Confessions of a Contest Judge

Just finished another round of contest entries.
As a judge in two different contests over
the years, I have a confession to make.
Or several:

  • I sympathize with agents and editors who say the majority of submissions they see are not up to publishable standards. About one in six that I review gets a finalist’s score. About one in twelve really gets me excited. Sorry. I wish it wasn’t so. But the number of entries that aren’t even proofread, or where the author isn’t even clear on what story they’re telling, still staggers me.
  • I consider making macros of frequently repeated comments, the ‘ad infinitum’ macros.–Show, don’t tell.–Who’s your story about?–What’s your story, now?–What’s at stake in this scene?–This is all backstory; make me care.
  • If it’s worth anything, I feel bad about the ‘macro’ thoughts.
  • Even though I say the same things to other contestants as the judges who dissed my entry said to me, I still think those judges were haters and stupid and wrong. Knowing how petty and hypocritical these thoughts make me does nothing to mitigate their power.
  • When a contestant that I gave a good score to makes it to the finals, I feel proud. When someone whose work I gave a low score to makes it, I feel like the other judges are stupid and wrong.
  • I talk to the unknown contestants as I’m reading their work. Out loud. Oh yeah. I ask questions. I instruct. I scold. Sometimes, I thank them for getting so many things right. What? Talking to your computer isn’t crazy. Quit looking at me.
  • I worry that I’m part of a process that reinforces an othodoxy, one that’s arbitrary, confined and harmful to the free expression of unbridled creativity. Fortunately, I’m too busy to dwell on these pangs. Don’t want to get acid indigestion or anything.
  • The hardest entries are the ones where the writer didn’t do anything wrong, but something about their story doesn’t ignite for me. They’ve obviously worked hard, turned in a flawless manuscript, hit what they’re aiming for. Their heart is all over this thing. And yet … it just doesn’t launch. I imagine, if they’ve queried agents or editors, they’ve heard the dreaded “I just didn’t fall in love with this.” And I suspect this phenomenon is one of the reasons for the gap in what a writer expects will happen to their fine book and the cold shoulder from the publishing industry. And I’m genuinely sorry.
  • Every time I open a new entry, every single time, I feel the rush of potential, the excitement that this will be a find, that I’ll be reading an early draft of something truly amazing. And no matter how many times that dream is deferred, I still celebrate the courage and the imagination that every writer shows in putting their work out there for judgment by anonymous–and sometimes stupid and wrong– judges.

Like me.


    Next up on Devlin’s blog:
    Good and Bad Movie Taglines
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15 Responses to Confessions of a Contest Judge

  1. Karen Duvall says:

    Interesting blog post about contests, and i know of which one you speak because i judged it, too. 🙂 I’ve been judging this contest for over 15 years now, and i’m always staggered by the sheer talent of some of the entries. Of course there are errors and some work is always needed to improve the pages, but for the most part i’m quite impressed.

    In fact, this year i read an entry that impressed me so much i felt it was something my agent would like so i told her about it. The story is fresh and original and the voice is strong and appealing. My agent asked if she could see this writer’s work, so i arranged to get her a proposal from him. She has it right now.

    Thought it’s true that some entries need more work than others, this year i saw more stellar entries than i have in the past. I love being a contest judge! 🙂


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Karen, wow! How generous and awesome of you to pass a contestant along to your agent! Shows your commitment as a contest judge and to your fellow writers.
      I, too, love the process of judging contests and of being a contestant, even though I’ve never finaled. No matter the frustrations, it’s always affirming of the crazy, amazing world of being a novelist.
      Thanks for all your work. All of you!


      • Karen Duvall says:

        Oh, i’m more than happy to do it. It’s a win/win for everyone. Hopefully this writer gets one of the best agents in the business, and if my agent sells his book, it’s great for them both. I love seeing really great writers get ahead. It can be a long and torturous journey, not to mention lonely, so any help along the way is a really good thing. 🙂


  2. As a fledgling contest enterer (and a finalist and winner in 2 of 3 so far–waiting to hear from the 4th), your comments are both revelatory and entertaining. When I got my score sheets from the contest I won, the scores were mostly on the high side (obviously), but a few were quite (quite) low. And yes, I thought those judges were haters and stupid and wrong. I hope you gave written comments when feasible, as those helped me a ton more than mere scores.
    Thanks for sharing your insights!


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Congrats on your wins. How exciting, especially for a fledgling. Okay, I confess, I’m jealous! And yeah, the disparity in scoring is always so puzzling. Underscores how completely subjective this business is, because really, that’s what happens with agents and editors, too. You have to keep on looking, because 50 agents might really not fall in love with your writing, but that 51st…
      I do comment quite a bit (maybe too much for some contestants.) I always feel like the least I can do is try to explain the score I’m giving.
      Good luck in future contests and in all your writing endeavors. 😉


  3. Karen Lin says:

    As a many-time entrant and just as many time judge, I laughed over this post. I have wanted to throw pages across the room as often as I’ve cried or laughed or tingled or sunk in on myself over an entry. There are some amazing unpublished writers with great voice and surprising stories out there. Through the pain and pleasure, helping any writer recognize their strengths and using them to grow their craft is what makes the time and test of this judge’s character worth while. Karen Lin


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Hi, Karen, thanks for stopping by. Yes, one of the really fun things about being a judge is that feeling that you’re part of someone else’s creative process, and that hopefully what you’re saying–even if it’s not wild praise–will be helpful to them on their journey. So many people have helped me in that way, in critique groups, contests, workshops, writing books, blogs, late night conversations…It’s truly cool to be a writer, and to be around writers, and to share our stuff. Really, we all win!


