Confessions of a Contest Judge

05 Sep

If you’ve ever participated in a writing contest, you’ve probably heard stories about crazy judges, bizarre comments, and scores so far apart that the judges must not have been reading the same entry. Fortunately, those odd comments do make a little more sense once you’ve walked in the judge’s shoes.

So here, in the hope of explaining some of that weird contest feedback, I offer these confessions—a look inside one judge’s mind.

I have my own rules of writing. Every judge has little rules of ‘good writing’ tucked away in his subconscious. We’ve been taught that some nouns or verbs are better than others. There’s a ‘right’ way to open a novel and a ‘wrong’ way to handle backstory and descriptions. This imaginary list of rules goes on and on. It can be difficult to set aside these preconceived notions and accept a new style of writing.

This is why you get the nutty judge who circles every form of the verb ‘to be’ or counts off every time you use the word “as”.  Ridiculous as it might seem, these judges actually believe they’re helping by showing you the “right” way to do things.

I won’t tell you everything that’s wrong with your entry.  When I judge a contest, I try to focus on the big things that will take the story to the next level. I’m not going to comment line by line like a critique partner would. I will note a couple of examples of reasons I’ve deducted points. But I won’t mark them all. It just feels too much like nagging.

If I have to deliver a particularly harsh critique, I’ll try to soften it. For example, instead of saying, “Your hero is a jerk”, I might point to a particular line and say, “This does not make him look sympathetic.”

Sometimes, this approach confuses writers. I hear people say, “Wow. She knocked off three points for a single typo.” Or “I got a bad score on characterization because the hero grabbed the heroine’s wrist.”

No. Most likely, the problem continued throughout the entry, and the judge just didn’t want to mark each and every occurrence.

Sometimes, I just have to fill in the box. Most contests require judges to explain their scores. This is the hard work of judging: figuring out why one entry is a real page turner and another is excruciatingly slow. It requires creating a logical explanation for what is often an emotional reaction. A lot of ridiculous comments come from the simple need to write something in the box.

I might speed read the last pages. As a judge, I’ve committed to reading each entry from start to finish at least once. But if a 50-page entry is particularly tedious, I’ve already made tons of suggestions on how to improve it, and there’s no way it’s going to final, I may rush through the last few pages and the synopsis.

If you think the judge didn’t read your entry all the way through’, you may be right. Make sure you put “the good stuff” on the first few pages. And never rely on a synopsis to carry the story for you. Judges don’t like reading them any more than you like writing them.

I score most entries higher than I should. I never use the lowest scores on the scale. Why crush a writer’s spirit when I can convey the same message with a mediocre score?

After I judge an entry, I almost always go back and find reasons to bump it up a bit. There are certain types of stories I simply don’t like, and I always score them higher just to compensate for any unconscious bias.  This type of grade inflation probably accounts for some of the wide differences in scores from one judge to another.

I would love to hear your contest stories. What is the weirdest thing a contest judge ever said to you? Do you see that comment in a different light now that you have heard my confessions? If you’ve judged contests, do you have anything to confess?


Posted by on September 5, 2011 in contests, writing


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90 responses to “Confessions of a Contest Judge

  1. Janis

    September 5, 2011 at 5:59 AM


    Valid points to bring up. The weirdest comment I had from a judge mentioned in her comments something that didn’t happen in my entry and why it was downgraded. She must have gotten her entries mixed up! LOL.

    I try to take the commonalities in judges and learn from them. If more than one judge mentions the same problem, it’s worth looking at again. I still think the benefits outweigh the “crazy” judging if I’m careful to enter well established contests known for their detailed judging.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 3:22 PM

      That sounds like a good strategy, Janis. Judges do get their entries mixed up sometimes. I think they read an entry, think about it, and then go back and put the comment on the wrong entry.

      One of the funniest ones I read came from another blog. (I’m sorry I didn’t note the blogger’s name.) She entered a straight contemporary romance, no sci-fi or paranormal elements. The judge said, “You should have mentioned the time travel elements in the synopsis, since it wasn’t present in the pages I judged.” No clue as to where the judge got the idea it was supposed to be a time-travel. Perhaps the contest co-ordinator put it in the wrong category.

  2. johannaharness

    September 5, 2011 at 6:06 AM

    Thanks for this, Clarissa. I used to read freshman placement exams and it takes days of reading sample essays to get reliability between readers. It’s much more difficult than simply sending out a set of criteria.

    • Marilyn S

      September 5, 2011 at 1:08 PM

      Yeah, I’ve been through that nightmare of working for consistency among raters with sample college essays. After hours of grading, we’d have to repeat the validation process. Fatigue set in and our scores would be all over the place again. Ugh! I’ve never entered a writing contest (write books for kids) that gave judge feedback. I wish they offered more contests that did that. Do you volunteer to do all that work or is pay involved?


      • Clarissa Southwick

        September 5, 2011 at 3:30 PM

        Hi Marilyn, It’s volunteer work for RWA contests. I usually do it because I’ve entered the contest in the past and feel a need to “give back” to an organization that has helped me get in front of an editor or agent. RWA contests usually have a YA category, but not children’s books. Thanks for the comment!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 3:28 PM


      I think you’re right that it takes “days of reading” to judge anything fairly. I think it’s only with experience that one can distinguish “voice.” I imagine it’s even more stressful for placement exams because the students have so much at stake and a reasonable expectation of succeeding. In most writing contests, the entrants know that even with a near-perfect score, they might not final.

