Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 14, 2014

Four Secrets of a Writing Contest Judge

Fae's Sheila Finalist Badge

I've judged a few contests for published and unpublished authors over the years.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 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.


25 comments on “Four Secrets of a Writing Contest Judge”

  1. I judge the Emerald City Opener each year. Everything point you've mentioned is right on target. The feedback is essential, and I try to give as much as possible without crushing the spirit. I will say that the better an entry the less there is to say. I rarely count off for misplaced commas. And I wouldn't at all for one or two. But I do believe learning how to format-- dialogue, in particular, is crucial in getting the tone you want the reader to experience across.
    I judge entries the same way I give feedback to my critique partners. Its how I expect to be treated: bluntness with respect.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kathy. Maybe there will be more contest entries as judges realize how important that role is.

  2. Hi Fae,
    I love this post. I agree with what you wrote. Recently, I judged a contest and ended up with eight entries. Since I belonged to this chapter, I made time to complete each entry even though I spent two to four hours on each one of them. I tried to point out things that would make their writing stronger along with things I loved about the entry. I tried to back up why I scored them with that score, too. What some stressed judges forget is that the person who entered has poured their soul in the writing. I also tend to judge on the high side.
    I recently received my scores from the same contest. The scores were all over the place. where one person gave me a two another gave me a five (the highest.) None of them made sense. I didn't receive many comments on my three score sheets and none on the entries so I had nothing to know how to improve if needed. One judge didn't give me any scores on the last category. She just left them blank. I was frustrated since I poured all my time into eight entries and no one took the time on even one of mine. I did receive one thank you from one of the entries I judged. I can't tell you how grateful I was to receive it.
    Overall, I try to judge as if the entry is from one of my critique partners or friends. I try to stay upbeat and encourage them to keep on writing. I also thank the contestants for entering our contest. It's our only fundraiser for our chapter.

  3. Great comment about judging on the high side, Bonnie! I do the same thing because I know that often it takes almost a perfect score to final. And just because one category might score low doesn't mean there aren't other things the writer does well. You also make a valid point about the contest being a fundraiser. Maybe some of the problem with contests is the volume of entries when a chapter doesn't really have enough judges to do a good job of giving feedback to so many people.It does take a long time to score each entry..

  4. I agreed to judge for a contest I had entered and I dedicated a huge block of my life to that judging (something I always do for judging) I looked for something positive to say for every entry and pointed out where they could go to improve
    When I received my entry back, I had two judge sheets with low scores and no explanations. I queried and was told their published authors didn't always have a lot of time. I'm published, I don't have a lot of time, yet I made sure to comment on all my scores.
    Does not give on the warm fuzzies on judging or entering.

    1. This is the exact reason that many contests are hurting for entries this year. Sorry you didn't get comments to back-up the scores.

  5. As a published author I'm asked to judge a lot. Mostly I just do it for my local chapter now. Growing up I was taught if you can't say anything nice, keep your mouth shut. Of course we can't we do that for a contest. So if I take off points, I always explain why. It's terrible to receive a score sheet with a low score and no explanation. I'm like Fae in that I try to limit the number of stories I judge because giving adequate feedback takes time.

    As a contestant, if I'm unsure what the judge was saying, I take the score sheets to crit group and get their input because many times it's hard to see through our own "hurt" feelings when someone says our baby isn't perfect. But I've already put trust into my crit group. If they say my child is too undisciplined, I give it hard look and do some editing.

    1. Yes, you have pulled me back from the edge about a contest score in the past--and thank you! Writers enter contests for feedback. It's a shame when the only feedback is a seemingly arbitrary number with no comments.

  6. Fae, this is absolutely wonderful!

    I'm also a teacher and I love the idea of rubrics for scoring. It sure would eliminate biases, wouldn't it?

    I've scored contests too, and try to be very kind when I make comments, even if I truly didn't find a whole lot to like. I've also been on the receiving end of horrid judging, and frankly, if a person is going to be that nasty to another writer, they have no business judging contests IMHO

    1. I am absolutely with you Collette. I view judging a contest as a way to give back to my writing community. I try not to give a grenade instead of helpful comments.

  7. Thanks for the interesting post and useful information. I applaud all the judges who error on the side of encouragement with a thoughtful comment. Are all writing contests for short stories? Do any contests exist for completed unpublished novels? Is there a source on the Internet?

    1. I've never submitted a short story in a contest, but I know you can. The contests I've entered are for unpublished authors. The number of pages varies, usually from five to thirty-five. Some include a synopsis, some don't. Published contests usually consist of the whole book. I just Googled "writing contest" and a whole host of possibilities came up. If you write romance, you can try the RWA website for contest listings from their chapters. Here's the link: http://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=517#contests . Good luck!

