Saturday, April 27, 2013

Contest feedback dilemma?

Have you had conflicting feedback from contest judges (or critique partners)? If so, read on as I share my thoughts on the matter.

First, I came to writing contests initially from the ranks of the unpublished, hoping that my contest entry would catch an editor's eye.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.

Seeing contests from both side of the scoresheet gives me a strong insight into the judging process, one that I hope will benefit struggling writers. The easiest place to start is from the perspective of category coordinator faced with needing a discrepancy judge. More times than not, the distance in scoring came from the judge not being able to get at the meat of what's wrong.

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?

1. Some element of story craft needs improvement. Instead of having the knee-jerk reaction of "she didn't get my story," take a closer look at the passage that invited negative comment. Is there anything you meant to say or that you know intuitively that didn't make it to the page?

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 Keeping up with other writers, published and unpublished, pushes us to keep striving to write tighter, more compelling stories.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.

A lesson I learned the hard way is that some early/first attempts at writing  have so many flaws that it is more trouble than it's worth to fix them. Take a good luck at your project with conflicting feedback. Search your heart to know if needs CPR.

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.

4. Despite best intentions, some judges feel distanced from the story and don't know why. It might be a case of too much passive writing, of insufficient deep POV, or even a book centered around an activity the judge dislikes. Always look to craft first when you have disparate comments. Anytime you wish you had a few minutes to speak to the person to explain what you did, realize that you won't have that chance with readers. Everything you impart has to go through the written word.

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.

The more you write, the more you will trust your inner ear. Your writer's voice will strengthen and become more distinct. If writing for publication is your intention, continue to improve craft as a writer, find feedback avenues which strengthen your work, and develop a thick skin. You'll need it!

Maggie Toussaint
ps my Goodrerads Giveaway of 5 ARCS of Dime if I Know ends May 1. Sign up for your chance to win today!


  1. Maggie--once I stopped looking at the adorable babies,I did read your post.
    Judging a ms is rather subjective--each judge will focus on something another judge doesn't even see. And often the judge is biased right from the start because of the genre.
    But still, I believe most judges of contests try their best and do a good job.
    I judge one contest a year, from an RWA chapter in Houston. I always ask for Western Historical, but often they don't get enough of one genre or another.
    This last time, the coordinator emailed and asked if I would judge YA ms. YA? Good grief no--I don't know anything about them. I explained this to the coordinator. But, in her persuasive manner, she said I always did a good job and was sure I could do this.
    So, I read and judge five entries. I was stunned at the wide differences of writing--one clearly had been written by an 8 year old (just kidding), but the others were very intriguing stories. At the end, I gave three of them a high score, one a low with a "please try again," and gave her suggestions, and one sort of middle of the road.
    That's when I learned I could judge any genre by following the guidelines.
    And those guidelines are excellent for writing my own stories.
    I entered enough contests early on to learn my strengths and my weaknesses. The critique sheets became the most valuable of my learning curve.
    Good post, very professional.

  2. Celia,

    You bring up an excellent point. Judges are very well intentioned. No one wants to "give" anyone a low score, rather the author earns the score through the scoresheet evaluation process.

    I'm sure you are a very good judge of an entry meeting the mark, and I know those YA authors were lucky to have you as their judge. I've drawn other categories besides romantic suspense and mystery before when other category coordinators need a discrepancy judge or someone doesn't finish judging their entries for one reason or another, and my experience has been similar to yours. A well-written story transcends genre limitations.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi Maggie,
    Excellent post on a difficult topic. I believe it helps if a writer has a clear view of what they're trying to achieve in entering a contest. Also, if you feel a judge doesn't get your work, remember, it's their opinion, and you can ignore it. I always say, follow your heart. And, with each book you write, you grow. Bottom like, believe in yourself, persevere, because only YOU can tell YOUR story.

    1. Excellent advice, Diana. Believe in yourself and grow. Can't go wrong with that advice!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Jacqueline. I was inspired to leave this post after a discussion with someone else about contests. I had an epiphany of how it all works, and hope that in some way my experiences will help out people who are currently at their wits end with contests.

