Judging Writing Contests

Hello, Katy Lee here. First off, the winner of the Catherine Anderson Lucky Penny book goes to Gail Ingis! Woo-Hoo, Gail! Congrats! Catherine will be mailing the book off to you shortly. Enjoy! 

Now, I have just finished judging eight entries to CTRWA’s Write Stuff Contest. I always look forward to the many contests I participate in throughout the year. I love reading works-in-progress in all its various stages, but I really get excited to see a work ready for an editor’s eyes. If I reach the last page of the entry and am mad that I can’t continue, I stress my frustration to the writer. “Get this book on the shelves!”

I’ll be honest, though, typically those entries are few and far between. But that is okay, because writing contests are not just for the perfect entries. They are also a way for a new writer to put their baby in front of another pair of eyes. It is an opportunity for them to receive some helpful feedback before sending their work out to editors and agents. (Who typically don’t give anything other than the dreaded rejection letter.) There’s no shame in submitting a story in its beginning stages. If you are entering to win, that’s different, but if you are just looking for a quick critique of the direction of your work, I encourage you to send it in. It’s a learning opportunity to perfect your craft. And not only that, it’s a motivational tool to press on.

For me, as a judge, seeing the shiny finished pieces, knowing they, too, once fell into the “ugly baby” stage, is a testimony to never give up to all writers. They prove that with dedication and hard work there is hope for us in all our stages. I do my best to be kind and constructive when giving ideas or pointing out better words that could be used in certain places, but I know the writer may still misconstrue my feedback and take it personally.

And maybe they are right, but not in the sense they think.

I personally want to encourage all writers to keep at it. As a judge I see in front of me all the stages a piece goes through before it’s ready for the shelf. I know with hard work and dedication even the baby entries can be transformed into shelf worthy. So, enter your works and let the judge’s words motivate you, not discourage you. Keep at it until your baby is on the shelves, too.

The Unlocked Secret: It may be called judging, but I like to consider it more as cheerleading. Someone who has seen the beginning and end results and cheers writers on to their dream of publication. Go for it!

Question: If you have judged writing entries before, what have you learned from the process? Or, are you a writer who thinks their story isn’t ready for a contest?


15 thoughts on “Judging Writing Contests”

  1. I have two more entries to judge in the same contest, and I’m doing my best to be as helpful and positive as I can. It takes a lot of guts for a person, especially a newbie writer, to put their baby out there, even to the relatively anonymous world of contests, and I don’t want to be anybody’s dream-squasher. One of the entries I read was quite good, a couple more were pretty good, and the rest needed a bit more polishing before they’re ready to go public. But none of them was what I would consider hopeless. And it really has been kind of fun. I would do it again next year.

  2. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I enter contests with hopes of winning or at least placing. Those creds can go a long way in promoting your work later on. I still enter to get feedback from professionals and to get the work in front of agents and editors even though I’m indie-publishing, but ultimately, I’m in it for the win, which is why I would never submit an entry that wasn’t polished and as good as I can make it. Incidentally, I’ve never actually won. I’ve placed in several and have been a finalist, but the “gold” has, as yet, escaped me.

    As for advice to new writers, we all have to start somewhere. If I had entered any of my first few novels, I’m sure I would have given the contest judges a queezy stomach and a headache. Judging is difficult because as Suze said, we don’t want to be dream quashers, but we want to be constructive and encouraging. That can be challenging when an entry is really awful. Having said that, I have judged some really wonderful entries and it always gives me great pleasure to help writers achieve the goal of putting out a finished product that will sell.

    On the other side of that fence, having had some great feedback on my own past entries and some really ridiculous comments from judges, entering contests is a bit of a crapshoot. In the end, you have to take what makes sense to you and apply it to improving your manuscript and let the rest go. Just my .02.

    1. It is a crapshoot. Everyone has different likes and opinions. As an entrant to contests, do remember that one judges opinion (good or bad) is not always the best one.

  3. Great post Katy and a good reminder to be a cheerleader rather than a critic. I’ve been on both sides – judge and entrant. The most meaningful feedback is specific and constructive. I appreciate all the contest judges who took the time to provide targeted feedback for all my entries last year. I’m a judge for the first time this year (same contest with you and Suze) and it has been an interesting experience. I hope my comments help those manuscripts that need more polishing. And for the few that are ready to go – I wish them a sale!!

    1. Yes, I don’t want to be confused with a critic. 🙂 I’m not being paid for that…or for anything, really. I just hope to give some helpful feedback and cheer them on.

  4. Good topic, Katy. I approach every contest entry with the question, what can I do to help this person along in their writing journey? And I don’t try to be comprehensive. One or two clearly and kindly expressed points can do more good than an in-depth criticism — especially when you are writing to a stranger. I do this even for entries that I give a perfect (or near perfect) score.
    Scoring is the trickiest part. I cannot get myself to be more generous than the criteria allow, but I lean as far as I can in the entrant’s favor. This leaves me with some explaining to do, and choosing those words so they are both honest and positive is where I spend the most time on any entry.

  5. Hi Katy,
    I am judging in the same contest. When I review the entries, I try to be kind because I would like someone who is reviewing my work to be kind to me. I hope to give helpful suggestions and encouragement. I find it helpful to place the criticism between two compliments. As you said, some of the entries are really good and you do want more … but most of them need a little TLC. I try to think of those needing help as works in progress and the really good ones as a more polished piece. This business of writing forces you to have a thick skin, yet rejection of any kind does hurt. It’s hard for the author not to take it personally. It’s like someone telling you that you have an ugly baby.

  6. I’ve been grateful for most of the comments I’ve gotten from contest judges, because they picked up with fresh eyes some things I’d missed or was unclear about. Unfortunately, while most people really like my writing, there’s usually a judge to whom I’m not their cup of tea. That’s okay. I ran a local writers guild for over a dozen years and organized a bunch of contests and writer workshops. I remember one arts council members who called to see if she won the contest that year, because she wasn’t going to come to the dinner if she didn’t place. *sigh* BTW, she didn’t. So, thanks for volunteering to plow through the dreck, the potential and the gems.

    1. Yes, not everyone is going to like our work. So, as writers, we need to weed through the comments and go with the concensus. If one judge out of many has an issue, there might now be a problem in the writing itself. Weigh every comment.

      Thanks for posting, Julee!

  7. Great post Katy. My best helpers for my writing were those Saturday morning crits. I think it is wonderful that you all put this together and are willing to put in the time and energy to critic other’s work. It is always easier to critique others than yourself. Thank you for all your hard work.

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