Monday, April 29, 2013

The Benefits of Judging Contests

I didn't used to judge contests. I didn't feel I had any business passing judgment on other writers’ work, let alone telling them how to make it better. I also don’t take much pleasure in critiquing, which is why I don’t have traditions critique partners and have never joined a critique group.

But at some point, I changed my mind on judging and to my own amazement, I really enjoy it.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes you get an entry that needs a lot of input. If I ever said anything that caused a writer to put away her keyboard I’d be devastated, so I’m very careful of the feedback I give. The positives are always pointed out first. I like to point out what the writer does well. And in almost every case, there’s something done well.

As aspiring writers, we’re often aware of our weaknesses and feel this desperate need to eliminate them. The truth is, there will always be some element of writer at which we’re going to be weak. The trick is to make your strengths so strong that the weaknesses become less noticeable.

But in judging, you have to be honest and let the writer know where they could use some work. They've paid money to enter a contest in order to get feedback that will make them better. As the judge, it’s my job to provide that feedback.

And this is where I learn from every entry.

I have to first figure out which aspects aren't working. Why the story isn't holding my attention. Then I have to find a way to explain the problem in a constructive way. This is where I learn things. It doesn't matter what I’m trying to explain, whether it’s plotting, characterization, or something as simple as grammar issues, each entry teaches me something I can apply to my own writing.

I doubt the entrants ever consider they’re providing a service to those of us who judge, but they are. And if you've never taken the opportunity to judge a contest, I highly recommend it.

Have you judged contests? Do you enjoy it? Have you entered a contest and received feedback that made a positive impact on your writing? We've all heard the horror stories. Let’s stick with the positive today. If you haven’t judged or been judged, do you analyze the books you read to learn from them?


Marnee Bailey said...

I've judged a few contests. I like it too, for the reasons you mention.

I just got my GH scores back and they had it all broken down into the categories that they used to judge this year. I found it hugely helpful, way better than the last time I entered and only got a holistic number.

Pretty much, the scores said my writing was good and my romance was good but that the story was kind of meh, followed closely by my characters being a little weak. Probably a result of a weak story.

As I told Ter, this is almost exactly what I was expecting so it validated my feelings about the story and made me feel like I'd made the right decision to leave the story behind for now.

I also think that it's easy to love a judge who's all, "I LOVED THIS ENTRY!" and accept that as gospel. (They like me, they really like me.) But, I would suggest that if it's just one judge who's all, "THIS IS READY TO BE PUBLISHED" but the rest are pointing out weaknesses, especially if they're all the same kind of weaknesses, that maybe that judge is as unreliable as the judge who thinks everything sucked. (Which I've had before too.)

Basically, I think it's just as important, for growth, to disregard the random really good judge as it is to disregard the random really bad one.

Though feel free to bask in their adoration. We're human. LOL

MsHellion said...

I have judged before--and I do make every effort to judge fairly but kindly. And yes, "critiquing" someone else's work does help me improve mine, which I believe is one of the benefits of having a critique group, but whatever. *LOL*

I haven't entered in a contest for some time. I think the last time I did, I actually got a full manuscript request--and it was a story I had only written the first 8 chapters on or something and had no interest in pursuing after that. It had the usual hallmarks of my writing--it read like an episode of 24, minute by minute detail. And it was the most conventional of my stories...which is why I couldn't handle it.

The ones I wanted to do well did horribly, though I see now people are publishing THOSE kinds of stories front, back and sideways. Interesting.

Terri Osburn said...

Marn - There were 2 GH entries I love this year. Would have raved that they were ready for an editor. Lo and behold, they both finaled! So see. Sometimes the gushing is right. LOL!

Hellie - I think some stories are good for contests and others aren't. Seems to be anything too far out of the middle of the road would be better to take right to queries. Or to put out on your own.

There is an audience for them, but that audience is often not your typical contest judge. Then again, evoking a strong response, even a negative one, is still a good sign IMO.

P. Kirby said...

I've only entered one contest and the experience was positive; I got to the semi-finals and received a useful critique. Never judged a contest, though.

I've been in critique groups and over the course of about a decade have critiqued/beta-read hundreds of short works and at least a half dozen novels. I started out at Critters online critique group, and still follow their guidelines of honest AND diplomatic critiques. I'm a big fan of that approach because I believe it's effective.

