Most of us have, at one time or another, entered our work in writing contests. And more than a few of us have served as judges for contests. When I was first invited to judge a contest for an RWA chapter, I mulled the idea over for a few days. Sure, I'd written a few books by then. And, yes, two had been published. But I still heard that nagging question, "Who am I to judge someone else's writing?"
One can get caught up in a debate about the qualifications of judges for writing competitions. Should the first round judges always be published authors and/or editors? Does having a book published prove one possesses the skills needed to judge another's work? And we can't dismiss the subjectivity involved in judging another writer's work. Each of us has our strong areas and our weaknesses, even as published authors. And we all have our own preferences as to what we like in a story, in the plot and in the characters. We can't divorce ourselves completely from those preferences, even when we're handed a scoring sheet to follow.
I've been on the receiving end of having my work judged for a competition. It can be exhilarating, humiliating, affirming, clarifying--or all of the above. In discussions on the topic with other writers, what I hear most people say is, "The real value of a contest lies in the critique and feedback you receive. That helps you to improve your writing." I agree, but I also think there's more to it. I think we enter our work in writing competitions with the same optimism a mother submits her child's photo to a 'most beautiful baby' contest. We believe we have the most beautiful baby and will win the grand prize. No one wants to have their submission returned with a note that, in effect, says, "Your baby's just not cute enough."
Some things I think we need to be mindful of when putting our work out there for judgment:
* Be prepared for the best and the worst in feedback (what you'll probably get is something in the middle).
* It's not the end of the world if you lose; it's not the Pulitzer, if you win.
* You can learn from the feedback of both the best and worst of judges. You will learn to be discriminating about your own work, to begin to trust what you know is true in your work, even if someone else doesn't see it. And you will learn from the better judges how you can make your sentences tighter, crisper, and more active.
* Every opinion is just one person's opinion. I don't want to minimize the value of a judge's opinion, but urge writers to keep the feedback in perspective, just as you would with a critique partner.
* Don't be discouraged. Use what is offered that will strengthen your writing; leave the rest and move on.
* If you keep entering contests and you keep getting the same negative feedback--work to improve your skill. Don't write it off as being the fault of judges who know nothing. One judge may know nothing; a second judge may be having a bad day and/or know nothing. Five judges can't all be wrong.
And for those daring souls who agree to serve as judge:
* Start by remembering what it is like to be in the other pair of shoes, the other person's skin--sending your baby off to judgment.
* Follow the guidelines given for whatever particular contest you are judging.
* Read each entry more than once. I don't think anyone can fairly judge twenty-five pages of work at first glance. Give the work the time it deserves. Not only is this someone's blood and sweat, their heart's work that you're holding in your hands, but they've no doubt paid a fee to have you examine and judge the work.
* Be honest, fair, and kind. Some people think that being honest translates into being cutting, harsh, or demeaning. No--that's just being mean.
* Explain your scoring--Most score sheets allow space for comments. If it's a low score, what would the writer need to do to improve? If it's a high score, what has he or she done remarkably well?
Now, do I think a contest judge should be a published writer? Yes, and no. Yes, I think a first-round judge should be published and know the writing process (this could include editors). No, I don't think ALL published writers should be judges. A number of people can write, but not well. And some of those get published because a really good editor makes their work publishable. We all need editors for our work, but those writers who manage to get published, but struggle with the basics of good writing should not be judging someone else's writing. And, yes, that does happen. Of course, that's just my opinion. You may differ.
What have been your experiences with writing competitions--as a writer and/or as a judge? I'm off the soapbox. It's all yours.