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Over the past several weeks, I’ve been a judge for a national fiction-writers' contest for unpublished writers.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?


  1. Thank you Jody. It's really interesting to step over the fence and look back at my field in this way.
    Sometimes I wonder whether I'm wasting my (limited by family) time and (ditto) money entering competitions. Although I've been chosen for a couple of anthologies, I've never won a competition. Maybe I'm not yet at that senior level and would be better advised to just keep writing and not submit for a while. But the comps give me a deadline and sometimes a topic I might not have tried. What do you think?

  2. I've never judged a contest, though it would be fun to read all the entries. I don't worry about entering with contest, b/c with kidlit, I've yet to find one where we receive feedback! So I send it off and forget about it.

  3. Lunar Hine said: "Maybe I'm not yet at that senior level and would be better advised to just keep writing and not submit for a while. But the comps give me a deadline and sometimes a topic I might not have tried. What do you think?"

    My response: Lunar, that's a fantastic question! I'm all for writing contests. I think they're a great way to get feedback (if they give them. Sorry yours haven't, Laura!) They're an excellent way to hone writing skills, practice professionalism, and possibly get some exposure.

    However, my biggest concern are those who work solely on the first chapter or first 15 pages and make the entry shine. But then fail to put the same effort into the rest of the book (or not even complete it!). I've seen too many people final in contests, but then not go anywhere in their writing career because they couldn't captialize on that success.

    In other words, my advice is to enter contests, but not to neglect working on the writing itself!

  4. HI Jody. What do you think are the topics, time periods, and settings that are not popular among readers? (Just curious.)


  5. Hi Barb,

    I think those things will vary between genres. But I've been told most American readers prefer American settings. I write historicals, and my publisher has indicated to me that American settings also sell the best, and usually the later part of the 1800's. That's not to say they won't take on other time periods or settings. (My first book The Preacher's Bride is set in the 1600's and in England. And there was concern about whether this would be a good book for my debut based on the setting.) My publisher did not buy my middle ages novel set in Germany because of the unusal time period and setting. But we'll be revisiting that book as my readership grows.

    As I've turned in synopses to my publisher for future book ideas, I've also learned that there are some particular subjects that THEY aren't looking for, either because they already have enough or because the subject is harder to sell. (Slavery/abolition issues come to the top of my mind.)

  6. If I'm entirely honest, sometimes I worry I'll have a freshman judge reading my work.

    And you make a great point about forgetting that you're reading. A good book really has that power, doesn't it?

    ~ Wendy

  7. I've never judged a contest. Thanks for the peek into the experience.

  8. @Wendy Paine Miller---your worry is well founded, though it's not necessarily that you might get a "freshman" judge, but an experienced unpublished writer for a judge who's bent on making sure you follow all the "rules" because she's been told she must follow all the "rules"---and therefore, if she must, you must. In my local group last year after everyone got results back from a big contest, we compared scores. Across the board (and we're talking 15-18 separate entries here), unpublished judges' scores were lower than published judges' scores, usually by about 5 to 10 points.

    I also know this is true from a personal standpoint. I've been judging this contest almost since its inception. Since 2007, we've been doing it electronically. I've gone back and re-read the comments I made on the entries in 2007-2009 (before I was published), and literally cringed at how harsh I was about how the writers weren't following certain "rules."

    As a judge now, the thing I look for above all else is storytelling ability. "Good writing" is a skill that can be polished and learned; storytelling ability is something that is innate and should shine through no matter how rough the craft is.

    Jody--from contests you've entered, what was some of the best feedback you got---positive and/or "negative" (constructive, hopefully)?

  9. Hi Kaye!

    Thank you so much for adding your wise perspective! I haven't had the opportunity to compare the way published authors score vs. unpublished. So that's interesting that you've seen a trend toward unpublished being harsher!

    I found myself adding balloons to those entries that fell in the middle (sophomore and junoir level writers). They're at levels where some pointed advice on adding sensory details, emotions, etc. could add deeper dimensions to their writing. And it was also easy to spot things they were doing well.