The way I see it is that if I'm going to spend time, hours, maybe even days, reading and writing up a critique, I'd like the writer to get something out of it; to listen to my blather. If he/she spends the entire time hackles up, pissed off or feeling like a kid in the principal's office, the effort is somewhat wasted because angry (or depressed) people shut down intellectually. So I go with diplomatic and save the snark for reviews (which are an entirely different animal).

And, yeah, the effort of analyzing someone else's story always teaches me something.

Terri Osburn said...

Pat - Did you enter that contest for the feedback or to get your work in front of the final judges? I think that's the different stages in writing. When I first started out, I wanted the feedback with no expectations of winning anything.

But eventually I shifted to only entering if the final judge was someone I might want to work with.

Diplomatic. Exactly. I have recommended particular craft books in the past, but it's a fine line. If the person has been writing for many years and catches on that I assume she's a newbie, then I risk insulting that person. I never know how to approach that.

Maureen said...

Never judged, doubt I ever will. Just as I figured out a few months back that I doubt I'll ever teach a class or speak on a panel regarding technique.

I'd be a useless judge... "I liked it but something was missing. It might have been GMC or it might have been the timeline or it might have been..."

Really, never let me judge.

On the other hand, I love working with the newbies every year at RT and am missing their energy right now. The class has started and it's a huge one...and I'm not there. Oh, well. I can cheerlead from the sidelines!

Terri Osburn said...

I know you were fine with your decision not to attend RT this year, but I have a feeling it's making your crazy. I know it would kill me to sit out Nationals, so I have no idea how you're doing it.

If it's not for you then judging is not for you. I don't want to do anymore than what I do now, but it has benefits I didn't expect.

Terri Osburn said...

And I just realized the title of this blog should be The Benefits of Contest Judging.

Goes to show there's always more to learn. LOL!

P. Kirby said...

Oh, I entered to win and for the critique. Why just go for one when you can have both? But the time I started writing fiction, I'd been a technical writer for years and was confident in my mastery of the basics. Not that I knew it all--still don't, never will. Feedback is always useful, but I wanted to see how my writing measured up against others.

I have recommended particular craft books in the past, but it's a fine line

This is why, at Critters, they advise strongly against "critiquing from authority." This means statements like, "Big Name author says you should never ever use adjectives," but it also can include suggesting writing books, which, is problematic for the reasons you mention. I may think the writer is a newbie, or that English is not their mother tongue, but I don't voice my assumption(s) in the critique.

Di R said...

Our chapter has just finished with the first round judging for our contest. I judged 2 categories and it seemed as though I had a majority of newbie writers. Although, I had several that sparkled, and I cannot wait to see on the bookshelf to see what happens next. But even those, I made sure I made comments on.

However, I am very careful in how I make my comments and I make a lot of them. Things that work, places to tighten up, or add a description to make a scene pop. Also, I make comments and then set it aside for at least a day. Then I go back and re-read my comments before I send it back to the category coordinator, and sometimes I’ll ask them to look over my comments and let me know if I need to adjust anything. The last thing I want is to crush anyone, and make them walk away from their keyboard.

I also entered our contest. I had one judge who was great-made comments that were honest and helpful. I have made some changes that are making my story better. The other judge was, well not kind, helpful or diplomatic. Ouch. But there were a few nuggets I took from them, after a glass of wine.


Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

The only contest I've ever entered or sort of gave feedback on was the Harlequin SYTYCW the first year they held it.

Even that slight little bit of feedback was so helpful and awesome for me.

As for giving critiques - I'm a believer that if I'm asking for input and advice then I really want it. Diplomatic but real. Tell it to me straight but don't focus on only the negative.

That's why I haven't volunteered to critique much for others - they have to be a writer who would wan the straight truth from me too. :)

Terri Osburn said...

Di - I'm sure wine always helps, but I don't drink it so it's not an issue. I actually never entered many contests and the GH doesn't give feedback so I somehow avoided the non-diplomatic/not-nice judge. I'm sure that will come back to me in reviews. :)

Sabrina - I think the trick is how you deliver the straight truth. Because one person's diplomacy and honesty is anothers insult and attack. LOL! NOT that you'd ever attack, I'm just saying I worry about walking that line.

