Contest Vexation

10 Nov

I judged my first writing contest this year. If you’re a writer, it’s a must-have experience because it’ll help put the process into perspective.

I judged five submissions, taking care to fairly evaluate each entry based on the criteria listed on the score sheet. There was one writer who stood out above the others. She (or possibly he) had a mastery over words and told an interesting tale. I was impressed.

As I calculated the scores for each of the entries, I expected to see a significant spread between this writer and the others, but I didn’t.

I reviewed each score I’d given. In my day job, it’s what we refer to as a reasonableness check. It didn’t make sense that this person’s score was not considerably higher. But after reviewing the score sheet questions and the scores of all five entries, I concluded there was nothing to change.

So, why didn’t this writer score significantly higher when the writing was so much stronger? It was the score sheet. It asked very specific questions, each rewarding either basic writing mechanics or a formulaic story structure. Since most of the writers met these requirements, all the scores were similar, and this particularly good writer did not shine above the others.

Consider the impact when entries in the same category are assigned different judges.

Different people judge differently. While it’s hard to criticize people when you know they’ve put their heart into their entry, I try to give an honest critique with lots of details. Without it, the writer cannot improve and be ready for their big break when opportunity knocks.

But, I had to ask myself, do all judges do this? Or do some find it more difficult than others to give lower scores? I’m convinced the answer is, more often than not, yes. With this the case, a mediocre writer could outscore more talented writers simply by the judges assigned. It’s similar to evaluations in the workforce. One boss might give you a rating of exceeds expectations for the exact same work that another would give you meets expectations. The quality of the work is the same. The difference is the people doing the evaluations.

I turned the entries I’d judged into the contest coordinator and checked the contest website regularly until the finalists were announced. I’d hoped to see the title of the entry that stood out from the others listed as a finalist. It wasn’t.

Months later, this continues to bother me. Knowing the limitations of the score sheet and the complications of multiple judges, I have some serious doubts about the contest. Were the writers listed as finalists truly better than the writer that so impressed me–OR–did they just have a different judge?


Posted by on November 10, 2011 in contests, writers, writing


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19 responses to “Contest Vexation

  1. Liz Flaherty

    November 10, 2011 at 5:01 AM

    I’ve been in this same position; I think most of us have. I’m not a low scorer, simply because I can’t–what if my score discourages her to the point that she quits? It would kill me to know that.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 8:53 PM

      So true, Liz.

  2. Janis McCurry

    November 10, 2011 at 7:10 AM

    Name of the game, Carley. Subjectivity cannot be ignored. A judge can tamp it down, but subjectivity is intrinsic to our humanity, IMO. The score sheets attempt to make the job easier by being as specific as possible. But, voice and story don’t have labels. It will always make the difference to each judge.

    I’ve judged GH contests where I looked for “my” choice of winners and they didn’t final except for 2011’s for the first time.

    I think you do what you did. Your best. That’s all the contest coords. and entrants ask.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 8:54 PM

      Thanks, Janis.

  3. Liz Fredericks

    November 10, 2011 at 7:13 AM

    Very interesting post, Carley! I approach judging in the same way you do, but have experienced a great deal of variation. My scores are always extremes. An seasoned ‘contestor’ interpreted this as happening when writing touches emotional extremes for the reader. I think it’s useful when the judges come from different professional categories (e.g., published, pro, beginning). I’m less likely to enter contests in the future, but have benefited from some great advice. For that reason, though I may not enter, I will always volunteer to judge. It’s an important support we can provide to the other writers in our communities.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 8:55 PM

      Thanks, Liz.

  4. Sally

    November 10, 2011 at 7:37 AM

    I agree, Carley, a lot of contest results are skewed by the questions on the judging sheet, and by the personal preferences of the judges. Some contest formats have an extra space at the end, or somewhere in the contest questions, where a judge can add their own personal feelings about the overall effect of the story and story-telling. Here you can put in your more personal comments regarding whatever it was that excited you about the entry – style, word choice, voice, quality of suspense… whatever. Even a few extra, personal, words added to the margin from a judge can make a writer’s day and help overcome that feeling of never rising above the crowd. I wish all contests had space for more than just the formulaic, “correct” stuff and went farther into unique voice.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 8:59 PM

      I’ve enjoyed several books recently that had a very unique element. I don’t think any of them would have faired well in a contest just because they didn’t fall within the norm. Yet they were excellent.

  5. Meredith Conner

    November 10, 2011 at 7:54 AM

    When I’ve come across a story that has a distinctive voice and really draws me in, I will score it much higher – even if the grammar isn’t perfect – due to the limitations of certain scoresheets. I also make note, whether it is on the WIP itself or if there is a place on the scoresheet – if there are errors that need to be corrected.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 9:00 PM

      That seems like a much better approach.

  6. johannaharness

    November 10, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    This is a really thoughtful post, Carley. Contests and judges and score sheets are imperfect. Hopefully that wonderful writer wasn’t putting all his hope on that one contest.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 9:00 PM

      Thanks, Johanna.

  7. Kyrsten

    November 10, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    I so totally agree. I’ve gone so far as to a call contest coordinator I volunteered for to make specific suggestions as to how their form could be improved for one I judged in Texas.

    I waited with anticipation to judge the next year with better forms. Silly me. They were exactly the same.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 9:01 PM

      I suppose they just see it as a revenue generator.

  8. Clarissa Southwick

    November 10, 2011 at 3:41 PM


    I have been in this situation too. After years of judging and watching lesser entries final, I am now less tied to the score sheet when I judge.

    If I get caught up in a story, if I forget that I’m judging a contest and really want to keep reading, then I give the entry a perfect score no matter what the questions on the score sheet ask.

    Is that fair? I don’t know, but those entries are usually ranked first by the editors too. So that’s why I keep judging that way.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 9:02 PM

      That sounds like a much better approach.

  9. Jacquie Rogers

    November 10, 2011 at 5:30 PM

    I know why score sheets are designed the way they are, but frankly, it would be a whole lot more meaningful if judges were asked to give a number score (1 to 9 would work) and write three positive comments and make three suggestions (if needed). Leave it at that. If the judge wants to line edit, that’s okay, too. Some do, some don’t. I usually don’t, at least on electronic entries, because of CTS–I don’t want to type that much.

    • Carley Ash

      November 10, 2011 at 9:05 PM

      I’d like your approach much better.

  10. Mary Vine

    November 14, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    Interesting blog, Carley. I went to a meeting on how to judge a contest one time, and found that I didn’t really agree with the conclusions that the speaker came to about the entries that were presented to us. I just tought that maybe I wouldn’t be a good judge. But now I’m wondering.


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