  8. I've been on all sides of the contest, now running one for a few years. I love how you write of being encouraging. This year (and by the way I would never give a judge more entries than she asked for) we've had a rash of not constructive, almost mean judges. I trash them and find other judges for the entrant. (I make sure I have too many judges before the contest is even underway.) I've had to eighty-sixed one judge, and being a chair of a contest means I talk to a lot of other contest coordinators and chairs. She's not welcome to judge on any of those contests either. I'm there to mainly make sure the entrant has a good time and can get back an entry that she can learn from. I'm also there to make sure my judges have a good time, and stress free--as much as possible. It's stressful for me, and, honestly, I don't think I'll run another contest again, but I do love it when a judge writes to me and says that the entrant was so good she has to get published soon. Or when an entrant writes to me about how wonderful of an experience she had.

    1. You have indeed taken on a (usually) thankless job, Lani. I know that as a judge, I've communicated with the contest coordinator about my scores before I even sent in a scoresheet and I always ask the coordinator to contact me if one of my scores is way out of line. One of the contest coordinators this year said that she reads all the scoresheets (talk about hours!) to make sure there are no problems like you've mentioned. Bless you for your concern for your entrants. And thank you for running a contest!

  9. I rarely enter contests because I just don't do well. Also, they don't seem to have much of a connection to selling, getting an agent, or how well it sells. Tweeted and shared on FB.

  10. Thanks, Ella. There are a couple of contests that I don't enter for the same reason. My first year of entering contests, I finaled in one, won the second, and received less than half the possible points in the third. I bet you can figure out which one I never entered again!

    Thanks for the blog love. Hope to see you in San Antonio!

    1. Thanks, Mairi. (Sorry, I can't figure out how to get the accent mark right.) Fae was my mother's best friend, so I came by the name and the spelling honestly.

  11. I do believe all contests are a crap shoot no matter how well they may be organized and how much instruction they give the judges. Judges are imperfect humans with different motivations for judging. I try to keep in mind the idea of "what would I want the judges to tell me that could help me improve?" when I judge. If some one gave me a 3 out of 5, I want to know what I could do to get that up to a 5 so pointing out your reasons can help a writer see where they need to learn more about craft.

    I try not to let a problem in one area influence my scores in another category. Unfortunately, as a contestant, I've seen that happen too often. I do tend to be tough as a crit partner and judge. Since I know that, I go back over the score before submitting to see if I can raise the score by adding a point in categories where my personal biases or preferences might have come into play.

    I typically look for contests that drop the lowest score because you can't appeal to everyone in addition to the existence of "those judges" who score work low to feel better about themselves. It is nice to receive a thank you from a contestant. And that's where you can even say: Thank you for volunteering your time and experience to judge. I appreciate you taking time from your own writing to give detailed feedback. While I feel your scores were unduly low, rather than be offended, I carefully read through your comments to find the nuggets I can use to improve my writing. You had some good points and I have made changes and will continue to look at ___. Oh, and I took the opportunity to tell her I was thrilled to be a finalist. I didn't have to say "despite the score you gave me." I like to think she looked up the final results and saw I placed first in two categories. 😉

    Congrats on being a finalist in the Sheila, Fae! Good luck. Waiting anxiously on the results and was glad they dropped the low score - because there was the judge that couldn't being herself to give those 5 in most categories but couldn't tell me why, even when I asked.

    1. Thanks for sharing your judging process, Tracy. You bring up an excellent point about the contests that have three, or even four, judges and delete the lowest score. If the scores are all about the same, it doesn't make a difference. If there is a low outlier, this takes care of it "without prejudice" to the entrant. And good luck with your finalist entries!

  12. I judged this year for the first time and was surprised at how much time each entry took to read, evaluate, and score. Maybe that's because I agonized over every comment and suggestion, fearing I'd discourage a good writer when I hoped to encourage and motivate. The job was a lot tougher than I expected.

    1. Amen to that, Patricia! As a judge you wear so many hats, from English teacher about grammar to cheerleader for that encouragement and motivation, it is a difficult job.

  13. I agreed with having to sift through the comments and pick out what applies. I entered the contests to get feedback and have been blessed with the amount I've received. But I could tell when the judge had no clue what I was talking about because they didn't understand the subject matter. I think the feedback is invaluable and when their response is sparse they are doing you a great disservice.

    1. You're right, Greg. No one enters a contest to receive little to no feedback. Sometimes when I've received comments about confusion with my story, I've taken it back to my critique partners. Half the time they say the judge is wrong--bless my crit group! But the other half of the time they tell me that maybe there is something to the comment and point out that they know me story and characters and plot better than a reader who just picks up the book. Then they laugh and tell me I really should write mysteries because I leave a lot out, probably because my characters are so real to me that I think everyone knows them already! Good luck with your contesting.

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