description and Setting, and Show vs. Tell than I am at pacing, for example. But Mary Connealy is great at pointing out where a story is lagging or getting off track or the action/tension just died. If we each judged the same entry, we'd be pointing out, perhaps, different things. So are we wrong if only one of us says it?

  59. SANDRA: Thank you so much for answering my survey! You don't know how much I wish I had been on the contest circuit back when all you Seekers met. :)

    C.E. HART: I remember when I got my first glimmer of what "Show, don't tell" meant on a contest entry. It was like a firework went off in my head. I also hung onto those positive comments. I just got a rather blase review of one of my books, and I went back to a couple of the other reviews from readers who liked to remind myself that not everyone thought it was dreck. :)

  60. Mary! How sweet for mentioning novel that you judged a couple years back. And yes, for those of you in contests right now, Mary did indeed love the story, and it led to me signing with my agent, Natasha Kern. However despite the perfect score Mary gave me on that entry, I had another judge give me a 78. That's hardly stellar. So I think that scores all around vary.

    I personally tend to judge hardest and leave the most comments for people who show a lot of potential and are almost ready for publication. People who have a ways to go yet in their publishing journey I tell to go read a craft book.

  61. CONNIE QUEEN: I've noticed the same trend in scores between published judges and unpublished judges...any thoughts as to why that is? I have a few, but I'd love to hear why Seekers think it is that way.

    AUDRA: I thank the entrants too, and I find judging to be a great way to get me fired up about my own writing. You're so right. It's a win-win! :)

  62. MARIANNE: Seekerville loves readers! I'm so glad you come here and hang out and let us get to know you. :)

    MISTY:I was daunted by contest judges until I became one. I figure if they would let someone like me in, they can't be all that scary! :D

  63. PIPER: I'm so sorry that your score sheet went astray and that the contest coordinator didn't follow up better. :S I'd be hesitant to enter that contest again myself.

    JEANNE T. As Melanie said, knowing when an author is getting close to publication is subjective, but it's also kind of instinctive. In the vast sea of entries, some just stand out, all sparkly-shiny. Interesting, well-crafted, attention-getting. I came across one just recently in a pile of contest submissions, and I thought, "It won't be long for this one. This is really good."

    Of course four years ago, I came across one that I thought the same thing, and that writer just received a contract for that work. So 'long' is relative, I guess.

  64. HI Erica,
    Great post. Contests have been a mixed bag for me. Recently, I received very high scores from three judges and the fourth judge gave me feedback about how my manuscript is ready for submission, said she had no suggestions for changing it, but scored me 79 out of 100. That one puzzled me like crazy, especially when the others gave me such high scores and the same feedback! What was I missing? I dusted the disappointment off of my shoulders and moved on. What we write won't always please everyone.

  65. MELANIE: I think the judges that are concerned about the quality and impact of their comments are the best kind. They're considerate and thoughtful, and really want to be helpful. :)

    JAN: Yay for judging your first contest! And yay for smiley faces! :D

  66. PAM: I'll have to send Mary some flowers. :D

    MARY VEE: This was excellent: I wish every new writer could read this to reassure them of a budding gift.

    I wish every intermediate writer could read this to spur them to better their gift.

    I wish every advance writer could read this to remind them of basics and what the journey felt like.

  67. KC and K9: Contests can be expensive, that's what I keep in mind when I am judging. I want to give the entrant a lot of bang for their buck.

    MARY C: I agree! I judged Naomi Rawlings entry and was in the same woods, dark, running, and when the entry ended, I was shocked. Had totally forgotten I was judging. Then I had to go back and look for something other than "WOW, and NICE! and "PERFECT!" to say. :D

  68. JULIE: Thanks so much for helping with the survey. You did a great job keeping your answers concise (So you can blow a raspberry at Carol. :D )

    LISA: I remember opening my first contest results and reading the comments through my fingers, as if squinting and not looking at them directly would make it less...traumatic? LOL But it was the tough comments that made me want to roll up my sleeves and work harder, get better, and enter another contest to see if I'd improved.

  69. I appreciate this post as I am currently in the process of helping to judge a contest. Though I can be a harsh judge, I also try to encourage the writer and give them useful advice. This article tells me I'm on the right track but also pointed out a few good reminders as I finish my critiques.

    Thank you!

  70. CHRISTINA: The first contest I entered (The Barclay --Ruthy was one of my judges) I remember being thrilled that I didn't finish dead last, then feeling guilty because I was gloating over the ONE person who finished below me. Yeah, ONE.

    SHERRI: You're right. Not all contest judges are helpful, nor is the criteria for judging all contests that strict. I feel better entering contests that have been around for awhile, that have a good reputation, and that I know someone who either has entered that contest or who works behind the scenes at that contest. Some contests have higher standards for signing on judges than "Are you breathing and can you read?" Some have training each judge must go through to prove competency. Those are the ones I like the best. And it's okay to contact the contest coordinator and ask these things before you plunk down your cash and send in the ms.

  71. CARA LYNN: That is the part that I wrestle with too. Tactful and truthful. I have to consider how I would best receive the information I'm trying to convey.

    I try to judge like an editor. I think editors have to evaluate the writing from a writer's standpoint, but also the emotional impact of the story like a reader. They also have to evaluate a manuscript from a sales point of view. What will hook a buyer into paying to read this story?

