Writing Contests: If You Enter, You Need to *wince* Judge!

Some of our GCCRWA members are hard at work putting finishing touches on a contest for a little later in the year. Finalists will be read and judged by industry professionals, with winners announced at the 2012 Silken Sands Writers Conference. (Which is scheduled for March 16-18th, 2012! Info and link at end of post.) That means *shudder* judging will be involved.

Anyone who has entered contests knows how nerve-wracking they can be, because face it, part of what we’re after in a contest is the critique of our work to see if our writing meets certain standards. To see if, with our written words, we can draw the intended emotion from the reader.

Things would be so much simpler if a standardized code for each genre was available. Alas, there isn’t. Some people even believe judging means you must red-ink an entry until it looks as if it’s bleeding. To death! Example: as a judge a few years ago I worked with a gentleman of that persuasion. Some of us always had to go behind him and rescue not only the entry, but our contest. He would literally read the phrase “A gentle breeze brushed her cheek.”, grab a red pen and write “Was the wind blowing before?!? How is this pertinent to this scene?!?” (yes, with those exact punctuation marks), even before reading the next sentence to find, “If she’d known the playful air a harbinger to the coming storm she would have stored the moment to draw on the memory; for gentleness would not exist in her world again for some time.” What do you think are the chances that person would enter that contest again? Or any contest. I’d bet never.

Because there is only the most basic grammar, punctuation, POV, and voice information available– along with   inferred and  “I heard” this-is-how-it’s-supposed-to-be-done guidelines– horror stories abound.

Just to toss a couple out there for understanding, the use of contractions in a MS is encouraged because it saves type space, ink and paper in printing. Bottom line is critical for any industry. So most judges go through with that red pen and strike through words to create contractions. Acceptable?

NOT IF IT’S REGENCY OR HISTORICAL! Certain genres require a very formal mode of speech for the elite and upper-classmen. During particular eras there was great distinction in speech between the classes. For a Duke, Duchess or Earl to use contractions just would not have happened. Yet points get taken off by good-intentioned individuals simply because they don’t understand the genre.

Another problem comes with –ly and –ing words. I wanted to dance when Lindsey Faber of Samhain tweeted she likes adverbs! For some reason the stern warning not to overuse them has turned into the complete annihilation of their species! Overuse is bad, but there’s a horror story here as well.

A judge– going on the premise  -ly and -ing words were not to be used under any circumstance– would run entries he/she was to judge through spell check and have every one highlighted. The pages of an entry lit up with color. When the entrant got her submission back she found this side note scrawled in the margins: ‘On seeing this many editing errors I only gave this a cursory look’, and issued a miserable score. You can’t take that type of shortcut when judging. You have to read a submission in its entirety. Why?

In this instance the character’s name was Holly; the scene was about a shooting. Hol-ly. Shoot-ing. Another judge– one who practiced practical judging– gave this same entry 215 points out of a possible 230, one of the highest scores achieved in the entire contest!

Snarkiness is another issue. It emotionally cripples a new writer and should be avoided when you judge. Snarky is all those unnecessary remarks that do nothing to ‘grow’ the writer. I have a friend who entered a Regency contest. In her synopsis she said her character wrote historical romance. Red-inked on her entry was “So your character writes historical romance. Too bad the author can’t!” If your remark is unprofessional, or can’t offer a way to correct a problem, think twice about putting it down. On a side note, publication is the best revenge. This same entry is now published. (Wonder if the author sent Madame Snarky a complimentary copy?)

Where is all this leading? I’m putting together presentation material for a chapter meeting with basic judging information, by genre. It’s easier to remember things or be more sure of their use with an example to refer to. That’s where I need your help.

I need you to tell me your best, and worst, contest experience. I want real examples of both. If you have one but don’t want to share it publicly, email me off loop at RunereMcLain@hughes.net  No identifiers will ever be used, so you don’t need to name the contest. GCCRWA wants our contest to be outstanding in the fairness and correctness of our judges. There’s an art to keeping constructive criticism tactful, but with the correct tools it is possible.

If my girls (and guy) feel it’s good enough, I’ll be willing to share the completed package.

So please, give me your highlights and lowlights. I want that toolbox full!

Thanks, and good writing!


Silken Sands Writers Conference

March 16-18, 2012 in beautiful Pensacola, Florida.