  5. I'm judging a contest at the moment, and I've also been a coordinator in charge of designing those pesky score sheets. My first piece of advice before entering a contest is to look at the score sheet. If the judges are supposed to give marks for hero/hero relationships in the opening pages and yours don't meet until after the page limit for the contest, no matter how good your writing is, you won't be getting high marks there. Often, it's a case of 'right book, wrong contest.'

    1. I hear you, Terry. The judges are constrained by the scoresheets, no matter how great the story is, if it's strong points aren't in relation to the judging criteria, the entrant is screwed.

      Wouldn't you have liked to have known that back in The Day? I know I would.

  6. It's important to remember that everyone's taste is different when it comes to reading material--one person's favorite book ever is someone else's "meh" read, and there's not much you can do about it.

    "Subjective" was brought home to me by my first contest experience--back in the days of hard-copy entries. I opened the envelope with the responses, and pulled out the packet. Looked at the top one, and my heart dropped--the score was beyond dismal. I didn't know you could score that low without, say, submitting a crayon-written manuscript. I read the first judge's comments: I started the story in the wrong place. I didn't know how to do dialog. My characters weren't believable. The judge 'didn't get' my plot. I started reading the comments in the manuscript. About the time I was wondering if perhaps "fast food sales" was a better fit than "writing", I started realizing the judge REALLY didn't get my plot--it was romantic suspense, and she wanted the mystery solved by chapter 1. I went to the second judging packet...and stared. I had a nearly perfect score. She loved my writing. The story started in exactly the right spot. My plot was "fresh and well paced". My dialog was witty. My characters were well rounded and memorable. I double checked that both responses were actually MINE and about the same entry. I hesitated to go to the third judging packet, but thankfully that judge was more inline with the second judge. I went on to final in that contest, and came in second. But I have NEVER forgotten the EXACT OPPOSITE feedback I got. And now that I'm a judge myself, I try to make sure any biases are balanced out and my comments are helpful, not just critical.

    1. It's funny how those experiences stay with you, isn't it? I once had a judge rewrite a few pages of my story. She said something like "you're doing well in many craft areas but you are missing the boat in xyz area. I wouldn't be so hard on you if I didn't believe in this story..." Her rewrite made me mad - who does that? I was so depressed because her rewrite was nothing like my story - she had my characters acting out of character. I threw her remarks away, but I never forgot how she crushed me with her good intentions. I seriously thought about walking away from writing, but then I dug deep and decided I wouldn't let her beat me.

      Like you, I try to make sure my comments add insight and strengthen a craft element. Because I know what its like being on the other side.

      Thanks for sharing your story with me!

  7. Last year was the first time I judged a contest. Full novels. First the preliminaries, then the finals. I found it difficult because I didn't think any of the finals in one genre were really good. I finally judged the one I thought was most original. I had entered the contest and couldn't judge my genre, so I was actually reading genres I wouldn't ordinarily read. I did find it interesting, but it's very subjective, and I doubt I'd do it again.

    1. Polly, Judging isn't for everyone. Heck, I might not be a very good judge either, people with MY good intentions.

      I personally don't like to judge full ms. unless the judging is more like a Golden Heart assignment of a numeric ranking, instead of a story dissection. Also, to my mind, it's hard to judge (in-depth) a 50-page entry. But I've done that before.

      I wonder when I will have paid my dues back to the writing world??

    2. Typo above, sorry. I meant to say crushing people with my good intentions. Where's grammar check when you need it?

  8. Hi, Maggie, first I just have to say, where did you get these pictures of babies and computers? Adorable, and that ties right in with contests, doesn't it? One, you're sending your baby out into the world, or as a newbie you feel like you're just out of diapers.