    The entries that were freshman were a bit harder to judge. I didn't make any balloon, but rather left some general comments (trying to be both encouraging and helpful). Senior level entries were mostly praise.

    And to answer your question about what was most helpful to me from contests I've entered? Quite honestly, I didn't get a lot of suggestions from contest critiques (probably because I didn't enter any contests until I was writing at a senoir level.) But I have gotten a lot of advice from critique partners and my in-house editors. And I always consider everything they say with the utmost seriousness. I never let feedback slide past without weighing it to the fullest.

  10. I've served as a judge for a number of contests and learn as much from that role as I have from being a contestant. The most important thing I've learned is how crucial those first pages are. Like you, I can tell within a page or two what level the writer has reached.

    No matter what level an entrant's work is at, I strive to point out the positives. Knowing our strengths helps as much as discovering our weaknesses.

  11. I've got to agree with the first few pages tell all. At least, they tell the writer's capabilities, but like you said, Jody, that doesn't mean they've followed through to implement all that capability into the remainder of the story, and if they didn't are near publication level, that makes me sad.

    I too judged this year again. It kind of amazed me how I could pick out places that would benefit from including a certain sense when I tend to have trouble doing that with my own writing. I'm hoping from doing this for others again it'll spill over into my writing now.

  12. I really enjoyed this post, and never heard the grade system approach before. Entering contests are a great way to get feedback. Thanks for sharing your judging experience :-)

  13. I greatly enjoyed hearing from "the other side." Writing contests have always seemed a bit mysterious to me. You've made them seem more real and consequently, success seems more attainable.

    Thank you for encouraging us sophomores and juniors to keep working toward graduation. You make it sound so possible. :) Also, I appreciate your goal to write as many positive comments as negative. When I receive critiques like that, it's so much easier to hear the negatives without becoming overwhelmed and discouraged. Thank you for an excellent post.

  14. Very helpful post, indeed. Thank you.

  15. I entered my first contest this year, and let me tell you I'm on edge waiting for my critiques to come back.

    This is that part of writing for publication that becomes painful, the waiting and wanting.

    Lots of prayer pouring from these lips.

  16. I've never judged a fiction contest, but I've been a judge multiple times for essay and poetry contests. I tend to skip over some of the "rules", unless of course they're contest rules, and revert to style. Style/rhetoric/command of language is a big indicator of where the writer is at and, surprisingly, tends to override what would otherwise be a slow beginning, or a beginning that doesn't cut right to the conflict (all in the character's thoughts, for example). This is my take, anyway. But, as I said, I've never judged fiction.

  17. I've only judged one contest, but it was a small blogger contest and I only had seventeen to read. But I did quickly find out who had a way with words and who didn't. Now that I am a writer, I seem to critique everything i

    I enter many contest, and I always come close, but I don't seem to get to the win. I've became a finalist once in a major NY magazine, but everywhere else I seem to get dropped after the first cut or so. I peak there interest, but I guess it's not bowling the judges over.

    I have to admit it's frustrating. Especially when they tell you how much they like your writing.

    So I keep plugging away.


  18. Hey everyone! :-)

    Michael, It sounds like maybe you're nearing senior level but perhaps need to push yourself a little more? Not sure. If you've been studying the craft of fiction-writing and are slowly and steadily improving, then I'd say keep on pushing yourself to grow. Pick a couple of key areas you think you need to work on and try some different things, add something new to your writing, freshen it up, practice new techniques. Then send it out to critique partners and see what they think. Really all you can do is keep plugging away! :-)

  19. That's so wonderful that you take the time to write some positive feedback even if its hard to find. I think any little bit of encouragement helps us newbies so much.

