Judging Writing Contests
I just read this great post from Jody Hedlund on what she’s learned from writing judging contests: What I’ve Learned from Judging Writing Contests
I’d like to add my two cents.
First, a point about writing contests: I hear from many people who are wary of contests that charge a fee. I would be wary of literary agents who charge a “reading fee,” but this is not the same as the entry fee for a contest. Running a contest (as I have a few times, unfortunately) takes a lot of work, runs through a lot of resources, and (one hopes) offers prize money. That cost is covered by the entry fees, so write your check or log into PayPal with the hope of seeing that money again!
Now, unless the contest requires it, don’t put a cover letter on your entry. You should especially not add a cover letter in which you insult the judge. In one contest, a writer wrote in his cover letter that he was sure I would not understand his writing, but he hoped I would judge it to the best of my abilities. Yes, I understood his writing completely. No, he was not a good writer.
In another contest, an entrant added a cover letter that was typed in all upper-case letters with no margins. The language was fairly scary and a bit threatening. I was glad that we judges in that contest were anonymous.
Another letter you should not write is after the contest to complain that you were not selected for any of the top prizes. Some contest administrators will forward these letters to the judges; others do not. One writer, whose letter was forwarded to me, asked me if I had even read his book. Yes, I did. No, he was not a good writer.
Another writer, in a contest in which the judges were not anonymous, told me he had looked up my books and felt that I didn’t deserve to be published. I’m sure he’s probably one of my Twitter followers now.
Amid the troubled entries have been many gems. One, written by a fire fighter who was one of the first responders to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, moved me to tears. Many entries talk about journeys with child abuse, cancer, addiction, loss of children. Another of my favorites talked about what it was like to be an “escort.” In that lovely little text, I learned how one goes about getting a Brazilian wax. (If you don’t know what that is, you don’t want to know.)
I have contacted some authors after a contest, to give them some encouragement that the small critique section or “field” didn’t have room for. Frequently in self-published book contests, the writers did not give themselves the best chance when they did not have their books edited by someone else. It became a joke that almost every book in which the author thanked his or her mother for editing the book was horribly edited. One author thanked his mother in the “Forward.” That’s OK: one of my editing clients thanked me in the “Forward.” After that, I told all my clients to let me read the “Foreword” and “Acknowledgments” (another word often misspelled). It’s a neat idea, but you don’t want to surprise your editor that way.
As I tell attendees at my writing workshops, sometimes the difference between an acceptance and a rejection is just clean mechanics. Take a hard, cold look at yourself and ask if you are a good proofreader. If not, hire someone. I can’t even proofread my own writing, and I’m a professional!
I wish that all writers who want to be published could sit in the hot seat of being a judge. What the writing judges are seeing is a reflection of what editors see. I agree with Jody Hedlund: you can tell before the end of the first page if it’s worth turning the page. With high enough entry numbers and short enough articles, the decision is often made in less than a minute. Think about it: how long would you give a book or article if the first page or paragraph doesn’t grab you?
To that point, I use a “triage” system, similar to the “freshman, sophomore, junior, senior” system that Hedlund describes. Depending on the contest, I use two systems: A, B, C (another school rubric) or check-plus, check, X. I use the former when the contest requires me to write a critique of the work. It puts me in the mode of when I was a college instructor and had to give constructive, compassionate feedback to my students. It keeps me from being as blunt as I’m sometimes tempted to be. “What were you thinking?” and “Don’t quit your day job!” are never appropriate critique comments, just as I would never say that to a student.
I use the check-plus, check, X system when I have to go through a lot of entries quickly (and by a lot, I mean hundreds). “X” means it clearly will not make the top 25 (or however many I have to choose: it’s usually 10). A check means that it might merit a second look if I don’t have enough check-plus entries. When I see that I clearly have more than enough check-plus entries, the checks become Xs.
By the way, the person who yelled his entry at me with his upper-case letters was an X after the first paragraph. The elitist who questioned my intelligence did make it to the check pile but was soon moved over to the X category.
Don’t bite the hand that reads you.