    I've been a contest coordinator, a contest judge and an entrant. I've bombed in contest, finaled in contests and I've won. Perhaps the best advice I've gotten in contests is to not only look at the high scores, but your lowest scores. Ideally a judge writes comments. And often the lowest scores, although more painful than the high scores, gives you the opportunity for improvement.

    Terry Odell had a great comment above. When you enter, study the scoresheet. You'll save yourself money and heartache if you do.

    Great post, Maggie!

    1. Hey Donnell,

      You certainly have helped new writers with your work in the Daphne and other contests. Your advice to pay attention to the low scores if you want to improve is spot-on. I completely agree with you.

      Thank you for stopping by Mudpies!

    2. Donnell, I forgot to answer your first question about the pictures. I search through Microsoft Free Clip Art for my images on the blog. Hopefully, they will not lead me astray!

  9. Like many here I have been an entrant, a judge and a contest coordinator. I finaled in many contests and won several, but I will never forget my first one and the judge who wrote "your heroine is a slut." Honestly I cried! Maybe the judge had a point and I shouldn't have put a love scene in chapter two. But that was my very first attempt at writing. Two other judges explained gently that the scene didn't agree with the heroine's character. Since then I completely changed the first chapters. The book won its share of contests and good reviews. Ten years later, I still look at that judge's comments. She was absolutely right and I am so embarrassed by my first draft. But I came very close to retire from writing after that first contest. If you want to help a newbie, critique and judge with understanding and gentleness.

    1. Gosh Mona, I feel anger at that judge for what she said. There are different ways to say things, ways that get the point across without harshness and without rubbing in how little the contest entrant knows. I can see how that remark stayed with you.

      Which is a good reason judges should chose their words wisely!

  10. I have judged for the Maggie Awards and tried very hard to give objective comments that I thought would be helpful to the aspiring author. It isn't easy to find the problem in an MS, especially when I first started judging. One thing I always tried to do in my comments was to find something good about the story because I never want to discourage future authors or dampen their enthusiasm.
    I've only entered 3 contests, two of them to Writer's Digest Short-short story contest before I was published (I didn't win)and once with a published book in the Boston Beans contest (I didn't win.) I never received any commentary from the judges, but I sure would have liked to have had an idea of where I could repair the errors.
    I have found negative commentary in reviews to be very helpful in discovering story problems. Some reviewers think it's entertaining to give snarky reviews, but I believe even the worst review or contest comment should be delivered with kindness and helpful intent.
    I enjoyed this blog and the comments by others, too.

    1. Sarah,

      I'm certain the entrants who had you for a judge were blessed by your gentle words and kind spirit.

      Your comment about not receiving feedback inspires me to keep judging the few contests I still help out with. Beginning writers deserve to know where their stories go right and wrong.

  11. What a helpful, comprehensive post. When judging there is always a bit of a balancing act between offering helpful feedback and not hurting a writer's feelings. Some new writers haven't learned how to separate themselves from the work and not be stung by the negatives. I think being able to take criticism and not give up is the mark of a professional.

    1. Maryann - I'll bet you are an excellent contest judge. You have a keen grasp on being helpful and continuing to encourage newbies.

      It takes a determined writer to see past the failure to "win" the contest and to take a view of being in this for the long haul. I've said this before and I'll say it again: writing is not for weenies!

      Thanks for taking time to visit and leave a comment. Please come again!

  12. I have entered a few contests. The very first one gave me the best results. One judge was a little harsh in picking apart my book, then at the end told me, and I quote, "I know I was hard on you. I want you to walk away with what I said and think about it. I WANT to see your book in a store one day. Please know I don't mean to be mean, just helpful. I wish you all the best."

    I appreciated her explaining herself. I felt like she was trying to help and not just telling me I stank or like she was on some power trip.

  13. Hi Sarah,

    I appreciate your honesty, and the fact that the judge took the time to explain her remarks a little beyond what was required. A judging scoresheet should be more than a marked up test paper, it should transmit adequately what the judge read and indicate the potential.

    I'm so happy you stopped by Mudpies. Please feel free to visit anytime!


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