  20. Thanks Julia! As I said, looking for positives is something I've had to learn to do! My critique partner (Hi Keli!), does a fabulous job of modeling how to find the good and weave it in with the more critical issues. I really think we all have to learn how to balance our feedback no matter what level we're at because it's so easy to get into a "critical" mindframe when we're critiquing. And while that's good, we need to be able to point out what others are doing well too! (Kind of like in parenting, right? If all we did was point out our kids faults, we'd demoralize them. We need to be able to praise them for what they're doing right too!) :-)

  21. Hi Jody,
    In the field of counseling it's never just the client coming for counseling that grows if the therapist is in tune with what's being said. I don't think most people realize that. It's the same for writing and critiques. Both sides learn and grow and choose to take something useful away from each experience.

  22. I had another thought. I think some of you know that James Scott Bell blogs over at The Killzone. They are currently doing critiques of first pages that we can all learn from. They are no longer accepting pages but you can catch up through the archives and I believe there are still several to come. Very good learning experience from reading the comments too.

  23. I've never judged a contest, but I've entered some and was blessed to come in second place in one last year. It let me know that my writing had improved. I've learned so much from listening to other entries and hearing agents and editors comment on them.

    I make note of what works and gets literary professionals excited, then I try to incorporate those techniques into my own writing.

    Entering contests has been a great learning experience, even when I didn't place.

  24. Absolutely fascinating lessons- I need to print my own document out and read it as though I'm a writing judge- it might do wonders for me. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  25. I've been judging some contests recently and I had one entry where I thought I might be overly negative. I mentioned it to the coordinator when I sent the entry back and asked them to review it and make sure I wasn't being too harsh. It's a challenge being a judge.

  26. Having an opportunity to judge is very beneficial to our own writing. For a few years, I judged the first 10 pages of novels. Can't tell you how much I learned.

    Great suggestions on your list.

  27. What worried me the most about entering a contest was my aversion to critique. It was painfully necessary to accept and grow from that experience.

  28. I love how you're on the lookout for positives, too. Those tiny bits of encouragement might be just enough to keep the writer going, and hopefully improving.

  29. Good info, Jody. You're always so helpful. :) I've entered a few non-fiction contests. Haven't judged any yet, but the Coffeehouse for Writers (where I teach an online class) is supposed to offer some soon and I think I'll be among the judges. Looking forward to that.

  30. Hi Jody -

    When I entered the Genesis last year, the possibility of getting contradictory feedback made me nervous. While there were some differences of opinion, their evaluations and advice helped me a great deal.

    Susan :)

  31. It's intimidating and nerve-wracking that our work is always judged by the first page. (Not only by contest judges, but also by agents, editors and of course, readers.)

    I thought it was interesting that most writers seem to be sophomores and juniors. I've often wondered where I am and if I'll ever reach "senior level." [sigh]

    These are great tips also for critique groups. Thank you, Jody!


  32. I've been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the contest fence. Just last week I served as a judge in a local contest for teens and I'm also currently judging in a national contest. I find it fascinating to see what others are writing and what are on the hearts and minds of so many different writers. I definitely agree that all writers fall into some beginning to advanced category. I do believe that as a judge one needs to seed good comments into the not so good ones, but in an honest format. As judges, we shouldn't lead writers astray just because we can't bring ourselves to be honest about the writing put before us.

    As to entering contests, I think it's one of the best things a writer can do for his/her work. You're placing your writing in front of judges who hopefully know what they're doing and know what to look for.

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  36. Jody,
    It's great of you to be judging contests and helping young writers.

    I adjunct for a junior college. Most of my students are high school juniors and seniors or back to school moms in their 40s. Among the younger set esp, writing skills are unbelievably poor. I've wondered what to do to help them.

    My son is in law school, and he had a professor last semester that did "paper consultations." Students submitted their paper, the professor read it, then he met with each student individually to discuss the paper with them, and gave them a couple of more weeks to make changes, add new material, correct mistakes. I loved the idea and am incorporating it this year. I'm doing a paper consultation with each student and will review all aspects of writing a paper: research, organizing ideas, writing, spelling, grammar, etc.

    One thing that traditionally distinguished the West from other societies is that we recorded our history, thoughts, and advancements. Following generations could read and advance in thought ahead of previous generations because of the accumulated, and written, record. Without good writers (and READERS) in the present and future, our civilization could reverse itself in ways that are not beneficial.