Maureen said...

Jane is IMing from the class and keeping me abreast of things. I miss the newbies more than the craziness of the con... The energy from newbies is just so...sweet. I love to encourage and be there to listen when they just need to talk about what is going on in their heads. I encouraged them to text me... A few have written or tweeted me.

Terri Osburn said...

It's nice that you were still able to be involved online before the class started.

Di R said...


I don't drink either. Two sips and I am giggling.
It definitely helped! ;)


Terri Osburn said...

I'm considering cake flavored vodka for the reviews. LOL!

Maureen said...

Cake flavored vodka is evil...

Terri Osburn said...

I have a feeling the unhappy reviews will be evil too. Fight fire with fire, right?

Where's Leslie? She'd back me up on this.

Sabrina Shields (Scapegoat) said...

Too true Terri. But I'm the kind of truth teller who tries to always be helpful with the truth - never nasty or harmful. I hope! :)

Now, let's hear more about cake flavored vodka!!!

Maureen said...

The reviews aren't going to be bad! Geez!

Cake flavored vodka with pineapple juice...Pineapple upside down cake!

Terri Osburn said...

I'm not trashing my work. Bad reviews are inevitable. Every writer has them. Crusie, SEP, Higgins. I've seen bad reviews on all of them and every time I see them I want to argue with the reviewer. LOL!

They're just a part of this business.

Maureen said...

Well, yeah...but nothing cake flavored vodka can't wash away...

Terri Osburn said...


Janga said...

I entered one contest and did ok. I didn't final, but I only missed by three points. I did find the feedback helpful, particularly the comments from the toughest judge--once my ego recovered.

I have judged published books in several different readers choice contests, but they only required rating on a score sheet. I don't judge in other contests, and I critique or beta read only rarely. I spent decades reading student papers with the typical set of papers offering some drek, a lot of mediocre drafts, and a few gems, struggling to be honest, fair, and tactful. I just don't want to do that anymore.

Terri Osburn said...

Don't blame you one bit, Janga. I think that's why I don't like writing reviews. Reminds me of all those book reports I was forced to write. I read for pleasure and analyzing a book for review does not come naturally to me.

Then again, I'm sure giving it more effort could pay off much like judging unpublished entries does.

JulieJustJulie said...
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JulieJustJulie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JulieJustJulie said...

Sorry about that it's been a very long week and it's only Monday!

I haven’t "judged" for a contest, but strangely enough I am often asked to judge other people's writing.
And I have never entered a contest with the expectations that my writing would be judged, but strangely enough my writing is often judged.
And stranger still, it is Often judged by people who haven't actually read the piece.

Do you analyze the books you read to learn from them?

Absolutely. I read for enjoyment of course. But who can't Not take notice of a how well a story is crafted? I'm very good at spotting missed opportunities in a narrative, bad plot lines and holes in the story. I also feel that I can find that special something that sets a particular writer apart from their peers .
If I'm reading someone's work in progress I'm looking to see, well hear, if they have a voice that Intrigues me. I might be reading with my eyes, but honestly I'm listening with my mind, trying to hear an "aaah " moment. That aaah " moment when one reads a passage that makes one stop reading ... and everything else around them ceases to exist ... Except. Those. Words.
Grammar can be fixed. Loose ends can be tied up. A story can be polished. But if it does not have the ability to engage the reader ... and hold them captive to a brilliantly composed phrase for even just a moment?

When I know I'm going to be asked to read an unpublished project , Particularly a final draft, I want to be mentally prepared. So I read A Classic to get my head in the Reader Zone. Then I analyze the story to see ...
A. See what made that book a classic.
B. See if What the writer had to say then is still emotionally or intellectually relevant with the reader today. IE I'm looking for the "aaaaahs" .
I've been prepping my brain again. my book of choice? Ivanhoe.
I'm 2/3 s of the way through and here are a few things I'll share from my "analysis"

Good poetry resonates in your heart.
Great Poetry reveals cracks in your heart, but fills up the holes in your soul you never knew where there.
And the very Best Fiction is full of Timeless Truths.

Terri Osburn said...

Very well said, Julie!