  4. Mark Stevens says:

    Dead on….I couldn’t agree more. I’ve judged two contests for years, last year added a third. This year, back down to two. The very few dynamite pieces I’ve rated high were, well, almost, uh….worth all the slogging. They got my very pumped up. I wanted to be their agent. I wanted to be their publisher. I thought I had discovered something h-0-t. But there is so much, well, fodder. Just words on a page that lie there and fail to ignite anything in my head. And, it’s maddening. Good summary of reactions / emotions.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Hey, Mark. Yeah, it’s great when you find something really special and you feel some investment in it, like, I knew them when. I love it when those entries final, because then at least I get to find out who the heck these people are. The anonymity of the contest process can be good (don’t hate me because I’m a hater!–er, a judge), but it’s vexing when you never find out who this really good writer is.


  5. Imagine what contest judges would have thought of “Twilight.” 😈

    “Bella Swan” is a glaring, excruciatingly obvious Mary Sue (and don’t even get me started on “Sparkle Boy” 😉 ). The catch is, Bella became the Mary Sue for millions of adolescent girls, not just the author.

    I’m no Stephenie Meyer. I’ve tried to avoid thermonuclear-grade Mary Sues (although I must confess to one reined-in, subtle Gary Stu). I actually consider contest judges’ comments to be valuable feedback about my work.

    Where I draw the line is changing my work to appeal to contest judges. Yes, they might like my work better if it was always told from the “hero” protagonist’s point of view. Never mind that my novel is a vampire story, and I love nothing better than delving into the deepest inner workings of shallow, narcissistic antagonists for whom any experience of genuine personal growth will be a miracle.

    Will contest judges eat up my conflicted antagonists? Probably not. My intended audience, subsisting on energy drinks, sarcastic irony, video games and graphic novels, are not contest judges. They love anti-heroes. I don’t think they would read my novel if it was written only in the “hero’s” point of view.

    Therein lies the aspiring author’s biggest quandary with these contests. What if you know that altering your work to win over the contest judges would destroy its appeal to your audience? 👿


  6. Chris Devlin says:

    You bring up a good point, Daven, and it’s definitely a quandary. The only thing I can say is this. I guess people enter contests for different reasons. They might want to learn the process. Maybe they don’t have access to the wonderful critique groups and beta readers that we’re lucky to have being RMFW members. But if the goal in paying money and entering a contest is to get your work in front of the acquiring editor who will judge the final round, then I don’t think deliberately ignoring the contest criteria is a very good strategy for doing that. I mean, why do that to yourself? Why bother?
    Judges only see 20-30 pages of your mss, depending on the contest, and a 3-8 page synopsis. Judges are bound to try to follow the contest criteria, which are there to try to minimize subjectivity as much as possible–at least we’re all looking at the same factors, even if we don’t feel the same way about them. And those contest criteria are based heavily on what agents and editors have said over the years that they’re looking for in commercial fiction. Not to mention what many of us have found makes for good reading.
    So, sure. Be a rebel. Walk on the wild side. Do your thing, even if you know it’s not conventional or what’s expected. Just don’t be too surprised if the judges or an agent or editor aren’t going to reward you for that. Like putting on a tie for a job interview for a great job. You might not have to wear the tie ever again, but your best bet is to play it safe to get in. That’s my feeling with contests.
    Thanks for your thoughts!


  7. And now the quandary for contest judges: Some of the most ground-breaking, genre-changing, artistically and commercially successful books of all time were not what contemporary publishers were looking for.

    Examiner: 30 famous authors whose books were rejected repeatedly by publishers

    We can take delight in the “Harry Potter” books, only because the eight-year-old daughter of a publishing company C.E.O. begged her father to publish the book.

    Dr. Seuss’ first book And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected at least twenty-seven times.

    Our childhoods were richer because Vanguard Press had the foresight to publish Dr. Seuss. 😀

    You can’t “break new ground” or “re-define a genre” without “breaking the rules.” 😈


    • Chris Devlin says:

      All true. And yet, there are also an unknown number of aspiring writers who broke all the rules and didn’t get published and were never successful. We’ll never know how many, exactly. And just because a writer breaks the rules doesn’t mean what they’re writing is good. There are a lot of ways to look at it. It always comes back to, ‘a good story, well told.’ At least as far as what to aim for.


  8. As a first time contest entrant, but long time editor, this post was spot on. And even though I know I proof read my entry, and made my pre-readers read it, pens in hand, and then proofed it again, I am, of course, terrified that somehow I’m part of that 5 in 6 group that just really can’t put a sentence together to save my life.
    Maybe all my pre-readers are lying to me. Maybe I really do suck. And so – I entered a contest where some anonymous stranger would read, critique and, yes, judge, my work – because some days I just have to know, is this really what I’m supposed to be when I grow up?
    On the other hand, I also know that if my scores come back low, low, low – I too will probably point fingers at those stupid, mean, unseeing judges who were obviously having a bad day during a coffee shortage and THAT’s why they didn’t see my brilliance.
    Because, at the end of the day, no matter what anyone says, good or bad, yes, this is what I am supposed to be when I grow up. I was born a word nerd, and I plan to die a word nerd. And if I get published somewhere in between – groovy. But if not, at least I’ll still have brought words and stories to life for those awesome few who listened.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Well, your comment shows the ability to put sentences together. Quite a few in a row. You’re fine!
      Best of luck on your first contest entry. Very exciting. Thanks for stopping by.


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