Writing Contests: If you are
going to enter some, judge a few, or even
coordinate one, then this article is for you.
This article may be used in a newsletter or on a
website, as long as my name and a link to my
homepage are placed with it. Thanks!
Ever so often I see it break out. It starts small, and then grows. It’s filled with
complaints and groans and sometimes much worse. It’s a discussion about the
results from an RWA chapter contest. Someone got the judge-from-hell, or
thinks she did. The scores are too low, she doesn’t agree with the comments
made by said judge and feels there’s no way she got her money’s worth from the
contest. So, before you enter, there are a few things you should know and be
There are some judges-from-hell; people who like to tear down the work of
others, people who think they are right when they are wrong, and people who
have about as much tact as a werewolf during a full moon. The good news is that
contests’ coordinators are working harder than ever to make sure that judges
know how to judge, that pages are critiqued in print, that helpful comments are
made, and that score sheets are more fair and useful. But let’s face it, judges
don’t get paid for judging, judging is a time consuming task and a big
responsibility, things have happened to make some fear even signing their
names to score sheets, and sometimes lining up enough well-trained judges is
really tough, and even then there can be a sour apple in the bunch.
Don't forget there are some contestants-from-hell also; people who will think
they are right and everyone else is wrong, people who can’t believe someone had
the nerve to think their work was less than perfect. We’ve all met them.
When you enter a writing contest, do so for honest feedback, to get used to
letting others judge your work, in the hopes of reaching the finals and getting
your chapters in front of a certain agent or editor.
Those are great reasons. But keep an open mind when those scores come in.
Judging isn’t filled with rules written in stone. It’s an objective matter. I’ve heard
someone talk about a book they hated, that I loved. It’s a human fact that we
don’t like the same things. So be prepared to find that one judge thinks your
story starts off with a great hook, and another doesn’t agree at all. That one
judge doesn't give you a low score on the way you handle point of view, but the
other one does and says you head-hop. We all have different things that stand
out to us when we read, things that pull me out of a story might not bother
someone else, and things that bother them might not catch my eye.
Editors and agents or people too, and you’ll get the same mixed comments from
them more often than not. If you do get a real judge-from-hell, one of those
tactless and simply wrong people, then contact the contest’s coordinator. Offer
to send copies of the remarks, so the coordinator has proof of what was written.
All RWA chapters want their contests to be helpful, not crushing.
About getting your money’s worth; the cost of entering contests hasn’t gone up
much in the last few years, even though the cost of postage sure has, and more
than once. Don’t forget when you pay that entry fee, a good bit comes out of it to
forward your chapters to a judge, and then back to the coordinator. Your SASE
is only used to send it and the scores back to you. Few chapters have enough
members to make a dent in the number of published and unpublished judges
they will need. There is also the cost of printing up score sheets, and other odds
One last little thing. Don’t forget to send a thank you note to the judge, even if
you get a low score. You can send your thank you note and a SASE to the
contest coordinator, who will gladly forward it. Don’t forget to give her the judge’s
number or name.
I know judging is hard, takes a lot of time, and is often a thankless job, but it’s a
privilege too. It means another writer is trusting you to judge her work with the
same care you would your own. As a judge you have the power to encourage or
to shatter. Don’t forget how mighty the word is, or how delicate a new writer’s
ego can be. Also remember that written words don't allow the reader to hear
your teasing tone or see your smile.
That doesn’t mean to give only good scores, or to say you like how a story is
handled when you see plot problems and cardboard characters. That isn’t going
to help anyone become a better writer. And I think most of us who ask for
feedback on our writing, either through contests or critiques, do so in the hopes
of learning to become better writers. At least that’s why we should be doing it.
Besides, giving a higher score than earned isn’t fair to others who entered the
Stories you hate and having to hand out low scores are a fact of judging
contests. You are not going to like every story you read. There are writers who
enter that won’t even be near the publishing stage. It’s a judge’s job to be
honest; to point out what doesn’t work, while not forgetting to do so with tact
and thoughtfulness. A judge should also comment on what does work. It’s
amazing how a little sugar can ease some of the bitter.
And lastly. Give yourself plenty of time to read and critique the chapters you are
sent. Don’t wait until the last minute when you will be rushed. If you are already
overloading, don’t volunteer. And don’t forget to send those scores in on time, if
If judging is a thankless job, then I don’t even know what to call the
coordinator's job. There is so much work to do. So many details, big and little, to
handle. So much to organize and keep up with. There are a few things that can
make a contest more successful though.
A website is tops on the lists of the people I talked to. There are plenty of places
where a chapter can put up a free and easy website, with no HTML know how
needed at all. Having the rules and the entry forms there make it so easy for
those who might want to enter. I know a number of people said when they saw a
contest listed without a website link, they looked for another contest with a
I can't stress how important it is to use the same website address year after
year. Don’t have an address that changes, like thebestofthebest2002contest to
thebestofthebest2003contest. Many sites that share contests’ info don’t link to
the chapters homepage, but to the actually contest page. If it is changed each
year, then the link can be lost. Writers also save those addresses year to year,
and share them. Put those contest's rules and forms on a website page not in
Open your contest to anyone who isn't published in novel-length romance. There
used to be a lot of contests that were open only to RWA members, but now more
than half of them are open to anyone, and that number is growing each year..
Some do charge a higher entry fee for non-RWA members.
Send those chapters out to judges as soon as you can. Giving them even a few
extra days can make it easer on them at times.
In the End
If those running the contests, those judging, and those entering, all work
together and follow the rules and use good manners, the results will be so much
more positive for us all.
Charlotte Dillon ~ www.charlottedillon.com
Copyrighted in 2003 by Charlotte Dillon
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