Jeanne: Dear Contest Judge

(This is supposed to be a Christmas story using a list of words provided by Elizabeth, but since I’ve only recently started contributing to the 8 Ladies blog on a regular basis, I missed the memo. Next year. )

Recently, I received my scores back from an RWA chapter contest for Girl’s Best Friend, 

the contemporary romance I’ve been putzing around with in my spare time.

I always send at least a generic thank you to my contest judges. I judge contests, too, and it’s a lot of work, especially if you’re going to do it well. But this particular contest was set up to allow the entrants to thank each judge individually, so here are my individual thank you notes.

Dear Judge #1,

Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise to judge my contest entry. The great score you gave me was gratifying and your comments made it clear you truly enjoyed my story. Writing is such a solitary occupation and a little encouragement really helps.

Thanks, too, for the suggestions you made about some of my phrasing. You were right on the money and I’ll be tweaking my manuscript to reflect your suggestions.

Sincerely,
Jeanne Oates Estridge

Dear Judge #2,

Thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise to judge my contest entry.

Although my entry did not final in this contest, it won another contest awhile back, resulting in a request for a full manuscript from an editor at SMP Swerve. At the time, I didn’t actually have a completed novel, so I didn’t submit. Even after I completed a first draft, and then a second, I knew there was a pacing problem with my first chapter, so I continued to drag my feet about sending it out. The suggestions you made will finally let me fix the darn thing and move forward.

Sincerely,
Jeanne Oates Estridge

Dear Judge #3,

Thank you for sharing your time and expertise to judge my contest entry.

Sincerely,
Jeanne Oates Estridge

Why, you may ask, is my response to each judge so different? Because what I got back from each judge was so different.

The first judge made it clear, from comments sprinkled throughout the manuscript and on the score sheet, that she really liked the story.

The second judge was a lot more critical, but her criticisms were truly helpful. Even though she scored me lower than Judge #1, she was my favorite.

The third judge’s score was substantially lower than the other two, and that’s okay. What was less okay was that she didn’t explain why. She made no comments in the manuscript and only one, in the final, “overall manuscript comments” box on the score sheet, stating that it lacked “the dynamic prose, great dialog, chemistry, and forward propulsion of a ‘5’ entry.”

That’s not useful.

I don’t mind being told that I suck. Well, I do, of course, but what I really mind is not being told why.

I get that judging contests is time-consuming. Depending on the quality of the entries, it can even be grueling. But if you volunteer to judge a contest, you have an obligation to provide the entrants with actionable feedback.

That doesn’t mean you’ll always be right. I judged some YA entries this summer only to realize later that I truly don’t understand that sub-genre well enough to do a good job. But for each entry I judge, I include comments, in the manuscript and on the scoresheets, telling them what works and what doesn’t, in my opinion. And if it doesn’t work, I do my best to explain why.

Am I being too demanding? What do you expect from contest judges?

5 thoughts on “Jeanne: Dear Contest Judge

  1. I agree that thoughtful criticism is always welcome from a judge. But I prefer it when a judge mentions what the problem is without providing their preferred solution. It’s most helpful when a contest judge points out exactly where they were thrown out of a story, or where they thought the story dragged, or whatever. But it’s not so helpful when they tell me how to “fix” it.

    I had one judge tell me that every snippet of context and world-building that I’d carefully inserted in the first chapter of my fantasy romance was “backstory” that needed to be removed. Um, no.
    Another judge told me that I needed to add more colorful adjectives to my writing, and helpfully provided a list of said adjectives. Um, also no.

    Judges must find a balance between sharing their reactions as readers, and imposing their opinions as writers. I appreciate it when a judge says that some piece of dialogue or a particular description of a character doesn’t work for them, because they interpret it in a certain way. And I appreciate it when they tell me that they’re confused by a certain passage, or bored by an overly-long scene. I just don’t think it helps when they tell me what to do about it.

  2. Neil Gaiman said,
    “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

    Yep.

  3. I’ve had all kinds of feedback from contest judges, from the invaluable to the perplexing (the judge who gave me 2/10 for setting a contemporary story in Scotland, because Scotland=historical). I always hope for actionable insights, but as long as I get an honest reaction to the story, I’m satisfied. The only thing I hate is when I get a score but no comments–whether the score is high or low, it doesn’t help me.

    I think the single most valuable thing about contests is that they help a writer understand how differently readers can react to the same story. What’s catnip to one reader can be toxic to another, for reasons entirely beyond the writer’s control. Learning to accept that and not to take it personally before we get into the harsh world of one star/five star reviews is worth the price of entry.

  4. To tell the truth, I think I’d enter a contest for the comments, not because I was hoping to “win” the contest. A lot of times, that input from strange eyes that haven’t seen a single thing about my work is really valuable. Just like any new reader, they have to rely on the context i give them, and the fact that they share this is very valuable.

    And let’s face it, for 25 bucks or whatever the entry fee is, getting two or three good input sources would be good value for the money. Judging and editing are just as much an art as writing is.

    It’d be horrible to submit to a contest, and not get a single valuable thing out of the deal. “Oh, this was great!” is a great thing to hear, but it doesn’t help us grow as writers, really. (Although, it might give our inner marketer more courage!)

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