Friday, February 19, 2010

The Etiquette of Contest Judging

The writing contest circuit is alive and kicking this time of year with the Golden Hearts, the Ritas, and various chapter contests all approaching the judging deadline. I judged in the Golden Heart this year, and I also judged our chapter's contest this past summer.

I enjoy it for a variety of reasons. For one, sometimes I read really cool writing that I know I'll be able to find on my Books A Million shelf in a couple years. For another, judging a contest (if one judges well) gives me the opportunity to encourage an up and coming writer who needs to know where they can improve, but also desperately needs to hear what they're doing right.

I never thought about writing a contest judging etiquette post until I recently saw some stuff on Twitter and Facebook that was an awful example of judging at its worst. I'll get to that in a minute. For now, I give you my (less than comprehensive, I'm sure!) list of what to do as a contest judge.

What To Do:

1. Remember you hold someone's dream in your hands. Treat it with the same respect you'd want someone else to give yours. This doesn't mean you inflate the score or give insincere compliments. It does mean you treat them as you would want to be treated were you in that writer's shoes.

2. Get perspective of the scoring range. If the highest possible score is a 9, the basic, average, "you've got a lot to work on" score should start at 5. Not 1. A 1 is "you don't know how to put two words together to form the most basic of sentences." A 1 is a crushing insult to someone who can, indeed, write basic sentences, but needs improvement in grammar, spelling, plot etc. If an entry is formatted correctly and meets the basic criteria for a story (has main characters, seems to have a plot, I'm able to read it, grammar errors notwithstanding), start in the middle and move up from there.

3. Don't let your personal pet peeves skew the score. If you hate sentences that start with "and" or "but" and you're sooo over vampires and the entry you're reading has both, look past it and judge the quality of the writing. If you honestly can't look past it, contact the contest coordinator and request the entry be reassigned. Being as fair as possible is crucial.

4. Learn how to offer constructive feedback. Saying "I don't like your character" isn't nearly as helpful as saying "I don't feel connected to your character because I don't have any idea how she feels about things. If you showed us her emotional reaction to the events in this chapter via body language, dialogue, and some inner turmoil, I think I'd be connected and care deeply about what happens next." Structure every comment with as much respectful, helpful guidance as possible.

5. Watch the negative comments. If the entry really needs a lot of work, focus on a few things that would make a big difference and touch on those. Be sure to include positive as well as constructive feedback. No one needs to have their spirits crushed when with a little thought and finesse you could get your point across with grace and respect.

6. Remember what it felt like to be new. Remember the rush of deciding you were going to finally pursue your dream of writing? Remember how you spilled words onto the page without much thought to anything but getting the story out? Remember when you thought that first manuscript was the best thing you'd ever write? Give the benefit of the doubt to the entrants. I'm not recommending inflating the score. I'm saying be gentle. Honest, but gentle. Choose encouragement over cruelty every time.

7. Be professional. Discreet. Respectful.

What Not To Do:

1. Do not, under ANY circumstances, tweet or post on Facebook negative comments about the entries you judge. This reeks of unprofessionalism. It's disrespectful to the writer whose entry you're judging and it makes you look rude. Don't blog about it either. If you really can't judge other writers' work without spilling negative comments online, don't be a judge.

2. Don't use sarcasm in your feedback. Even if you think you're being funny. Just don't.

3. Don't roll your eyes at mistakes you know you made when you were new. Help them fix it. If you're judging a contest where comments aren't included, take care how many points you knock off for different things. The goal isn't to grind the writer down.

4. Don't assume the responsibility of helping the writer "grow a thick skin." That's simply a poor excuse for you not remaining professional. Will the writer have to grow a thick skin (or at least the appearance of one?)? Maybe. But you don't have to be the cause.

I'm sure there are some points I've missed. Veteran contest judges (or writers who've had good/bad experiences with contests) feel free to chime in.


  1. A timely and informative post! Thank you, CJ!

  2. Contest judging requires editor-brain to overcome preferences as a reader and look at the technical merit of the writing, and a lot of people don't have that mode. A challenge of some of these bigger contests is they require a huge pool of judges to cope with the number of entries, and a lot of those judges just aren't qualified for the job.

    Finding the balance between tact and honesty was always the thing I agonized over. I didn't want to make anyone cry, but with a select few entries, truly, it was impossible to find anything positive to say other than "Good for you for having the confidence to enter!"

    Ultimately, I'm not comfortable in the role of judge, so I don't do it anymore, which I think is better for everyone involved. Some of my tact-deficient brethren out there obviously ought to do the same.

  3. Thanks for a very timely post. I'm going to be judging a contest for teen writers in the spring. I'll be taking your comments to heart.

  4. I'm alive!

    I just haven't been commenting because I don't have any valuable input, but I was thinking that writers should try to master the art of the Judge-Fu. I think it's alright to get your story out on paper, but when you're done, you should go through and fix it. I remember that I typed out a short scene for a story, and I came back to it later and cut out an entire chunk because it was boring.


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