  72. SHARYN: Thank you for judging contests! I'm glad you found this post helpful. :)

  73. LYNDEE: Ugh, that is frustrating, but you seem like you've taken a good approach to it. We won't please everyone, and it's great that you got such high scores and praise. You must be on the right track. :D

  74. NAOMI: I loved your entry, and I'm not at all surprised you sold it or that you signed with Natasha. :)

    JANET DEAN: Thanks so much for answering my survey questions. :) I agree, the information I got as a result of contests was so much more valuable to me than the "atta-girl" comments I got from friends who weren't writers.

  75. ERICA-

    HAhahahahaha! I never thought of that. She was very unoriginal in her comments. She could have said 'unoriginal', 'been done' and 'see it before'. Ha! That totally made me laugh.

    And yes, sometimes judges just won't see where the story is going. And some are obviously watching Castle while reading your entry. I had one ask 'what, where are we in this scene?' when the line before says IN HER GRANDMA'S HOUSE.


  76. Oh, about being second from the bottom...

    The year Mary Curry won the Genesis, I was the in the bottom spot. The only year I entered it.

    BOTTOM- me.

    FIRST PRIZE- Mary Curry.

    I love my critique partners.

    Between her and Julie Hilton Steele, they keep me growing.

  77. I can't find the comment now but


    Whoever said they didn't get their score sheet...

    That would be the category coordinator. One year the results I got wouldn't open on my computer. Everytime I clicked it just went to a blank. I e-mail and she said she'd send them again. Nothing. And four months later, I finally asked again. No response.

    Sometimes it just happens. I wish it didn't ebcause the comments are what we pay for.

    I still worry the final judge asked for the ms or something, or a revision, but I'll never knows!

  78. Erica, great blog topic and you covered it so well. I enjoyed reading all the comments.

    Entering contests was a great way to get feedback on my stories before I was pubbed. I honed my submissions on contests and took to heart most of the excellent suggestions the judges offered.

  79. I have yet to enter a contest, but I'm glad to have read this post before I do. Printing it out so that I can refer back to it when the time comes. Seekerville is soooo helpful. Thanks!

  80. I am now wracked with guilt over my cruel judging comments.

    My life is an emotional rollercoast which is, most unfortunately, steadied by Hostess Twinkies. (and now they're GONE!!!)


  81. Melanie stated it well for me, as did Cara and maybe a couple others. I want to balance truth and tact. I don't want hurt the feelings of an obvious newbie, but neither do I want to pile on praise for poor work.

    I also have consistently gotten better scores from published than unpublished judges. ???

  82. im not a writer but this is true of many things in life. Like with assignments I had one lecturer who would give feedback in what could be done better or improved the other just gave a grade with no feedback as to what wasn't up to scratch. I have learnt that people want some feedback on what is good and bad.

  83. Arriving late today, but what a great post, Erica! This compilation of contest judges' insights is worth its weight in gold!

  84. Oh, and you know why they invented chocolate, right? It's so we writers can survive reading our contest scores and critiques!!!!

  85. MELANIE and ERICA--thanks for your thoughts and answers to my question. I appreciate your words. :)

    Still don't have time to read all the comments, but I got through a few of them. So fun to see people I "know" judging contests now that they're published or nearly so. :)

  86. Your post was very helpful. My goal for 2013 is to enter a romance writing contest....that gives feedback. The only contest I have entered was a short story contest---and I won, so no specific feedback, other than it was published in a magazine, which was a fun experience. (And I can call myself a "published" writer. ;) Thank you!

  87. Hi Erica!! SO happy to see you in Seekerville today! ~ Thank you (and all these other ladies) for this insightful and helpful post. I've only entered two contests, and both gave me helpful suggestions from the judges. I guess the best advice was when a judge pointed out the "overdone drama" in my opening paragraph, LOL. So after I made some major changes, I was much happier with the results! ~ Thank you again for posting today, and CONGRATS on your writing career--ALL your books look wonderful. Hugs from Georgia, Patti Jo

  88. I love contests. Wonderful feedback, helpful suggestions, knowing someone cared enough to read and comment on my entry even if they don't know me.
    On the other hand, I hate contests. The stress, the constant wondering until I hear back, the fear of actually taking my baby out of its safe little place on my computer and putting it into the big scary world.I so admire all the people who give their time efforts and expertise to help us fledglings along

  89. Erica, I'm so sorry I didn't get by yesterday for your fantastic post! I've been helping my son move this week.

    What a great post! I wish I had seen all this info before I started entering contests! It would have saved me a lot of angst and heartache.

  90. Erica, what a phenomenal article! I haven't entered any major contests, yet, but I hope to in January and February. This article was a big help!! Thanks to you and all the other ladies who gave of their time and energy to answer the questions and put it together.

  91. to put more atction into my story!

  92. I've only entered two contests. The first was last year's Genesis, and I entered this year's First Impressions. I apprecite this post as it will help me to remember judges are people too when I get back my FI submission.

  93. Love this post and seeing the inside of the judge's heads! What are your thoughts on reentering the same manuscript in the next year's contest? One multi-published, award-winning judge loved it and gave me a high score. One uncredentialed judge didn't seem to like my characters. I've taken their feedback and the feedback of beta readers and edited. Should I resubmit? Or will the judges recognize it?

  94. Had to pass this along to some friends!

  95. Oh, I totally missed out on Erica's day....

    ERICA!!! Forgive me!!! I can't even think what I was doing...

    Oh, wait... :)

    Working... then singing at a memorial service tree lighting in the evening....

    But how did I miss you in the morning?????

    MY BAD.

    Forgive me. Please, please, please.

    I'll blame someone else, of course.

    It's what I DO.

    Hugs to you and what a great post even though I'm a day late reading it. So much good advice and trips down memory lane!

  96. How fascinating thank you.