  3. Diana Quincy

    September 5, 2011 at 8:01 AM

    One contest judge, who rated my entry very low, commented that my writing reminded her of a “racy Jane Austen.” I couldn’t figure out whether or not she was trying to compliment me. But I took it as one!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 3:45 PM

      Hi Diana, I would take that as a compliment too. But I think the “steamy” question has derailed many a contest entry. I frequently get low scores on my coming-of-age stories. Personally, I never mark down for that element, and I don’t volunteer to judge contests that do.

  4. carla

    September 5, 2011 at 8:11 AM

    I’m the East German Judge everyone hates to get, but thanks to your advice, I’m going to tone it down a bit. My problem is that I’m doing a line edit on the entries I’m asked to judge. I should just be explaining where something doesn’t work for me. My opinion is valid but it’s not the only one.

    As for my own contest experiences, I’ve seen some interesting stuff, from the judge who told me I *needed* more commas to the one who insisted that Major League baseball locker rooms don’t have individual chairs; they use common benches. This was clearly NOT someone who’s seen the inside of an MLB locker room. (If that judge is reading this, FYI “Bull Durham” was minor league, not MLB.)

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 4:40 PM

      Carla, I never mind a low score if it’s backed up with useful advice. As for getting facts wrong– a la locker room chairs–I can’t imagine marking off for such a thing. I always assume the writer has done more research on the topic than I have. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  5. Laura Dion-Jones Casey

    September 5, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    No question, kind comments can help make one a much better writer. I’ve had the good fortune of receiving several very nice comments from contest judges. Here’s one of my favorites that motivated me to keep on writing about motivational weight loss, health and fitness, and I’d love to know who this judge is so that I can write her/him a tender thank you note.

    My book is Commit To Get Fit: The Secret to True and Everlasting Weight Loss.

    Under “What did you like best about this book?” She wrote: This quick-start fitness guide is really a 34-page (then) how-to booklet. I liked every word in it, especially the section titled, “If a 2,000-pound cow can take a walk, why can’t you?” Reading this made me find my shoes and go for a short walk before I read any further. Having lose 130 pounds herself, she advises readers to go on whatever diet helped in the past, stay on it to lose weight, and use it M-F to maintain weight loss.

    “How can the author improve this book?” I’d like to see a “real” book of, say, two hundred pages, with more of these same principles, deeper examination of successes and failures, and more how-to help. The author has talent AND experience and I’d probably read anything she wrote.

    I’m finally putting together all the pieces to flesh out my “booklet” into that 200-pager the judge suggested. Only problem here is I’m spoiled for choice. If I lived near you, I’d be begging you for help to weed out the best of the best to include!

    Thank you for such wonderful words of wisdom for other writers.
    Laura Dion-Jones (

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 4:43 PM

      Great example of positive judging. Your book sounds like something I could use to keep me moving. Thanks for being such a loyal reader and commenter 🙂

  6. Stephie Smith

    September 5, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    The absolute weirdest comment I ever got was from a judge who wrote this in her overall comments: “I don’t understand why you keep calling your heroine Sophie when her name is Mary.” There were no characters in my entire ms named Mary and I did a search on my 1st 25 pp entry and there was no “mary” in there either. Even if I had accidentally written her name once as Mary (which I didn’t), I’d think she would point that out rather than state that I kept calling her Sophie throughout the entry (obviously because her name was Sophie…)

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 4:47 PM

      This would be hilarious, if only you hadn’t paid to enter and that judge hadn’t ruined your chance to get in front of an agent/editor. I wonder if your entry was so realistic, she thought you were talking about a real person. Otherwise, I have no explanation for this bizarre, bizarre comment. Thanks for commenting, Stephie
      P.S. If you are the same Stephie Smith who does the contest chart, thank you, thank you, thank you. I use it all the time 🙂 What a time-saver for those of us who enter contests.

  7. Laura Dion-Jones Casey

    September 5, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    PS: I’d love to be a guest blogger from time to time. How does one go about being chosen?

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 5, 2011 at 4:48 PM

      Hi Laura–I tried to email you a while back, but I guess it didn’t go through. Anyone who would like to do a guest blog can contact me at clarissasouthwick (at) yahoo (dot) com. Thanks.

  8. Vonnie Davis

    September 5, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    My judging behavior changes the more contests I judge. I shudder to think that I was probably on a bit of an ego trip the first contest I judged–shame on me. I’ve learned to be less harsh and more encouraging. We all have egos and deep attachments to our writings. Now when I judge, I try to keep the mindset of “what tips can I give to help get this writer closer to publication?”

    I ignore the things that drive me up the wall–little annoying things that really don’t matter. Like writing something in all caps to show an emotion. I used to take points off for that. Now I simply write “do not use all caps” or “don’t underline.”

    Knowing what many agents will “ding” writers for, I emphasize those points, those weaknesses of craft. I’m a stickler for POV and passive verb usage since my agent is also. I encourage contestants to get rid of 95% of their usage of “that” or “very” or “had”. Oh, and “said tags,” don’t get me started. I suggest rather than criticize.

    • D'Ann

      September 5, 2011 at 10:09 AM

      This is one of the things that drives me crazy, actually. Gasp! I used an LY word! LOL. Because YOUR agent hates those things, MINE may not. Oops, sorry. Used caps. And frags.

      Sorry for the sarcasm, but it’s true, not all eds/ags think the same and it drives me up the wall that so many contest judges think they do.

      • Clarissa Southwick

        September 6, 2011 at 12:50 PM


        I am LOL-ing because I know you have been very successful on the contest circuit, adverbs and all 🙂

        Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 12:05 PM

      Hi Vonnie,

      Experience does make you a better contest judge. The more you’ve dealt with editors and agents, the more likely you are to point out the things they’ll notice. This is very helpful to an unpubbed who does not have access to editors and agents.