Kickoff speaker: BARBARA VEY

Keynote speaker: BEVERLEY KENDALL



18 Responses

  1. Runere, hon, you know how I feel about contests, for the very reasons you mention.
    As a writer of historicals, I take my research very seriously. I have been flabbergasted by the lack of historical knowledge some judges display, and the certainty with which they “correct” what they perceive as errors. For example, one of my heroes is based on a real character, a Georgian scientist who made great discoveries in chemistry and physics. I have him doing an experiment with electricity, and I thoroughly researched period work on the subject before I wrote the scene. Imagine my surprise when a judge assured me that “they didn’t have electricity back then.” Excuse me, ever hear about Ben Franklin’s kite?
    I don’t expect a judge to know what has taken me weeks of research to learn. I’d have taken it better as a question: “did they have electricity in 1782?”. it’s all good though – I have a contract for publication on that one.
    I recognize a reader might not know the facts either, but that is why I include brief author notes in my books, giving a few facts about the real life basis for some scenes. Can’t do that in a contest, though.
    So I would caution judges about making statements about the facts in a story unless they are really sure of their information.
    Long answer, but as you know, I have very strong feelings on this subject. Good luck with your project. I know you’ll do a fab job!
    And yes, Silken Sands 2012 is gonna be a blast!!!!

  2. Perfect answer, Ro’mama!

    Another guideline to add.: Be sure of facts before you correct them. I can add tips on how to quickly fact check when in doubt.
    Oh, I love you girls!


  3. Perfect answer, Ro’mama!

    Another guideline to add: Be sure of facts before you correct them. I can add a note about how to quickly fact check.
    Oh, I love you girls!


  4. I can’t really think of anything that bugs me with contests. As an entrant, I hated getting negative feedback “I hated this character” or “The story is boring and blah blah”. If you don’t like it, say something like, “Although the story isn’t to my taste, the character development is good, or the dialogue is excellent, etc.” You don’t need to be negative. We’re all writers (for the most part) and we’re our own worst critics, having someone else be so negative when you’re first starting out is bound to leave serious scars.

    I’ve judged a few contests and when I do, I try to be as positive and constructive as possible. I always did a cursory look through first, to get an idea of the story, then went back more thoroughly to look for problems. Like you said about the gentleman with the breeze, if you don’t read the next sentence, you don’t know how the author handles the previous.

    • You’re right! That first read-through before you consider the story to judge it is an absolute must. If you don’t read it to completion, how can you expect to get the gist of the entire piece?

      Sometimes people say the wrong thing because they don’t know how to express what they really want to say. Frankly, it would help more to know WHY they hate the character! That would be the only way to fix him/her. Sure hope to help by providing suggestions for that.

      Thanks, girl! I can always count on you and your unique flair!

  5. Great subject, and I can’t wait to see the results! I love Danica’s theory – positive and constructive. That’s my favorite kind of feedback, and I hope I’m able to give it as much as I appreciate getting it.

    I just glanced at RWA’s guidance for judging the Golden Heart, and one phrase stuck out – Be Professional. I think that’s the most important thing to remember whether it’s a huge contest or a relatively unknown one. I know not everyone is going to like my work, and I know I’m not going to like every book or contest entry that I read, but I think it’s far better to understand the WHY than to simply score an entry low because “I didn’t like it.” If I didn’t like it because the pacing was too slow, or the voice was wrong for the genre, or I can specifically point out what turned me off about a character – things like a hero or heroine committing a heinous crime with no (or poor) justification, or maybe serious inconsistencies in character motivation – I’d rather mark down because I can spell out the problem than because I just “don’t like it.” There are plenty of published books that are praised by hundreds of people but still disliked by others – does that make the quality of the writing any less? Or, conversely, any better? And understanding the genre you’re judging is so, so, so important!

    Thanks for tackling such a great topic!

    • Appreciate the input, Jamie!

      Contests are supposed to offer insight for improvement, as well as an opportunity to win something for the writer’s efforts. (Insight offered in a way entrants feel it’s beneficial to return for the next contest!)

      Wish me luck with this; I want to do a good job!

      • I’m wishing you all the luck in the world, because I’m very interested in seeing your results from this! 🙂

        Forgot to mention – maybe I’m too nice, but I don’t like to mark an entry down unless I can find that justification for it. I’m not big into fashion, but I wouldn’t mark an entry down because the heroine was a fashion designer in a world I don’t fully appreciate. I also know sometimes, a voice just doesn’t connect with a reader. And those are the hardest of all to judge, because I personally don’t want to penalize someone just because their voice doesn’t mesh with my preferred reading style. I might not buy their book, but that doesn’t mean it’s not quality writing.

