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What I’ve Learned From Judging Writing Contests

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been a judge for a national fiction-writers' contest for unpublished writers. It’s an incredible experience to be on the other side of the desk, doing the critiquing instead of being critiqued.

It’s never easy putting yourself out there. I can fully relate—I’ve had my share of brutal feedback from contest judges and editors. I know how much courage it takes to slide our stories under someone else’s magnifying glass.

I salute each participant for daring to open up, for being willing to take constructive criticism, and for wanting to grow. And . . . I thank contestants for giving me an opportunity to learn more. Each time I judge, I come away from the experience stronger.

Here are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned from judging various contests:

1. The first page speaks volumes.

With almost every entry, I was able to tell the skill of the writer from the first page. I looked at things like:

*Where does the writer start the story? Does the opening paragraph immediately draw me in, intrigue me, grip me? Anytime I read an entry that opens with the main character (MC) thinking, sitting and contemplating, going about ordinary life, or waiting, I’m usually not hooked. In most of these instances, the writer needed to cut to the crucial point the MC was thinking about or waiting for.

*How does the writer string words together? Are they smooth enough that I forget I’m reading? Or do I trip over awkward sentences that pull me out of the story? And no, I don’t nit-pick for adverbs or dialogue tags. I’m talking about the kind of smoothness that comes from lots of practice (kind of like a piano player who has moved from the clunkiness of first learning a piece to finally having it memorized.)

*Is the story conflict evident? Even if the writer opens in an intriguing spot, what does it tell me about the conflict? Does it relate?

*Does the writer tell me what’s going on or show me? And how well do they show me? Do they portray only what’s necessary? Or do they add in things that really have no relevance to the story?

2. Writers really do fall into “grades.”

As much as I like to view people as unique individuals and avoid categorizing, I’ve learned that writers really do fall into grades. (Randy Ingermanson came up with the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior idea).

While reading contest entries, I could easily spot freshman writers (beginners) and seniors (those who are getting ready for publication). It’s a little harder to distinguish between a sophomore and junior.

In the entries I've judged, the largest majority fall in the middle (sophomore and junior levels). What that means is those who are learning fiction-writing techniques are moving forward. With a little more effort and writing, they’ll graduate to the next level.

3. We have to learn how to give honest, positive feedback.

When we’re in critique mode it’s easy to focus on every little thing a fellow writer is doing wrong. And we forget to find the things they’re doing right. I’ve had to LEARN to consciously slow down and be on the lookout for the things I like.

They don’t have to be big things. But as I read through entries, I put balloons in the margins. My goal is to put as many positive balloons as negatives.

4. Not all skillfully written stories will make it to publication.

Unfortunately, even though some entries are very well-written, I realize not all of them will get published. There are just some topics, time periods, and settings that are not as popular among readers. Sometimes publishers aren’t willing to take the chance on them, even if the writer has fantastic story-telling abilities.

So while I hope those writers see success with their entries, I also encourage everyone to keep writing. Don’t get stuck on one book. Do the best you can with it. Then move on. Write another book and another.

If you’re a senior level writer, eventually you’ll write THE book that will help you break in. And then once you have an established readership, you can always pull out that other book, discuss it with your agent and publisher, and decide if readers are ready to take a chance on it. (I say all this from personal experience.)

So, what do you think? If you’ve ever judged a contest, what did you learn from it? And if you’ve ever entered a contest or thought about entering one, what worries you the most?


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