Thursday, February 7, 2013

Improve Your Writing: Be a Judge

Have you ever wished you could step back and review your manuscript through the objective eyes of a professional editor?
While you can’t literally enter another person’s brain, there is a way to slip temporarily into professional editor mode: Volunteer to judge for writing contests. The experience might show your work in a new light.
Last year, one writing competition put out a plea for experienced authors to serve as judges for an upcoming contest. My schedule was tight, but I understood the need was worthy, so I submitted my credentials and was accepted.
When I received the entries I was to critique, the contest organizers supplied a list of criteria to consider. These included use of dialogue, command of English language, punctuation, interest-grabbing openings, and other factors involving style. I had volunteered to help others, but ultimately this exercise improved my own writing.
Why? It’s easier to spot your own weaknesses in a context that didn’t spring from your own imagination. Often, we writers are simply too close to our words to perceive our flaws.
For instance, when you notice a contest entry is rife with, say, the word that, you can’t help but wonder whether your current manuscript won’t benefit from pruning some that’s. (MS Word’s search function will help you to track down and zap such literary fat.)
Does the contest entrant wax on and on about setting description or interior monologue without any action or dialogue? Yes, but as I scrutinized my own story I find myself guilty of similar transgressions.
How about that opening paragraph? Your impression might be “Tsk, tsk. Couldn’t this writer see why this opening comes across as ho-hum when it should pop off the page and grab my eyeballs?” That conclusion drove me back to reexamine my own opening scene.
Perhaps you’ll begin reading a contest submission and find yourself wondering, “Where in the world is this dialogue happening? There’s not a word about location. It’s literary limbo!” That, too, caused me to repaint my background with a few brighter strokes.
For these reasons and more, I urge you to judge a writing contest if you get the chance. You’ll serve yourself while serving others. However, be sure to offer encouragement and praise whenever you can. While all of us have room for improvement, all of us also can also use a shot of encouragement—especially that young author just starting out.


Rick Barry has published over 200 short stories and articles, plus two novels. Visit his personal blog at


  1. Rick, what a great self snap shot of you at work! I find that reading other works can only help make yourself a better editor and also to learn from what other people did (or did not do).

  2. I've found the same benefit from judging others in a contest. A few entries were 10's across the board, and the contest forced me to analyze why so I could tell the writer--but mostly the analysis helped me learn from the writer's great example. Some entries were sorely lacking in specific areas, and analyzing them to help the writer often turned the light bulb on for me and my writing too.

    When I finish my WIP, I'm going to judge my opening pages as if I were an objective judge. Or I could enter it into a contest …

  3. Great idea. I never thought I was qualified. But I can see how doing so would be helpful and insightful. Thanks for the influence!

  4. Good ideas, which produce a couple of questions and a comment.

    First, the comment. While I haven't done a writing contest, I've judged speech contests both with Toastmasters and a home school group. In fact, I'll be doing the latter next week! I look forward to doing it each you.

    Second, you mentioned they were looking for experienced authors. What if you're not published?

    Third, does being in a critique group fill the same role?

  5. I've been a finalist judge for the Amy Writing Awards for years. And yes, Rick, I can affirm all you've so eloquently expressed about the benefits of judging the writing of others. That's one of several reasons I keep doing it year after year. Thanks for the reminder. . . :-)

  6. Great stuff, Rick! I've been first round judge in Genesis a couple of times and it really perked up my self-critiquing senses.

  7. Glad to see I'm not the only one benefiting from helping out in such competitions.

    To answer Jeff's question, it would probably be tough to get accepted as a judge without being published first. The organizers would look at publishing credentials as affirmation that the judge does, indeed, have first-hand knowledge of good writing. But related credentials could also suffice. For instance, I once recommended that a friend who managed a Christian bookstore be a judge for a different contest. She was quickly accepted based on her knowledge of good writing that sells!