“How easy it is to judge rightly after one sees what evil comes from judging wrongly!” Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65), English novelist. Cynthia, in Wives and Daughters, chapter 43 (1866) of her misplaced attachment to Mr. Preston.
Gaskell’s protagonist may not have been talking about judging a writing competition, but her words can still ring true for the literary world. When first asked to judge a romance writers’ competition, I was flattered, excited, and eager. I could voice my opinion on someone else’s work and it would mean something. Then I realized what a huge responsibility it was to not just critique, but judge someone’s work. I had the power to make or break this person’s ego, but not in the one-on-one critiquing I was used to. I could decide if the entry advanced into the second round and perhaps onto greater things, or winged its way back home without further progression.
No one said it would be easy, and it wasn’t. Some entries were a pleasure to read from beginning to end. Others seemed a hard slog. I could write pages on what were the main strengths and weaknesses, but that’s not what this article is about.
Fortunately the competition coordinators involved in all competitions I’ve judged had prepared their critique sheets meticulously, some with extra judging notes and a list of expectations. This made the entire experience a lot easier than it could have been.
What is expected of a judge? Of course it’s necessary to have a basic knowledge of spelling, grammar and punctuation. It’s helpful to have read several books in the line at which the authors are aiming their stories in order to have a “feel” for the line. Judges are usually asked which categories they prefer to judge, e.g. a person who enjoys reading only historicals may not be the ideal judge of paranormal romance.
In most competitions, judges are allowed to write on the actual manuscripts or Word documents, which makes it a lot easier to point out problem areas. It means we can indicate parts where the author has achieved her goal, whether through good use of words for descriptive purposes or the dreaded “showing not telling”. Perhaps the author has found a clever twist for an old cliché? Always tell the writer when she’s managed to impress you, evoked some emotion in you, or made you smile.
Just as writing is subjective, scoring that writing is also subjective. Usually a judge is asked to score from a low of 1, meaning it requires a complete overhaul, to a high of whatever the individual competition allows for. The high score should be reserved for an entry that is as ready for publication as you could expect in that category.
Remember, you are not judging the stories against each other, but each as an individual, and viewing its suitability for the publisher indicated by the author. If for example an author submits a very racy love scene competently written, but she is aiming for a sweet romance line, then the scene will not be suitable for that house. You should note it somewhere on the judging sheet. Similarly, point out the use of American spelling in a story aimed at an English publisher and vice versa, but do not necessarily remove marks for these.
Even the most perfectly crafted of stories can lack that certain something, that sparkle that brings the whole thing to life. It’s not always easy to define and harder still to tell someone it’s lacking from their entry. In the judge’s comments section, try to summarize the best and worst points of the entries. I use the “sandwich” technique: start with a positive remark, preferably stretch it into a few sentences. Then include the parts of the writing that needs more than just fine tuning, or that simply didn’t work. Always finish with a positive paragraph or sentence, even if it’s just “Good luck!” “Good entry!” or “Well done!”
It’s always useful to an entrant if you can pinpoint those areas that need work. Stress if it’s a repeated mistake in punctuation or grammar. If you love the hero but don’t feel sympathetic toward the heroine, tell the author her character needs more layers. If the sexual or sensual tension doesn’t quite work, perhaps the author needs to work on showing with actions instead of telling. Is the conflict clear? Is the motivation not contrived or forced? Is the dialogue fresh and appropriate to the character’s background, age and gender? And I always thank authors who have sent their entry in the correct format.
It’s also wise to distance yourself from the story and characters. If the hero reminds you of an ex-lover who you loathe, don’t let that interfere with your comments or score. However, if the hero is wimpy and you feel he needs to be more assertive, or if he seems to be too much of a bastard to the heroine, by all means point it out and let the score reflect your opinion.
How do Gaskell’s words relate to judging in competitions? Imagine how much harm you can do to an author if you trash her work. The most important thing you, as a judge, need to remember is that all entries deserve praise and encouragement. All writers can improve if given a little encouragement. The author has allowed you into a very private part of her life. You are holding her baby in your arms, so to speak. Don’t give false applause, but be gentle. Would you want your work to be torn to shreds? Of course not. So judge responsibly. Be fair, but be kind.
The most satisfying part for me was my first bit of fan mail. An entrant wrote to thank me for my encouraging remarks. That particular author is now multi-published by one of the largest international romance houses. It wasn’t the story I judged, but this entrant took the time to thank me for my efforts and I felt as happy as if I’d handed her the contract myself.
Finally, I’ve had a lot of help in my writing career. I’ve met wonderful, giving people who gave not only their time, but their expertise to help me along my way. Judging in competitions has helped me to give back a little of what I’ve learnt.