Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Two Sides of Contests

Last week a big topic of discussion on the ACFW loop started as a result of someone who had been hurt to the point of quitting by feedback she received from a contest. I was pleased to see how many people rallied to encourage her, as so often happens in that wonderful organization. It also thrilled me when that same person came back into the fold, ready to give it another try.

In the writing world, you need to have some thick skin. That said, those given the privilege to judge need to do their best to help novice writers grow instead of stunting their growth.

The first real feedback I ever got on my writing came from a published author. And the first words out of her mouth were, "This reads like a police report." My heart dropped into my stomach. Now, of course, I realize she was right. But I also think she could have taken a different approach. Perhaps point out a couple of things I had done well first.

Judging can be hard work. And the more the entrant has to learn, the tougher the job becomes. Sometimes when I'm judging a novice writer, I really struggle to come up with something nice to say. My intent is not to discourage anyone, but to help them grow. Sometimes it's hard to find something nice to say. What do you do then?

I would suggest pray (and I'm speaking to myself as much as anyone else). Ask God to show you how to critique/encourage this person. To you it's just words on a paper/screen. To the person who sent it, it's their baby. God knows where they are in their writing life and exactly what that person needs.

Have you ever received contest feedback that was so harsh it made you want to give up? Did you? Have you been a judge so frustrated with an entry you wondered if you were ever going to get to the end? What advice do you have for entrants and judges alike?


  1. Being both an entrant and a judge, I can say that my writing benefited from those tougher judges. Painful but true. What seems harsh may be harsh (and wrong!) but if that judge is willing to put in the effort, you know they are probably seeing legitimate problems and better you hear from someone you don't have to face again.

    When I judge I remind them to look for a consensus. Eventually you begin to know when the judge is on to something when it confirms your worries.

    What has always been most frustrating for me is when judges seem to have opposite opinions on what's working or not in my entry! This might be where their personal taste comes in.

    Hang in there, contestants! It's all about tenacity. Whether I'm on the judging or the receiving end, I always put it aside and look again later. Old advice but very true.

  2. Very good points, Debra. And I agree. My greatest growth has come as a result of some tough judges. Even as I've matured as a writer, I've had judges who've been harsh, but taken the time to explain what I need to do to make my writing better.

    Judging like that does take time, but hopefully it's a labor of love :-)

  3. I like to think that the judges have the entrants good at heart. But I know how I've had bad days and have found I'm thinking harsh things as I'm reading an entry. I just stop and come back to it another day. And I've been amazed at how differently I'll look at an entry on another day! So we need to realize sometimes a judge may just be having a bad day.

    I do think judges should always use the sandwich method. Pack a "negative" comment between two positive comments. So tell the entrant their strengths, then give feedback about how they can improve. Then once again tell a strength. I think what's important is to have balance. I can take the hard-to-hear stuff a lot better if I'm encouraged about something as well.

    I have actually been to the point of quitting after especially hard contest feedback. But the very same day that it came in the mail, I got a call I'd finaled in the Maggie. So, thank You Lord!, I didn't give up. Sometimes just one little thing can keep us going. I believe God gives us those times to keep enouraging us.

  4. I've been both entrant and judge too. I have to say being the judge was the hardest. I learned how difficult it is to help someone while having to put a highlight on helping them grow. Sometimes it's nice to praise them, but it's also important to be honest. How cruel it would be to pat an entrant on the head and not tell the truth so they never learn or grow. That's not fair either. But as the entrant, it was so hard to read.

    One thing I do is skim the judge's comments. Then I put them away for several days to weeks. Calm the little kiddle in me down first. Then go back with a more objective mental state. It tends to work for me. Sometimes it's easy to tell when a judge is way off base and sometimes you have to take it to a critique group and ask for their input. I've found that extremely helpful. They can show me the "how" to do what I need to do versus just "it doesn't work." On the flip-side, my lovely critique groups have also said this or that comment is hooey. LOL, and that works too :-)

  5. I've also being both an entrant and a judge. Having being on the *very* touch end of a judge's pen I'm well aware of how hard it can be to read such unrestrained crticism against you *baby*. However, I've also read entries that I knew would only frustrate the author, and do them no favours, if I didn't give them so very honest feedback as to why I gave them the scores that I did.

    Similar to others I always look for something to say. And it can be found even in the most trying of manuscripts!

    The other thing that I try to remember is that judging is just so subjective. Last year I entered two contests which closed within 24 hours of each other. Both had pretty much the same entry requirements. In one contest I not only finaled but went on to WIN the inspirational category, in the other my scores were so low and the comments so scathing that taken in isolation they almost would have convinced me that I was wasting everyone's time.

    How an identical entry managed to get such polar opposite views I will never know. But then I feel exactly the same way when I see a review on Amazon completely tearing into a book that I absolutely adored :)