  37. Mmmm, sorry for so many "deletes" from me. When I pressed to submit the comment nothing happened for a long time. So then I clicked away and it published the same comment 4 times (and I'm not sure it's worth reading once :)

  38. As a judge this year in the same contest, I found my freshman entries the most difficult to judge.

    I remember my first time of entering the contest (my first writing contest ever) and making the mistake of opening my results in an airport lounge and promptly bursting into tears at some of the scores.

    With the benefit of hindsight, the scores reflected my ability at the time, but it literally took me months to scrape myself off the floor and keep writing.

    Being on the other side, and finding myself gritting my teeth as I put down 2s and 3s for some of my entries, all I could think was "Oh no, I'm THAT judge."

    But I completely agree with Kaye - my experience has also been that often unpublished judges are harder than published ones and we do need to let go of al the rules we've been taught and let ourselves relax into the story.

    A couple of my entries I scored in the 90s, not because they were technically perfect and "obeyed" all the rules, but because their storytelling was so good that I had to go back and reread the entry multiple times in order to mark it, because the first time I was so engaged in the stories I forgot I was supposed to be judging them!

  39. Hi Warren! It was definitely worth reading! Thanks for your efforts to work with blogger (even though at times it can be a hassle!) :-)

  40. Hi Kara! I appreciate hearing your perspective too. It IS hard to have to give lower scores on freshman entries. But I really tried to be encouraging at the same time. Hopefully when we find a balance, the person will be able to digest the scores better. :-)

  41. Hi Jody
    Your post and the comments that followed after made a fascinating insight into competition judging. I've only ever entered blog competitions but I think, even there, I could see the four stages of writing.

  42. Thanks--I entered RWA's Golden Heart contest 20+ years ago and had an interesting experience. Two judges were "whatever," but to be fair, there were so many entries that year, they may have been overwhelmed. Two more were like, "You're ready" and one even gave me the name and address of her agent. But the last two were the most interesting. They HATED my writing. One hated I had a "damaged" heroine (she'd been raped in high school) and the other said, "People don't talk like that." Funny thing that, as I'd taken the excerpt almost word for word from an actual conversation I'd had with a male friend. I asked Kris Rusch, who was our GoH at a SF convention that year about it and she complimented me by saying, "You're doing some pretty powerful writing, to evoke that response." So, I learned, 1. Reading and writing is subjective, 2. You may see the critique as wrong, but the judge is entitled to their opinion and 3. What you said, do something with your entry, because I never followed up with that agent recommendation! Thanks for a good post and good luck with your writing!

  43. Thank you, Jody, for the insight. No, I've never judged a contest. Indeed, at just shy of 66 I've entered my first novel in my first contest without a clue as to how judging is handled. My concern is that the manuscripts might be put in a slush pile and read by screeners who, for political or religious reasons that prove contrary to personal beliefs, might eliminate my chance of being read by an actual judge. Also,I wonder how snail mail submissions are treated, even when allowed, since the vast majority of contests are conducted via online entry these days. Do you have any experience, or opinion pertaining to those three s's, i.e., screeners, slush, and snail? I so enjoyed reading your post. Truly. (I don't qualify for any of your 'select profile' choices so I'm choosing anonymous, but my name is Marguerite.)

    1. Hi Marguerite,

      Thanks for stopping by! If you entered a reputable contest, your manuscript shouldn't sit in a slush pile, but should definitely be passed along to judges who will hopefully evaluate the quality of your writing and story and not mark you down for your beliefs.

      And as you said, there are very few snail mail submissions nowadays. But even with online submissions, manuscripts can sit on agent or editor harddrives or months before they have the chance to read it. The process of querying and submitting can be quite lengthy.

      Hope that answers your questions! I wish you all the best!

  44. Thank you for the great quote. I just wish higher education wasn’t so expensive these days.

  45. Jody, hi.

    This is insightful, generous information, plus encouraging. Thank you.

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