      But lately, I’ve been making fewer comments on the entries I judge. I try to focus on the big picture items like conflict and characterization. I worry that those important elements can get lost in an avalanche of comments about typos and grammar.

      The important thing as judges is that we are aware of how our comments affect the entrants. I always try to make helpful suggestions, and I hope my comments are useful. I hope the contestants receive the comments in the same spirit.

  9. Donnell Bell

    September 5, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Hi, Clarissa, as you know this is a subject near and dear to me. As a contest judge, I concentrate mightily on the fact that I am not and editor or an agent and the final round judge, but that I’m the first level who’s possibly going to help that entrant get there. Kindness never hurts anyone in the first round.

    That being said, I’ve received three bizarre comments in all my years of entering contests — which is pretty complimentary of all of the contest judges out there.

    The first comment was: “OSHA applies to the work place not construction sites.” I had written a scene in which my structural engineer thinks, “OSHA will have a field day with this one.” I promptly went back to my office and told the structural engineers I worked with they didn’t have to worry about OSHA anymore. They were so relieved 😉

    The second comment — same contest — different judge out of a synopsis wrote, “I think your psychiatrist should be a clown.” There was nothing remotely humorous about this suspense novel, and to this day, I don’t understand that statement — obviously I didn’t final in that contest. But later I did :))))

    Happy Labor Day, everyone, don’t work too hard!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 12:54 PM

      Wow. I feel very privileged to have the contest elite stopping by to comment today. It’s nice to know the even the very best writers get odd comments from time to time. Thanks for stopping by Donnell and congratulations on your big sale 🙂

  10. Kay Hudson

    September 5, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    I’ve gotten the judge who believes the verb to be is inherently passive at all times, and a few who seemed to be commenting on some other entry, but my favorite (alongside the one who told me if I studied craft and joined a critique group I might be a writer some day) was the judge who repeated, after every question, “I don’t like this type of story,” on a parallel world adventure romance. She gave it about 40 points on a 100-point scale (the other judge, a published author who signed her name, gave it 98). Why, I wondered, did she agree to judge paranormal entries if she didn’t like them???

    I’ve seen some odd ideas as a judge, like the entry that had two main characters with the same name. That may have been the groundwork for some sort of mistaken identity or confusion plot–it certainly confused me. But the hardest manuscripts to judge (helpfully) are the ones that have no real flaws, decent prose, pass all the technical tests, but just lie there on the page, semi-comatose. If I could figure out what to tell those writers, I’d be a much better writer myself!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 1:10 PM

      Hi Kay,

      You have my sympathy on the judge who didn’t like paranormals. I wonder if she simply got assigned that category against her will. I once said I would judge anything but erotica, and of course, they sent me erotica. I’ve since learned to be more specific when volunteering. LOL.

      Another possibility is that she liked paranormal, but disliked some other element of your story. For example, I don’t generally like reunion/secret baby stories. (Feel free to throw cyber tomatoes at me.) I think it is incredibly hard to make that kind of story believable and still have sympathetic characters. But I get those stories no matter which category I volunteer to judge. So when I get one, I always give it a higher score than I think it deserves.

      It’s really too bad she scored you low and couldn’t separate out genre and quality of writing.

      But thanks for commenting. I’m sure everyone else who’s ever had that happened feels better knowing they’re not the only one 🙂

  11. Lynda Bailey

    September 5, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    Great post. When I judge, I try so, so hard NOT to be harsh. I’ve had more than my share of borderline cruel comments from not just contest judges, but former CPs as well. I prefer to use phrases that begin, “In my opinion….”; “I think…..” ; “Or, what about…..?”
    Stomping on someone’s dream in order to make yourself feel better isn’t the name of the game It just shows a lack of self-confidence on the part of the judge – IMO 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 1:46 PM


      That’s great advice. Thanks for the comment. 🙂

      Sometimes, the line between honesty and cruelty can be hard to see. I find it helps to let judged entries sit overnight. I always read them again before I send them and I’m occasionally surprised to discover a harsh tone I never intended when I wrote the comments. I also make it a point not to judge when I’m feeling bad.

  12. Amy Hahn

    September 5, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    I’ve been pretty lucky, which isn’t to say a few comments haven’t sent me into a hole of despair from time to time. I adore judging entries, probably because I’m nosy or because it give me permission to take a break from my own WIP…thanks for your tidbits…they are helpful!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 2:03 PM

      Amy, I love to judge for the same reasons. Plus, I learn so much from reading the entries. It’s much easier to see the flaws in my own manuscript when I’ve first noticed them in others. Thanks for the comment.

  13. Ann Yost

    September 5, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    I agree that kindness is important in a contest judge. I mention grammar errors but if there are only a few I figure they may be typos. I comment on things like dull or repetitive dialogue that can detract from a story but I don’t mind the use of the word “to be” and I don’t even mind a certain amount of cliche in description. What I often think the writer needs is just more practice writing smoothly, in away that allows the reader to get lost in the story. I always wonder how to communicate that in a non hurtful way. And, by the way, I always learn so much about the writing craft in the judging process. You really can see your own mistakes much more clearly when someone else commits them, too!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 6:06 PM

      Ann, I have to say you are on my list of favorite judges. You judged one of my entries–From Baghdad with Love,maybe?–and signed your name. I don’t remember what score you gave me, only that you were very encouraging and I was very happy to get your scoresheet. Thanks for being such a great judge. 🙂

  14. Emma

    September 5, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    The most bizarre comment I ever had was on an entry into a short story contest. The judge stated the story had merit as a piece of ‘art’ and would probably be ‘published’ (it was) but she also said it was so offensive she didn’t know where to begin–which wasn’t true because she then went on to write three pages telling me all the things I didn’t know and couldn’t possibly understand and questioning how I could have possiblyt thought it was appropriate to enter something like this in a contest. Obviously, I hit some button in her head. I was pretty stunned for about half an hour. Then I went over the story, went over the entrance requirements and decided I was right. I went on my merry way.

