Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Contest Judge

Contest season is heating up. Maybe you've submitted an entry to the Genesis or another writing contest, and now you're chewing your fingernails down to nothing while you wait for results. Or maybe you're checking email every two seconds just in case the judges' feedback came through. (I'm not saying any of this from personal experience. *wink*)

Then when you finally get your entries back, you may find yourself wanting to chuck them in the trash can. Or shoot darts at a picture of the judge's face.

Before you get carried away, though, let me present some perspective. In the last couple years, I've been on the other side as a judge. And things on this side are much tougher than I would have expected.

For someone like me who has been on the receiving end, I'm extremely conscientious of the feedback I provide. But I'm also juggling my own writing (or in some cases during contest season, putting it completely on the back burner so I can judge).

Plus I'm also a stay-at-home mom of young children. Need I say more?

Here's a little snippet of what might happen when I open an entry to judge...

*Reading first sentence* Wow, nice hook!

"Mommy, I want a snack."

"What's that, honey? Oh, a snack?" *going to pantry to get some animal crackers* "Here you go."

Okay, let's read that first sentence again. *typing comment in entry* Great opening!

"Mommy, Mickey Mouse is done. Can I watch Little Einstein's next?"

"I'm sorry, honey. What'd you say? Oh, sure. Take the remote and watch whatever you want." (Don't judge...I'm desperate at this point.)

*finish typing comment in entry and read second sentence*

"Mommy, the TV isn't working."


At this rate, it takes me three hours to read an entry and provide meaningful feedback. At least, I hope it's meaningful because I've had so many interruptions. For all I know, I may have said the entrant needs more description when they had too much of it.

As hard as it is to imagine sometimes, judges are people too.

And while we truly want to help develop other writers' skills, we have interruptions and agents or editors who still expect us to meet our deadlines.

When you get your contest entry back, read through the judges' comments with a clear mind. You may (hopefully!) find some great nuggets to take your writing to the next level.

But if something doesn't jive or comes across as mean, remember who's on the other side of the comments. They may have just gotten a snack for the tenth time during your entry, and they're taking their frustrations out on unsuspecting you.

Perspective is so important, no matter what stage we may find ourselves. We would all benefit from remembering there's a person behind the words--no matter which side we're on--and filtering everything with wisdom and understanding.

So let's talk...What side of contests do you sit currently--entrant or judge? If a judge, how do you balance your other responsibilities with contest entries? If an entrant, how does this perspective change the way you receive contest feedback?

*Feedback photo by Stuart Miles /
**Time photo by Salvatore Vuono /

Sarah Forgrave is a stay-at-home writer-mom who feels blessed to pursue her calling and passion. She writes contemporary romance for the inspirational market and is a contributor to the webzine Ungrind.

To learn more about Sarah, visit her personal blog at:


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I know how much you pour into giving quality feedback, Sarah. I imagine those who have you as a judge are very blessed!
~ Wendy

Lindsay Harrel said...

I'm a contestant this year, and I've tried to just take things with a grain of salt, realizing that judges aren't perfect, but trying to glean some good advice from the feedback as well.

Anonymous said...

Love this side of the contest, Sarah. :) I've entered two contests this spring. I'm blessed, becuase my "mentor" has helped me to gain a good perspective about contests. I know judges are people, they may/may not like my writing style, but they want to give good feedback. Good=helpful and constructive, not always glowingly positive.

Thanks for sharing what the other side of contesting looks like. :)

Unknown said...

I have a very unique perspective on this. I've started my own blog specifically designed to address writing competitions. I showcase my own contest entries as well as making my observations about the contest and competition process.

I think this is a great blog post, and plan on linking to it from my blog. It's important for contests to remember judges are human. I look forward to hearing from more judges.

Joanne Sher said...

Great perspective, Sarah! Needed to hear it. I've only been on the receiving end - though I'm gonna be on the judging end later this year, apparently. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Loved this insight, Sarah. I've judged, too, and one of the things I loved in my experience was that I was required to point out what I loved...and it was never hard to find something I could appreciate! And I'd get so incredibly excited when the scene blew me away!

Angie Dicken said...

Great perspective, Sarah. I keep reminding myself that whatever happens as far as results go, it's not going to change who I am as a writer...just push me to be better or affirm that I am doing something right. Win, win...right? ;)

Keli Gwyn said...

I'm a huge fan of contests, having received my offer of representation as the result of a request for a full from a final round judge. But before that happened, there were some 46 other entries (no kidding) with lots of feedback. I treasured it. I've often said my contest judges taught me to write, and there's a lot of truth to that. I appreciate each of my contest judges and the time they took to give me helpful feedback. These days I'm paying it forward and enjoy reading the work of some awesome up-and-coming authors.

Angie Dicken said...

Keli, what you said resonates with me so much!!! If I hadn't listened to the first contest feedback I ever received, I wouldn't be writing today. Through them basically telling me I missed the mark on how to write (ugh), they gave me hope that I could figure it out thru their suggestions. That is when I joined the large crit group and began to read up on the craft. The judges didn't offer me representation, far from it...they challenged me to take this seriously in humility and seek out knowledge to have any hope in a future for this.

Erica Vetsch said...

You're so right! Judging is harder than it might seem from the contestant side. It's time consuming, sometimes daunting, and scary when you realize the receiver might not take your comments in the manner in which you hoped.

But it's rewarding too. And a good way to give back. I learned so much from my early contest entries.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wendy - Thank you, dear lady. :)

Lindsay - That sounds like the right approach. Your writing will be so much stronger when you accept feedback carefully and consideringly (is that a word?). :)

Jeanne - How awesome that you have someone helping guide you through this process. What a blessing!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Nate - Thanks so much for sharing the link! Sounds like you're building a great community of writers.

Joanne - Oohhh, the fun of going from entrant to judge. I'll be curious to hear how the switch goes for you. :)

Melissa - I love that too. My favorite is when I forget to judge because the entry is so good. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Angie - I love your perspective and how you let that first contest challenge you to grow. That's the mark of a career writer right there. :)

Keli - I can't imagine trying to process feedback from 46 judges...Wow. But look where you are now. :)

Erica - I've read and reread certain comments a dozen times in hopes that I've worded it as constructively as possible. When I'm in a hurry, I tend to write clipped feedback. But going back through and softening the blow, so to speak, will hopefully help the contestants in the long run.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I've been on both sides and I think judging is alot harder than swallowing the tough comments. Like Erica, I worried that my comments would be taken the wrong way. I learned alot while doing it though.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Sherrinda - I agree. Of course, tough comments are always best swallowed with chocolate. ;)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Hey Sarah! It's always nice to see the other side. It's hard to remember sometimes that the people giving writers bad news are people, too. Just like agents, most of them are truly rooting for writers and want to help them as much as possible. Thanks for giving us a peek at the other end.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Good point, Cindy. I didn't think about the parallel for agents and editors, but I imagine they often feel the same way. :)

Casey said...

I've sat on both sides, but not with writing contests so much as private judging, but it still takes so much to focus and leave all your other emotions out of the equations. I'm slowly learning that their judging isn't about ME, but about a moment in time that doesn't define where I'm going. But will hopefully help me grow. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

So true, Casey. It's good preparation for when agents and editors give us feedback too, isn't it? :)