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?