    I liked what you said about judging a little high. I really try to do that but I’m not sure how successful I am. I only judged in one contest where they gave feedback to the judges in terms of the scoring. I kind of wish more would do that.

    Stephanie, I’m still laughing at you insisting on calling ‘Sophie’ ‘Mary.’ Shame on you! Seriously, what was in that judge’s coffee?!?! I want some! Or maybe she just read too many entries that night!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 7:41 PM

      Hi Emma,

      That was bizarre. I got a similar rant on my Baghdad story from a judge who simply saw the title and decided to give me 5 pages of her opinion on the war in Iraq… and a 32 out of 100. Ouch.
      I find short story contests harder than first chapter contests. Kudos for entering! And thanks for the kind comment.

  15. Allison Brennan

    September 5, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    @Emma — now you have me curious about your story! LOL.

    I used to judge a lot, now I judge only two contests (the Golden Heart and the Daphne.) If I sense that the writer is talented and the story is there or almost there, I’ll give a perfect or near-perfect score. I overlook some minor problems if they’re not story-related–and if I want to read past the 15 or 50 pages then usually the story is read for an editor or agent. On occasion, I’ve had entries that were great stories but the writer’s lack of attention to detail was frustration–so I’ll write glowing comments, and a far more detailed critique. Some of my highest scoring entries usually have the most comments on them because they’re *almost* there. The stories where it’s obvious the writer has a lot to learn, I try to focus on the big picture issues and find at least one thing the writer does well.

    I used to be a contest slut, so I have LOTS of judge stories. I learned a lot from the early contests I entered from judges who took the time to be both KIND and INSTRUCTIVE, so I try to be both when I judge. But I also had judges who were cruel and stupid. The one who gave me low scores across the board because I broke all her “rules” — i.e. had a strong male character introduced before the hero; had a scene of graphic violence (it was describing a dead body, not a person being killed); had a prologue (I was told that editors did not like prologues); and that I “cheated” because I used 11 pt font (which I didn’t–however, I had fiddled with the leading so that I could get 26 lines per page rather than 25.)

    I’ve had contest judges tell me that they expect a book to be on the shelves, and others who said I’ll never be published. I’ve had judges tell me I have “nailed” the romantic suspense genre and others who have said I’m not writing romance at all. I had one judge tell me that in the California State Legislature, the Lieutenant Governor would have a bodyguard and would have a full security force if he left the building. At the time, I worked in the Capitol and often saw the LG alone or with one non-security staffer walking down the K Street Mall. So she gave me a ONE for my “research” which really ticked me off.

    Contests can be a very good thing — it’s one more shot in the door. Some judges are great. Some like their gatekeeper role. I’ve had “almost” perfect scores on some that I know was just to keep me from finaling. I never take points off for minor mistakes if the story is stellar. To me, it’s ALL about the story — if it grabs me and the characters are three-dimensional and I care about one or more of them and want to read more and it’s written well, I’ll give a perfect score.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 8:26 PM

      Allison, I love it when contests judge based on story. I think this is one thing judges learn with experience. I’ve learned if an entry hooks me to always give it a perfect score. Otherwise a technically perfect, but flat story will final in its place. The Daphne and the Golden Heart are both contests which advise putting story first, so it doesn’t surprise me that you enjoy judging them. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  16. D'Ann

    September 5, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    I’m cowboy to the bone. Born and bred and all that. I’m working on a cowboy story where the hero is branded on the back with a cattle branding iron. I’ve had the most inane comments– that a branding iron couldn’t possibly keep him from lifting his arm later. Huh? Put a red-hot piece of metal on your back, let it burn through muscle and tissue and see how well you do.

    The next one is a judge told me she wrote westerns, too. The proceeded to tell me that a round-up and a branding are the same thing, and I needed to do my research. I’ve been on a million round-ups, and no they ain’t the same.

    If you don’t know your facts, don’t tell the author their’s. Cause they just might know what the hell they’re talking about…and you don’t!!!

    • Steph

      September 6, 2011 at 12:39 PM

      @ D’Ann, I’m still laughing about your comment on cowboys. I’ve trained, ridden, won on and sold Barrel Horses for 35 years all over the Pacific northwest, Idaho and Utah. I entered a story about a girl who trained her own barrel horse and went to rodeos in the Northwest.
      A judge told me that no-one who knew horses would pull off in a campground if they were sleepy. They would find a Walmart and park in the parking lot. She also told me that no horse would stand quietly at the trailer if a stranger walked up to it. My well trained horses will and I’d be glad to show her how to achieve that. Obviously, she hasn’t traveled between Vale and Sisters Oregon in the middle of the night. No Walmarts there. I have to say her advise on the craft of my story was very good.
      Her last comment was for me to find someone who rodeos. That they would be happy to teach me about running a horse. LOL

      • Clarissa Southwick

        September 6, 2011 at 8:34 PM

        Steph, Knowing you as I do, I can’t believe anybody would ever question your knowledge on horses or rodeos. If I ever need advice on that topic, I’m coming to you. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 6, 2011 at 8:32 PM

      Hi D’Ann, I just love all these stories about judges correcting writers on their topics of expertise. I suppose we should change the old adage. “Write what you know, but expect to be corrected by amateurs.” Thanks for sharing these stories.

