I've judged a few contests for published and unpublished authors over the years. Because I entered several contests this year, I paid a lot more attention to the judging process. Reviewing my own scoresheets made me a better judge. At least, I hope so.
Things you may not know:
1. Your judge may have entered the same contest. Don't worry, you're not in competition. A judge cannot score entries in the same category she's entered. However, this means your judge may not be as familiar with the genre of your entry. I agreed to score entries only from genres that I have read a lot of books, but I could have judged "short contemporary" or "romantic suspense"--categories that I don't read. That means I enjoy the genre I'm judging and have a sense of the way those books are generally constructed. For instance, I read historicals, so I get the vocabulary, the dialogue and the importance of setting.
My experience as a contestant: Once I received a comment from a judge "just to let me know" that she didn't like science fiction. What? Why would she judge for a science fiction contest? Last month I posted Writing Contests: Hell or Heaven? I believe the judge who scored my entry so low is not a science fiction reader. Why? She commented that she googled a building material used in my spaceport and couldn't find it anywhere on the internet. She told me I needed to research proper building materials. Uhm, they are not made yet. We're talking two hundred years in the future. Guess what? That entry made the finals in the other two contests I entered. Yep, one of them is The Sheila.
2. Your judge may have agreed to score three entries and ended up with five or more. Yes, this happened to me this year. I contacted the contest coordinator, because two extra entries at thirty-five pages each wouldn't fit into my schedule. Well, they were short on judges. Luckily I had two months to return the scoresheets, so I was able to work all the entries into my schedule and I didn't feel pressured. But what if your judge doesn't have the luxury of time and is rushed, and therefore grumpy, about having to complete more than he signed up for?
My experience as a judge: I made sure I had a block of time for a single entry, and I only read and scored one entry per day. Not only did I make a lot of comments on the scoresheet, but the contests I judged for encouraged feedback directly on the manuscript. This can take as much–or little–time as you have to give it. Sometimes a lack of feedback may just be an over-committed judge.
My experience as a contestant: I'll take that perfect score with no comments any day!
3. Your judge isn't necessarily trained to give you feedback on your entry. As a judge, the directions I received ranged from a paragraph about how to fill out the form, the deadline and address for returning my scoresheets and who to contact if I had trouble to a three-page set of instructions on how to score each category, cautions on offering nurturing comments and not a scathing review and not line-editing the entry. A judge may write brilliant prose but not-so-compassionate writing advice.
My experience as a judge: I tried to gear my comments to my perception of the writing. This year, for one novice writer I suggested a couple of books on writing with the encouragement that by studying her craft and writing, she would be able to transform her story into something an editor couldn't put down. For those entries that made me wish for more pages to read, I offered editing suggestions to tighten the action and enhance the pace and wished them luck selling their book, because from the synopsis and what I'd read it's just a matter of getting it into the right person's hands.
My experience as a contestant: If you read Writing Contests: Hell or Heaven? you know that you have to sift through all the comments and suggestions and take what resonates and forget the others. One of my judges liked my entry, but tried to rewrite parts of it to fit her idea of my story. She was trying to be helpful. Letting go of something that might be on that scoresheet isn't easy. But your judge is a human, and humans, by nature, are imperfect.
4. Your score might be affected by the other entries a judge is reading. Years ago I trained teachers around the country how to score to a rubric, a set of scoring criteria with strict guidelines. This prevents personal biases, usually related to grammar or certain types of construction, from overly influencing a score. When you read over a hundred essays in a day and you're scoring to a rubric, even if you've just read ten very poorly written pieces, you can't score the eleventh from that perspective. Similarly, none of the contests I judged had a first-second-third ranking system for scoring entries, though some judges, from comments I received, might use this method. If your judge had to read too many entries in a short timeframe, this can happen, and your entry gets muddled with others.
My experience as a contestant: One time my scoresheet justified a deduction of points for a scene that was not part of my entry. I guess you could say I took one for another contestant. Another time, the only two points I "lost" from one judge was explained, "You had one misplaced comma. I wish people would learn the comma rules." She took off two points out of 5 possible for grammar, editing, and typos because of the Oxford comma rule. Thank goodness I didn't go the modern route twice! (Not complaining, she loved everything else!)
Why did I agree to be a contest judge? Because I believe that the feedback from contests, for both novice writers and those on the cusp of selling a book, can help a writer hone her craft and make it possible to get the call.
What gives me the right to score another's submission? A lifetime of voracious reading. More than a decade of professional training, writing experience, craft classes, critique groups, and many of my own contest entries. As a teacher, I know that hammering about mistakes can kill a student's spirit. In last month's blog, I shared with you what one scoresheet did to me-and I'm not a novice. I hope I have learned to give feedback commensurate with the level of the writing. When I critique for my friends here at Writers in the Storm, I note things that made me smile. I think that's important to do for a contestant, too. I want my comments on scoresheets to encourage the contestants to improve their craft. Who knows, maybe someday a best-selling author will give a keynote address and say that she entered a contest once and got feedback that kept her writing. And that feedback was mine.
Have you judged a writing contest and have additional secrets to share? If you could share one thing with your contest judge before your entry is read, what would you say?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules then watch what happens.
Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than horrors of arithmetic lessons gone wrong. She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.
A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now enjoys sharing her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.