Monday, May 14, 2012

What I've Learned As A Writing Contest Judge

Sometimes it’s hard to fathom that I was sought out this year to be a judge in a writing contest. It was a case where I received a personal invitation by e-mail (as opposed to when I volunteered in the past). I was flattered and accepted with deep gratitude. The way I look at it, judging a contest is an honor and privilege. In some ways, I don’t like the term “judge” and it’s not something I take lightly. While we were told we only needed to make one or two sentence comments in each of the categories, I took my time and wrote what needed to be said, trying to balance the good with the perhaps not-so-good. I’ve been on both sides of the contest circuit now, and I know the blessings and the pitfalls. You may have personally experienced what I did the one year I entered the same story in three contests: it finaled in one contest, in another, it earned 100% from one judge, a middling score and a third lukewarm score. In another contest, it didn’t make it to the second round of judging because one judge scored it very low with comments such as, “I needed to know more about what the conference room looked like.” That one made me rant a bit since the conference room description really had nothing whatsoever to do with moving the story forward. So, I’ve been on the receiving end and know what it’s like to receive scores and can certainly empathize. On the flip side are reviews when you’re a published writer, sometimes from not-so-understanding or sympathetic “judges."

Below are my overall impressions as a writing contest judge:

1      The level of talent is outstanding. I was encouraged and uplifted by the level of talent. With some of the entries, the spiritual influence or emphasis was quite pronounced, and in others, it was not in evidence at all. But that’s indicative of the widespread spectrum of Christian fiction these days—something for everyone, and that’s a very good thing. Just as we’re all at different points in our own spiritual walk, so are our readers.
2      The difference is in the mechanics as well as the details. Out of the six entries I judged, about half were near publication level. With a little polishing, others were close. As is usually the case, there was one entry that stood out among the rest. Here are some of the primary things that made this one so good:
A.    The first sentence hooked me. I heard Liz Curtis Higgs speak once and she said if the first sentence (or paragraph at most) doesn’t hook her, she moves on.
B.     The story flowed with no awkward sentences.
C.    No typos or grammatical errors. Proof, edit, proof, edit. Then do it again.
D.    The use of strong, active verbs and varying sentence structure.
E.     Descriptive, almost lyrical passages. This can be difficult for some authors (me included), but work on it and read it out loud (one of the best suggestions I ever heard and I employ this one all the time).
F.     Good use of alternating dialog and narrative. Keeps it from being boring, and imparts just enough backstory to fill in the holes or blanks.
G.    I identified with the main character and felt her anxiety of what was about to happen in her world. If the reader can’t identify, he or she won’t care and you’ll possibly lose them.
H.    Well-drawn secondary characters. Don’t treat them like second best. Make them interesting but not to the point of overshadowing your main characters. If you’re writing a series (like me), these secondary characters will take a turn in the spotlight and given their time to shine.
I.       A touch of humor interspersed with the drama. Making the reader smile is always a good thing and lightens the tension and the drama.

3      Every story has value. The writer has spent a lot of time and effort, prayers and maybe even a few tears, on his or her story. It’s the product of their imagination, the Lord’s guidance and perhaps input from critique partners. It’s my responsibility as someone evaluating the story to make comments and try to see what the author was trying to accomplish. What is the purpose? What is the spiritual takeaway from it?

As a published writer, I personally do not enter contests. Why? (1) My books don’t follow the tried-and-true formula for contemporary romance; (2) Contests take up precious time I’d rather devote to actual writing; (3) Contests cost quite a bit of money in terms of donated books and entry fees; and (4) I’m more focused on writing to plant seeds and maybe win souls, not awards. Sure, if I’d enter and actually win something, I’d be thrilled, but—at this point in my career, it’s not my goal. I’ve seen authors with pages upon pages on their websites of awards earned, and deservedly so, but I have to wonder at what cost? I work a full-time job and simply don’t have enough writing time. What time I do have is spent indulging in that passion. The reward is receiving an e-mail or message from a reader telling me how much one of my characters, or one of my books has touched, impacted or even changed her life in some way. That’s heady stuff, but it’s not praise for me, it’s a gift. The Lord is the only "judge" I need, and I want to always write stories that make people think and impart a message of His hope and overwhelming love. I give all the “credit” to the Lord from whom all good and perfect things come indeed.

Blessings, my friends. Matthew 5:16


  1. Great points, JoAnn. Although what we do may vary according to God's purpose, I hope we all truly make our decisions based on pleasing that Audience of One.

  2. Excellent, JoAnne. Two comments.

    1. I don't blame you for not entering certain contests. A lot of them I find are from self-publishers. These may not have a cost to them (one I entered didn't), but often the prize is for the self-publisher to give you a publishing package. I didn't win the prize for the one I entered, but I got honorable mention, which meant that I could get a discount with that publisher.

    2. Your comments made me think about when I judged home-schoolers' speech contests. We are told to be purely objective. Great goal, but that doesn't work. When I judged Thematic Interpretation (where the student is to present a theme with a minimum of three sources), I could have made a case for five of the six earning first place. So I had to go for certain elements that I like about the speech that separate it. (In this case, one student had a three point out-line and used her three sources for each point, as opposed to the others using one source per point.)


  3. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I appreciate your taking the time to read my post and always value your input. Many blessings to you.

  4. This year, I volunteered to be a "judge" (humbling word) for a writing contest--my first time ever. Although we could get by with input requiring only a half-hour, I put in the time to be as thorough as I could. One of the best helps I received in a contest years ago was from a judge who did that for me, so in gratefulness I hope to do the same for contestants I crit. Your list was wonderful, JoAnn, and I can't help but believe everyone you "judged" came out a winner even if they didn't make the cut!