  17. Paisley Kirkpatrick

    September 5, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    I loved reading the comments everyone has made because as a non-judge it helps me understand why and how the entries are judged. I have had many unusual experiences over the years, but two stand out. The first one is that the judge marked me down because California doesn’t have deer. At the time I could see six of them lying in the snow under the trees of my backyard. Hmmmm The second one just happened. It was one of those long entry (3 chapters) contests. One of the judges rewrote the entire 39 pages for me. How nice that she had so much extra time on her hands.

    I know how much effort judges put into these contests and I send thank yous. Thank you for giving a bit of insight on how it is done and why. I’ve only quit writing a couple of times after being gut punched, but after a while you forgive and get back to what you love to do.

    • Ashlyn Macnamara

      September 5, 2011 at 11:52 AM

      Wow, Paisley, you and I must have had the same judge. I had one rewrite my entry for me. She changed nothing at all in the way of substance. She just rewrote my entry in her own voice and said on the scoresheet how she made a lot of comments because she thought I had potential. Possibly, but I didn’t find her rewriting my entry to be much help at all.

      • Clarissa Southwick

        September 7, 2011 at 9:20 AM

        Potential??? Your writing is pure genius. Even if the contest judge didn’t get it, the editors obviously did. Thanks so much for stopping by to comment. Congratulations on your recent contract. I can’t wait to see your books on the shelf 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 9:17 AM

      Paisley, I got that judge too. I had a judge rewrite the entire first chapter, changing it from a YA to an erotica. At the beginning of the second chapter, she wrote, “I’m not going to even judge past this point because once you’ve fixed the first chapter, all of this will have to change too.”

      She did a great job on the rewrite, but it was a completely different novel.

      Glad to hear you are still writing. You should guest blog for us sometime 🙂

  18. GirlDrinkDrunk

    September 5, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    I have one entry now that has the following scores in 2 separate contests: (100,97 and 72) and (100, 98, 66-one point off the 35 point differential for new judge). The hundred’s gushed they never gave a 100 and one of the lows gave me a reduced score based on the factual inaccuracies–(which there weren’t). And the other low said while she didn’t like it at all, she gave me my only 5 in that yes, she would have read it to the end.

    That’s enough to make me pull that one and try and shop it for someone who might ‘get it’. I guess…

    The think I can’t figure out is what is the big problem with notification and meeting deadlines. So a chapter extends the contest another week for more entries, (which is understandable but a little unfair) so email the contestants judges will get an additional week or post it on your site or keep the same deadline. SEriously.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 9:22 AM

      Hi Girldrinkdrunk, Good point on the deadlines/returns. I’ve never understood that either.

      It does sound like you’re ready to submit. Good luck with the editors 🙂

  19. Patricia Yager Delagrange

    September 5, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    In the first year or so of my writing career I entered every contest available that fit my writing genre. Because my first two novels were women’s fiction sometimes the comments from the judges were completely off the mark because although WF was a valid category, they judged it as if it were a romance. However, as many of you said, I took the comments I felt were valid and changed my novel accordingly. I received some great advice most of the time entering was well worth it.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 10:08 AM

      Hi Patricia, Categories really do make a difference in the type of comments you get. I’m so glad more and more contests are adding mainstream and WF categories. Thank you for being such a regular visitor to our blog 🙂

  20. Carley Ash

    September 5, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    The weirdest thing a judge has said to me happened just recently. She (or possibly he) believed I could ONLY go one of two directions with my opening scene. In one scenario, this conflict was ‘done’. The second scenario didn’t make sense. I lost 60% of the points because of she couldn’t predict where I was headed (it was neither)…Not that I’m bitter…I’m not…I’m really not…ok, maybe a little.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 10:51 AM

      Carley, don’t you hate it when judges try to predict what your story will be and then judge the story they’ve made up in their head? That’s happened to me too. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  21. Ruby Johnson

    September 5, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    I think the one that was most meaningful was one where the judge said it was obvious I had never been inside a hospital and I really needed to go visit one or at the very least ask a RN who knows about them. I am a nurse anesthetist. While I laughed at the comment, it made me aware that I needed to work on description of the setting a bit more.
    One of the most discouraging was from an unpublished author who said I needed to take some classes from the Gotham writers or a local college, because it was obvious I didn’t know how to tell a story.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:00 AM


      That ‘don’t know how to tell a story’ comment was obviously out of line. Sometimes I think judge’s comments tell us more about them than it does about our story.

      As for the nursing, I can only guess that this person has watched medical shows on TV. They do weird things due to filming requirements and then people think that’s how it’s done in real life. It makes it very hard for people who know the reality to write a truthful depiction. I’ve heard this from crime scene investigators too. But I would love to read a story from someone who knows the real thing.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  22. Liz Fredericks

    September 5, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    I always learn a great deal from Clarissa, but also appreciate the observations and recommendations of those commenting. I’ve learned more from my critique partners than from contests, but do savor the kind and supportive comments from people who don’t ‘know’ me (and therefore, presumably have no reason to be nice). I owe a great debt to several anonymous judges who inspired me to keep going. We’re very lucky 98.9% of our writing community is supportive rather than destructive.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:02 AM

      Hi Liz, It’s good to hear from the positive side of things. Thanks for reminding us that sometimes contests can give us that bump we need to keep going.

  23. Liz Selvig

    September 5, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    Hi Clarissa,
    This is such a great topic since most of us have been on both these sides of the contest fence. My “worst” comment wasn’t so bad, but it certainly seemed to indicate the judge didn’t read the required set-up I sent along with the entry. My scene showed the school bad boy kissing the heroine without her permission (nothing close to a violent scene) and it ended with the hero’s world flipping upside down and the kiss turning into something soft and good that scared him. Plus the heroine slapped him for . I explained all this and the judge just wrote: “I don’t like your hero; he’s far too angry and aggressive.” Well, duh.

