Opinionated statement alert: Every writer should volunteer to judge a writing contest. And not simply for altruistic reasons. No, we should do it because we can learn from reading others’ work, as it’s much easier to see mistakes in prose other than our own.
My friend Anassa Rhenisch had a great blog post about this concept ages ago (and you’ll see from my comment there that I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while). Reading “bad” writing helps us figure out why passive voice is boring, or what makes a plot hole a plot hole, or any other of a hundred bad habits we can have. And when we discover how to fix problems in others’ stories, we better understand how to fix them in ours.
Back when I first started planning this post, I was going to compare judging writing contests to American Idol. However, since then, my friend Kristen Lamb used that analogy in her fabulous post about self-publishing. Self-publishing. Contest entries. Those are similar concepts, with authors presumably sending out their best work, so you can see where I was going with the comparison.
Every year, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) sponsors a contest for unpublished authors, the Golden Heart Awards, and I volunteered to be a judge this time around. I’d previously judged a contest sponsored by an RWA chapter and figured this one would be similar. Um, no.
The RWA chapter contest I judged last fall had a scoresheet broken down by different categories like voice, point-of-view, characterization, etc. Judges assigned a number to each topic and then added up the points to determine the final score.
The Golden Heart contest has none of that. No scoresheet, no breakdowns, no guidelines at all other than a vague “how much did you enjoy it?” At first, I hated it. How was I supposed to come up with a score?
Then you know what happened? I read the entries this past weekend, probably very similarly to how agents/editors read submissions. Suddenly, everything I’ve read about how they just know made complete sense.
I could mark down the not-so-great entries for POV issues, bad prologues, grammar problems, telling instead of showing, unnecessary scenes, etc. all day long. These are the types of submissions that don’t make it past the first page with agents and editors. Maybe not even the first paragraph. Honestly, whether I gave them a score of 5.2 or 5.4 didn’t matter very much. They weren’t going anywhere near the Finalists, so the amount of rejection was irrelevant.
But then I read a great, no, a fantastic entry. The voice was spot on from the very first paragraph, and my thoughts immediately settled in to read an engaging tale, while also hoping the rest of the pages would live up to the potential.
And yes, the voice and story were wonderful, but that wouldn’t erase sins against every writing rule. Luckily, the fact there weren’t any issues with this story meant that nothing took away from my enjoyment.
The synopsis was tedious, but that didn’t matter. The first few paragraphs of the synopsis covered the same events as the entry’s pages, so I knew it was the fault of the synopsis and not the story.
If I were an agent, I’d have requested the full by about the time I got to the third page. Seriously. I gave the entry a perfect score.
And I’d love to end on that positive note, but my point requires me to talk about the last entry I read. Good voice, flawless grammar, interesting premise. But I just didn’t “enjoy” it as much.
If I were an agent, I’d send an encouraging note, probably with a request that they send future projects my way. But I wouldn’t be able to tell them how to fix this story with a “revise and resubmit” letter—because the author didn’t do anything wrong. There’s not necessarily anything to fix. It just wasn’t a story I loved.
Now I understand when agents and editors talk about how they have to fall in love with a book. And sometimes the author can do everything right, and still have it not be enough. The worst thing is that we’ll probably never know if we’re this close unless the rejection includes a personal note.
It might not be fair, but that’s the way it is. Not everyone will love our book.
I gave that last entry a very high score, but not a perfect score. I hope it will be high enough to give that author a shot at the Finals, where agents/editors can chime in with their opinions. Just because I didn’t love it doesn’t mean they won’t. Haven’t we heard that line from agents and editors before? Guess what? It’s true.
Have you judged writing contests before? Do you prefer a scoresheet with guidelines, or do you prefer to score by gut feel? What other lessons can we learn by critiquing other writers’ work? Have you ever had an agent or editor tell you that they just didn’t love your work? (Does this post make you feel better about it?)Pin It