Confessions of a Contest Judge

by Willa Blair

In my last post, I gave you some tips to ‘spiff up’ your contest submission. Now that I have your attention, let me tell you about what it’s like to be a contest judge.

Contest judges don’t know you. The judge receives each entry with a unique number on it, not your name. All they know about your writing is what you submitted to their category (historical, paranormal, etc.) and that your entry should fit within the parameters of that category.

Contest judges provide honest feedback, not just a numerical score. Most of them take that responsibility very seriously. And ‘honest feedback’ does not mean, well, mean. A good judge takes the time to help the writer understand what they did right as well as what they did wrong-and offers some ideas to fix what needs fixing.

They know that not all writers have experience accepting criticism. In fact, most aren’t very good at it. Are you? That thick skin takes years to develop. Mine still has thin spots. Judges are writers, too. They know it’s important to be helpful but not hurtful. After all, it’s just their opinion, especially if the problem is plot- or conflict-related, and another judge may like what they don’t.

Yes, scoring is subjective. What one judge (or agent or editor or reader) loves, another may hate. That’s the writing life. That’s the business we’re in. It’s important to recognize that and take from a judge’s comments only what is useful to you. Discard the rest. Really? Yes. It’s your writing. If all the judges mark up the same thing, chances are you need to pay attention to it. If there’s a diversity of opinion, go with your gut and your voice.

Punctuation and grammar problems? Okay, that involves the Style Manual’s opinion, too. Yes, it’s frustrating as a judge to wade through 8th grade mistakes. Yes, the author should have had an editor, or at least a friend, read their entry before they submitted it. Contest entries come in all skill levels. So judges mark up the mistakes — and they will affect your score.

Oh no, the author forgot to include the required synopsis? Or they exceeded the page limit? If the coordinator accepted the entry and can’t or won’t go back to the author, the best a judge can do is give fewer–or even zero–points in the affected category. That happened to me recently. The entry could have been a winner…but a key requirement was missing, so the hit to their total points kept them from even becoming a finalist. I almost cried. The entry was really that good…except for one major ooops.

The synopsis makes no sense? The book may be fabulous and the author just doesn’t understand how to write a synopsis. It’s a skill, and it’s not easy to learn. If a judge gets out their red pen/track changes/caps and font color change, or whatever, and shows the author (as much as they can) how to salvage it, it behooves the author to pay attention. The author might want to use that synopsis to submit to an agent or editor. The judge’s feedback can help sell the story.

General comments are useful and most judges try to provide them. Positive feedback about what worked is just as valuable as the truth about what needs work. Themes, big picture, consistent mistakes: this is where to find them.

Finally, a thank you to the judge through the contest coordinator is a nice thing to do and is appreciated – especially if the judge has taken a lot of time going over your entry. The more comments and corrections you see, the more you should think about doing just that. Any judge can give a top score and a “loved it”.  Yes, those are wonderful to get, but the real value of the contest is in the feedback that helps you improve your writing.

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