    Something I’ll never do when I judge is suggest the author get grammar books or take classes — that’s incredibly condescending. The biggest thing I do try to do is be clear that I’ve scored each section of the contest completely separately. E.g., I never hold low grammar scores against the rest of the manuscript, or if the dialogue is sparkling but the format is confusing, I give high scores for the dialogue. I always try to find some area where I can give a top score. Judging, in my opinion, is a pretty important task–you can really leave scars if you aren’t careful, so I try to be extremely constructive and positive — I only hope I succeed.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:17 AM

      Liz, That’s an important point in judging–being able to separate out the different components of the story. Thanks for bringing it up. And congratulations on your recent sale 🙂

  24. Julie Brannagh

    September 5, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    I’ve entered contests, and I’ve been a judge. A judge called my GH-finalist manuscript “stupid” and a “waste of my time” as a result of my referencing a public personality in the first fifteen pages. If that wasn’t enough, she wrote me an entire page on the subject. I took the public personality out of my work, but I resisted the impulse to write to the judge in question and ask her if she took a look at the 2011 Golden Heart finalists announcement.

    I’d rather spend the cash on a contest that offers constructive feedback, thoughtful critique and discrepancy judging. My scores on a different manuscript from another contest I entered last year: 100. 94. 64. No discrepancy judging.

    Those who take the time to give constructive feedback are worth their weight in gold.

    I treasure the positive comments from contest judges. I read them again when I’m having a bad day.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:18 AM

      Julie, It’s so nice to see so many of my GH sisters here. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  25. Peggy Staggs

    September 5, 2011 at 11:53 AM

    Ah, the horror stories. We all have them. A careless judge can crush a newbie writer. I entered a contest once where the judge was so bad the coordinators re-judged her entries. No. Really. She changed all my ‘ed’ words to ‘ing’. Made for very odd reading.
    You can also tell what workshop some of them have just taken by what they count off for.
    I agree with Liz, a good critique group is the most valuable thing you can have as a writer. Mine is the absolute best!!
    This is great advice for all those who enter contests and those who judge them. Thanks Clarissa.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:20 AM

      Peggy, That part about “You can tell what workshop some of them have just taken” is so true and so funny. It goes for both judges and entrants. Thanks for commenting.

  26. Nancy Holland

    September 5, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    Great post, Clarissa. I’m in the midst of a barrage of contests entries to get feedback for the 2012 Golden Heart, so it helps to keep all this in mind. My favorite comment so far this go around is that I need to learn what a paragraph is (or words to that effect). While I’m unpublished in fiction, I have published two non-fiction books and a couple of dozen articles, and my editors have never, ever suggested I didn’t know what a paragraph was. But I’ve probably made the same kind of mistake when I’ve judged other people’s entries — just hope I did it more gently.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:29 AM

      Nancy, . This is the time of year when everyone is getting confusing contest feedback, and that’s why I decided to do this blog. I’m so thrilled with the great comments we’ve been getting. Thanks for commenting and good luck with the 2012 GH 🙂

  27. ValRoberts

    September 5, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    What a great post, Clarissa. I just got back a set of contest results that made me laugh out loud. There was some excellent feedback that told me exactly what I had been looking to find out…and then there were the comments from left field, including the judge who told me my opening was very slow but didn’t have enough description of the setting in it (because description and setting really pick up a story’s pace? Not.).

    When judging, you also might want to remember that you don’t automatically know more about writing than the entrant; the first winner of the Murder in the Grove contest was a multi-published romance author who wanted to transition to mystery. If I recall correctly, she ended up firing her agent over the manuscript she entered.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:34 AM

      Hi Val, It’s so nice to see so many CBC members stopping by to share good advice. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  28. Meredith Conner

    September 5, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    Ah – a subject that touches us all! Great post Clarissa. I’m with you on not scoring too low. I try to be positive and not go line by line. Or rewrite an entry for a person. I can’t believe a judge would do that! As for strange comments – I guess mine would be the judge who said she thought I should write my entry from the first person perspective because she liked stories written from that point of view. I hadn’t realized I was writing my entry just for her – silly me.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:35 AM

      LOL, Meredith. I can’t imagine doing any of those things. I’m glad you didn’t take her advice. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  29. claudia celestial girl

    September 5, 2011 at 7:17 PM

    I had a contest judge go on and on, page after page, about how much she hated my submission, how irritating it was, how she never wanted to read anything like it every again, how (I introduced some world-building vocabulary) she never wanted to read those words again …

    She must have written about a half-dozen pages of comments.

    It was the strangest thing. After reading her in depth whining, it was obvious she’d put quite a bit of time reading and re-reading the entry, I came to the conclusion that far from being ‘terrible’ that I was actually doing my job as a writer in making her think, in getting under her skin, in getting her attention, and confronting some comfort zone issues. She could have said … this isn’t my cup of tea, I don’t read science fiction … Instead she took issue with why the hero made certain comments – she said ‘Hello, its a CEOs job to put the success of the mission first …’ (over caring about how he’s perceived).

    I still don’t quite understand what was with this judge, but I do feel like perhaps she really had entered the world of the story and was reacting the way (well, I don’t expect readers to ‘hate’ it) I want readers to react.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:37 AM

      It sounds like your entry really touched a nerve and that’s a sure sign of good writing 🙂 Thanks for sharing that odd experience with us 🙂

  30. Laurie A. Green

    September 5, 2011 at 10:09 PM

    Great post! I’ve had some real zinger comments from judges before (“Your writing is totally lame” comes to mind as one of my all-star gut punches), but what puzzles me the most are the judges who give glowing comments on every element and then mark my entry down. I’m okay with getting 3’s if they’d tell me the reasons.

