Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Being the Judge

I've had the opportunity to serve as a judge in a few different kinds of contests in the past few months. I provided feedback and voted for writers to move to the next level in a pitch contest (#SonofaPitch), a contest I've now worked with twice. I read and ranked stories by young writers for a brand new fiction contest (Lune Spark). Next, I'm returning to judge a second year for the Women's Fiction Writers Association Rising Star contest for unpublished novels. 

None of these roles came with a gavel or a cool black robe with a lace collar, but they did come with the opportunity to re-connect with my passion for writing.

You see, writing is work. Hard work. Especially if you want to make a career of it. You've got to produce a lot of words, good ones, and find publishing homes for those. You have to get out there and
shake your tailfeathers trying to get people to notice, buy, and praise your work. In the midst of all that nose to the grindstone, a girl can forget that the reason we do this is because it's fun, because we are passionate about words and story. 

It's a joy to spend time with writers who are fresh to the passion. They can reignite your own fire. 

It's also good for your own word-smithing. 

I've been participating in and facilitating a writers critique group for some years now, and I value the giving of advice and feedback as highly as receiving it. Serving as a judge or critic can really help you learn to articulate what is and isn't working in a piece.

As a casual reader, I might just say, "I like this" or "I don't like this." But as a writer-who-reads, I want to understand why a story is or isn't working for me, whether or not I'll be providing feedback
for the author in question. What's pulling me out of the immersive experience of reading? Is it something I'm bringing to the experience, like exhaustion, distraction, preconceptions, or biases? Or is it something in the piece itself, like poor structure, clunky dialogue, or undeveloped characters? Is it something I can imitate or avoid in my own writing?

Doing this as a judge is the same, but amplified. The pace is more intense, and I have no relationship with the entrants, who are all strangers to me: no history to pull from or basis for trust. Yet I still need to articulate the flaws in their work in a respectful and supportive manner that helps them take their work to the next level. It's a special challenge to do this very quickly, over the space of only a few days. The turnaround time can be quick in a contest setting.

Serving as a judge really helps me look at my own craft in a new light. Participating in events like the
award-giving and talking with the other judges challenges me to define my terms and articulate my views clearly. It's an experience I recommend for any writer looking to take her game to the next level.

Besides, it's always good to spend time with other people living the life of words. They speak your language.


  1. I'm serving as a judge in a poetry contest this summer. Glad you got so much out of the experience!

  2. I think I would have such a hard time judging others' work! I like the idea of it helping you see your own work in a different light. It's probably easier to see where things aren't working.

    1. Feedback can be so valuable, and such a minefield to cross, whether you're giving or receiving. My hope is that, if you come with a heart to help, then you will.

  3. I recently participated as a judge in a fiction contest. I was asked to read one book and provide a numerical grade based on my answers to a number of questions about the book. Since it was my first experience judging, I'm wondering if other contests operate the same way. There was no place on the judging form for me to leave substantive comments about the book--it was all based on the number score.

    1. I've had to give a number score, too, but I was allowed comments. Thank goodness! It's a rough translation for me, trying to put my reaction in number form.