  6. I haven’t entered a contest in a long time. The last time I did Runere you was there, the judge red marked me until I was laying on the floor gushing blood. Then before I walked out she mentions she didn’t read paranormal. People, I had to hold Runere, how can you judge and comment about something you know nothing about?
    SO, I entered this contest stopped working on my regular story thinking this will be awesome. I was pumped up. I should have known better!!!!!! People are getting votes, people’s story disappears then reappears only not to be there this morning. Votes are being manipulated gaining an entry votes that shouldn’t be there.
    This is crazy. I thought we were all Adults. I stopped trying to get votes. This is my LAST contest. I only ONLY wanted to get help with my grammar.. Kicks myself as I leave the room… Next time, I’ll listen to my inner voice.. you know the brain.. which whispers.. “DON”T DO IT.”

    • This is exactly why this subject needs to be tackled. There is a critical shortage of judges, period, forcing the ones available to unfamiliar genres. So many contests are begging for them. I see requests every day.

      Hopefully this will hold enough info when finished to make more individuals feel confident enough to offer to judge, bringing more judges into the arena. Literary judging is much like our legal system– to reach a fair verdict, we need to be judged by a panel of our peers! So each of us owes fellow writers that consideration.

      Now I’m nervous! lol But I won’t give up!

  7. Let me say that I agree that this needs topic needs to be front and center on all contests. One of the best things the Southern Magic Chapter did was hold an online judging class. It was very informative and focused on exactly these things. I learned a lot and have used that experience over and over as I judge contests. You do not have to be snarky to get a message through. It can be done with kindness and courtesy.

    I have one comment that stuck out in one of mine- – it was said that a certain thing that happened to my heroine was “unrealistic and would never happen” – the funny thing is, that part of the story was autobiographical- something that actually happened to me and caused me angst. I wrote the story partially to lay that ghost to rest so it was kind of a shock to hear it could never happen (LOL!)

    All the blanket statements about “Never” “Can’t” “Wouldn’t” happen- should come out of the lexicon when doing evaluations of a contest entry. As Romancemama said to me yesterday, “Why does fiction have to be believeable and fact/real life doesn”t?” A valid question in my book.

    • Our sister chapters in the RWA certainly shine, don’t they?

      Writing is cathartic, that’s for sure! And yes, truth is dismissed as fiction. I’d love to be treated the way I treat my grandchildren. Kinda nudge me so I stay between the ditches until I learn how to drive this thing, but not run me over with the car! lol

  8. Runere,
    I have a few examples I can offer, by e-mail, of awful judging. But let me say a few things here. On the PRO group recently, some Golden Heart judges were responding to a first-time judge’s questions about how to grade. I’ll start with that: if she had no experience, why is she judging GH entries? And also, I understand the GH folks send out a detailed ‘primer’ on how to judge.
    But here’s the kicker: of those who responded, some said if they ‘like’ the story, they start with a very high grade and only lower it if they find terrible flaws. Okay. But the flip side was represented by some respondents who said, if they don’t like the story (for whatever reason), they start with a terribly low grade and only raise it if they find some exemplary something or other. I’m not ‘shouting out’ any particular respondent, because I think they were trying to be helpful to this new judge. But that flurry of exchanges revealed the lack of objectivity (if they don’t ‘like’ your story … or if they DO like it) and that the contest criteria might be tossed out the window by the whims of some of them.
    Disclaimer: I’m NOT talking about ALL the G.H. judges. This was a relatively small group. Some of them sounded like judges I’d want for my entry — judges who were willing to put aside their personal preferences and assess what the writer brought to the contest.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Jeff! Good to hear from you!

      And thank you for sharing. I remember that exchange, and remember it got yanked pretty quickly. You’re right about wanting some of the responding judges if you had a GH entry; they showed a true measure of objectivity.

      The different genre requirements can cloud what a judge needs to look for in a piece beyond spelling, POV, grammar, etc., noting either its presence or its lack. Every chapter needs to make an effort to train their members in how to judge, whether they ever do or not. I’m convinced if there was something to differentiate genre requirements, we’d have more individuals volunteering to judge in the genre they write.

  9. Looks like you really opened a hot topic of discussion, a long overdue discussion for both writers and judges.

    Can’t wait to hear some of the other horror stories you get regarding contest comments.

  10. Sure hope your recovery is going well, Liz. Been missing you at the meetings.

    I’ve gotten some high praise for contests at well, from beginners and pubbeds. Plan to go with the most obvious problems, or the most mentioned after gathering basic info. Then offset them with the more impressive ways judges have handled things, and some tips on getting what you really want to say across.

    Getting the requirements for genres together, I learned there are some pretty stiff qualifications for sub-genres, too.

    Hope to have something roughed out in about six weeks! I want to give people plenty of opportunity to respond.

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