    Then there are the head scratchers that make me wonder if I’ve failed as a writer or if they just weren’t paying attention.

    “After your hero was in jail…” My hero was never in jail.

    “When they arrived at the space station…” There was no space station in the story.

    “I love the delicious young doctor character.” The physician is in his 80s.

    On the flip side, when I’m judging I try very hard not to let my comments sound like an attack. I like to do a couple of passes to make sure I’m being as constructive as possible and not saying anything I wouldn’t want to hear myself.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:51 AM

      Hi Laurie,

      Maybe the doctor judge was 100 years old? There’s really no explanation for such odd comments. But then you’ve been wildly successful in contests- with 2 GH nominations this year– so obviously the readers love what you’re doing. Congratulations 🙂

  31. Kathleen Bittner Roth

    September 6, 2011 at 5:18 AM

    I had a judge tell me my hostorical romance entry was vulgar, crude and disgusting, and the only reason she finished reading it was because she was required to (that hurt). She also said I needed to research horses because horses “wouldn’t do that.” I owned horses for years, so I knew the behavior I wrote about was correct. She also said I needed to research Venice because this and that couldn’t be. Well, at the time, I lived straight across the Adriatic from Venice and often took the ferry over and hung out. What she said couldn’t be, I had actually gleaned from my many treks through the back streets of that city! There was not one positive comment and the score was low. To my surprise, this published judge actually signed her name to the scoresheet! I wondered how the contest coordinators allowed this judge to leave such snarky comments. My entry went on to final or win 18 contests.

    The good that came out of the experience was that I signed up to train as a judge, and I judge contests in a similar manner as you, Clarissa.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 11:53 AM

      Kathleen, Some of the meanest judges I’ve ever encountered have signed their names. I’m not sure why they do that. I’ve read your story and it did not deserve any of those remarks. I can’t wait to see it published. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

  32. Sharon Struth

    September 6, 2011 at 5:39 AM

    Great post! I love knowing I’m not the only one who has been left feeling like I’m in the ‘contest twilight zone.’ I’ve had scores range from 100 to 58 in the same contest which highlighted the subjective nature of the feedback received through contests. However, if I give it global perspective, contest feedback has improved my manuscript.

    The strangest comment I ever received was when I tried to slip in the hero’s age with this line…’In her twenties, she could roll out of bed and look half-way decent. Thirty years changes a lot.’, a judge wrote “So she’s fifty. Right?” Okay, not everyone is good in math, but….

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:00 PM

      Sharon, Yes, overall contests do help us to improve. Even now, I count on them to give me unbiased feedback. It’s good to remember that when we get the really strange comments. I think it takes 20 positive comments for me to forget a really negative one.

  33. P. L. Parker

    September 6, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    I entered a contest where they said you’d get feedback, etc. Never heard a word afterwards, only a list of the winners. Kind of put me off entering contests. I did judge once and decided I’m just not cut out for it. Didn’t feel right judging another person’s work and I had one that was not very good and I really struggled to give good input and not tear the writer down.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:08 PM

      P.L. That doesn’t happen very often, but it is very disappointing when you enter a contest and never get the results. I had that happen in a contest where I finaled a while back. To this day, every time I see the final judge’s name, I wonder if she ever read my entry.

  34. Vicky Dreiling

    September 6, 2011 at 7:12 AM

    I was a contest slut in 2008, and it proved really useful as this is how I got most of my requests from agents. Like all of you, I had some odd experiences.

    In one contest, the coordinator couldn’t be bothered to either confirm receipt of my entry or to email the score sheets after the contest ended. Why? She was remodeling her kitchen. Finally, she sent 1 of the 2 entries and claimed she & the judge knew the score I got on the 2nd one, despite the fact that they could not produce either a score sheet or my marked manuscript. When others on a contest loop reported the same problem, I emailed the chapter president and explained that their contest that had a good reputation was taking a big hit because of the incompetent coordinator. I also made some suggestions, because I’d served on the West Houston Emily contest committee. Finally, I reassured the chapter president that I didn’t want my money back and that they should consider my contest fee a donation to the chapter. 😉

    I wish I had kept the other really bad one, because I’d be tempted to scan it and put it on my blog. I’ll call this idiot judge Helpful Helen. HH informed me that my writing was entirely too modern. HH also thought that a demonstration or 10 would possibly help me transform my “modern” prose to Regency speak. I confess I was a bit confused upon reading her rewrite of my sentences using Twas and Twis among other medieval expressions.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:12 PM

      “Twis” ??? Thanks for a good laugh. I think I shall incorporate that one into my daily speech patterns. 🙂

      There are a couple of contests I won’t enter again precisely for the reasons you mentioned. I would love to do a blog on “Top 5 Contests You Should Never Enter”, but I think it would earn me lots of enemies. Thanks for the comment, Vicky.

  35. amiweaver

    September 6, 2011 at 7:31 AM

    Clarissa, I judge the exact same way.

    I always edit myself with a rough entry. And I’ve had a lot of those. I go back thru and pick out what’s really important (in my view, anyway) and focus on that. It can take me hours to do one entry if it has a lot of problems b/c I want to encourage, not tear down.

    As far as getting comments goes–I don’t really read them. (gasp) I don’t really enter for comments. But one does stand out–my hero in my GH-finaling ms is a widower. I got this long rant at the end how my heroine was a slut (????) and needed to keep her hands off the grieving widower b/c he’d never want to marry again and not someone like her. (Huh? It’s fiction. Romance fiction, at that.) But I had to laugh.

