First, I came to writing contests initially from the ranks of the unpublished, hoping that my contest entry would catch an editor's eye. Along the way, I received comments as different as night and day, some that were contradictory on the same entry from different judges.
Fast forward to the time when I began judging writing contests and even serving as a category coordinator. Each contest had its own scoresheet and level of detail required from judges. Each had a different trigger for using discrepancy judges.
For instance, you can have great characters and plot, but the dialogue to narrative blend can cause pacing errors which lead to poor scores in every category. Shallow characterization may reflect poorly on the plot making the story seem unbelievable. Conversely, a story that's all character and going nowhere will earn poor scores for more than lack of plot.
Knowing that judges have all levels of experience in story craft, and knowing that some judges have inherent biases, what can an author take from conflicting comments?
If you can't come up with anything, look first to characterization and then to plot, strengthening motivation, adding conflict, etc.
2. Few writers are born. Most of us are "made;" i.e., we continually learn how to improve our writing. Keeping up with other writers, published and unpublished, pushes us to keep striving to write tighter, more compelling stories. If you can't make heads or tails of your comments, you can set that project aside and come back to it, you can keep tweaking the scene, you can work on a new idea, one with stronger plot and deeper characterization.
3. Words matter. A too-strong word or a too-weak word can inflame a reader. They are investing themselves in the story as they read along. If you've written something out of character, the reader/contest judge is alienated. When this happens, some judges may over-react, causing you the writer to want to burn your story.
Comments about motivation or acting out of character require attention. The good news is that oftentimes a tweak here or there will set things right. Other times, you may need to do reconstructive surgery, depending on the manuscript deficiency.
5. Stories touch people emotionally, and they may react emotionally. This is true for contest entries, critique groups, and book reviews. There are times when we have to accept that we can't please all of the people all of the time. To this day, when I receive feedback on a work in progress, I let the comments "rest" for 24 hours to be certain I'm not reacting defensively. I weigh each comment against my intent of writing that scene, and then decide what my reaction will be. When all is said and done, writers have to please themselves.
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