Posted by: Kiki | July 8, 2009

Giving back to contests

I’m a very competitive person, and I like to think I’m not a sore loser.

But writing competitions are just not my cup of tea. Why? Because I can never get the hang of what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’ve entered my fair share of writing contests (somewhere between 20 and 100), and have never done overly well. The best result I’ve had was coming third in an RWA (US) competition. My scores are always all over the place. people either love or hate my voice and heroines. That, I can deal with.

So I happily retired from the competition circuit when Enter The Parrot sold. And I thought, “Hey, maybe instead of complaining about judges who don’t get me, I should go out there and give back. Do a better job.”

Yeah, I thought judging books constructively was so easy.
I filled in a form for several contests that I’d entered in the past, telling them what genres I would and wouldn’t read (I figured I can’t help someone whose genre I don’t understand. After all, wasn’t that exactly the problem I’d had in the past myself?). And when the contest managers came begging, I graciously took on a big pack of manuscripts.

Big mistake.

The good ones weren’t hard to judge. The truly bad ones weren’t hard to judge. It was the ones in the middle that did my head in. The ones that were written by intermediate writers. They had mastered their grammar, their POV and their basic plot premise. They had a heroine that was all right, and a hero you might get interested in.
But there was no spark. No magic. Sometimes, these were super polished and there was no voice. But there wasn’t enough to hang criticism on.
3/5. 7/10.
Nice scores. Pointless scores. These books wouldn’t move on to th next round, but neither would the writer take much away from this.

I tried hard to figure out what to say to these people. And that’s when I understood just what a hard and thankless job judging competition entries is.

Sure, if you’ve got something to say, it’s easy to share. It’s even easy to be nice to beginners and gently guide them on (although it’s no guarantee that they won’t hate you anyway). And praising something you love will always come naturally.

But those that fall between the two extremes are the ones that get the polarised scores.

So next time you get a judged entry back, spare a thought for those who had to read a tiny slice of your material and squeeze it into a scale that doesn’t account for what makes your work unique and special – in the good way and the bad.



  1. thanks Kiki for giving a judge’s perspective. I’m yet to volunteer to judge as I know how difficult it sometimes was to do manuscript assessments, plus I have enough trouble getting through my TBR pile as it is, without the added pressure of having to score and comment.

  2. Hey, Kiki. I’ve had a go at judging and I agree it can be a hard and thankless task.

    As an entrant, even though I *love* glowing comments, sometimes the harsher ones are more helpful. I may not agree a lot of the time, but they do give me a new perspective and help me build my emotional armour against bad reviews I might receive in future!

    I found judging the Golden Heart liberating because I didn’t have to comment! I read the entries like I’d read any book–no detailed score sheet, no worrying whether a chance comment might crush somebody.

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