    Loved reading everyone’s comments!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:43 PM

      Ami, You have a reputation for being very supportive of new writers. I’m sure that carries over to your judging too. As for the name-calling judge? You certain got her emotions flowing. I call that a win!

  36. Sherri Shackelford (@smshackelford)

    September 6, 2011 at 8:25 AM

    The most common trouble I see with judges is that a lot of authors can’t get past wanting to write the story THEIR way. When I’m judging, I always take a step back and ask myself whether this is an actual problem, or just not the way I would have done it!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:43 PM

      Great advice, Sherri. Thanks for commenting.

  37. Kat Sheridan

    September 6, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    Oh, what a great topic! I’ve been both an entrant and a judge, and sadly, I tend to be the East German judge as well. I always try to find at least one item on the scoresheet where I can give an author a perfect score (usually it’s something like “is the entry formatted correctly?, although I’ve had entries that failed even this basic thing). I try to be gentle by using words like “consider”, i.e. “Consider reading books or taking classes on how to improve writing dialogue”. Sorry to those who are offended by me making that suggestion, but the truth is that sometimes people really do need to be told they should get help.

    Another truth is that I spend much more time on a “bad” entry than a good one. I want to make helpful suggestions, I want to be sure I’m being fair, I want to make sure my comments are complete and constructive, even if–ESPECIALLY if–the scores I give are low.

    I’ve entered maybe a dozen contests, and in every single one–EVERY one–I’ve missed finaling by anywhere from 3 points to a half point. It’s maddening. And I will never, ever again enter any contest that has the word “likable” on the scoresheet. In the most recent contest I missed finaling in (by two points), the question was “Is the hero likeable?” One judge said she thought my hero was “fascinating”, that he was compelling and interesting and had growth potential, but in the pages given (the book opening) he wasn’t “likeable”, and since she had to abide by the exact question, she had to mark me down on that question (yes, by the three points that would have put me in the finals). Le sigh. No, I’m not bitter. Not much at least.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:46 PM

      Kat, I originally had another judge’s confessions which I deleted from this post due to length: I confess I don’t always follow the scoresheet. Too many times I’ve seen wonderful entries get nudged aside because of narrow wording on the scoresheet. If it hooks me, if I want to read more, it gets a perfect score no matter what the scoresheet asks.

  38. Angi Morgan

    September 6, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    Received all 4’s out of 5’s, resulting in a 75 out of a 100. –Sort of bizarre?

    Hero was undercover as a drug dealer, in an alley, meeting drug dealers.
    ???? shrug ????


    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:48 PM

      One of my all-time favorite blogs is the one you do where you put all the scores/comments you got in various contests on your GH WINNING story. I so wish I had kept my first contest results for comparison sake.

  39. Mary Vine

    September 6, 2011 at 3:28 PM

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on contest judging. Thanks!

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 12:49 PM

      Hi Mary, Thanks for the kind comment.

  40. Virginia Taylor

    September 6, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    I judge contests and I enter them. First, I volunteered to judge because I had stopped writing. I had given in because I wasn’t getting anywhere. I didn’t know what was wrong with my stories other than I couldn’t sell a thing. As a judge, I worked very much like Clarissa, though I was a tad severe to begin with. Now I think writers have the right to use ‘ly’ words, use ‘was’ where needed, and hear a truthful opinion. If I have push myself to finish reading the entry, I say so, and I try to explain in context. Nevertheless, I rarely see ‘thanks dear judge’ unless I have given a top score.

    After reading a certain amount of entries, I began to work out why some entries were good but tedious. And so, I began analysing the chapter structure. Many entries appeared to start in the wrong place, overladen with backstory. Once I recognised the fault in others, I saw I had the same problem. So, I began entering contests, very much abbreviating my first chapters.

    The judges found my stories slow, my dialogue obscure and my scene-setting sparse, although I know dialogue is my strength and that I was scrupulous with scene-setting. As for slow beginnings, hey, I started at the inciting event. Being a judge myself, I didn’t waste time being offended but tried to work out what the comments really said. So, some of my dialogue was used to tell the story. My scene-setting was bundled and should have been added mainly in the ‘sight lines,’ to use a theatre term.

    My judges got better but still my stories had slow beginnings. So, I changed the beginning of one entry to the day after the inciting event. I changed another to ten minutes later. I wrote a new half-page first-scene for the third and suddenly my beginnings were no longer slow and I began to get higher scores. The tipping point into the finals was a fantastic judge who thought I needed to add more emotion, that is, a tiny bit of ‘tell.’ Along this journey, I have found other wonderful judges, one who said I was there and so she critted my non-compulsory synopsis instead. That was magic.

    In all this, I have pretty well forgotten the first judges who told me silly stuff, like I was’t allowed to tell action sequences but show them instead. Her rewrite of my hero following my heroine upstairs by showing was hilarious to me, painstaking for her, and I wish I had kept it. I was like that once, too, but experience is a great teacher and I had the opportunity to learn.

    Yes, I noticed that as my stories got better, so did my judges. 🙂

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 1:00 PM

      I love this story of making progress through contests. I think, overall, my progression was very similar. Thanks for sharing it! Let’s all hope our judges keep getting better 🙂

  41. Kat Sheridan

    September 6, 2011 at 10:15 PM

    Clarissa, pardon me for not knowing this, but you wrote From Baghdad with Love? OMG, I judged that in a contest and the simple fact that I even remember the name should tell you what a standout entry I thought it was. I judged LOTS of entries. There are no more than one or two I remember, and that was one of them.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      September 7, 2011 at 1:00 PM

      Kat, Thank you so much for the kind words on Baghdad. I really appreciate your taking the time to judge and remember me 🙂


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