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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Five Tips for Judging the Golden Heart® (Or any other writing contest)


No scoresheet. No comments. No precise interpretation of the scores. A first timer might feel a little intimidated by the freedom of judging RWA®’s Golden Heart® contest.
As a writer who has judged the GH and dozens of RWA®chapter contests, I thought I would share a few judging tips I’ve picked up along the way. These tips should apply to all writing contests, not just the GH. But please keep in mind that these are guidelines I’ve created for myself and not hard fast “rules” put forth by any writing organization.
Go Ahead. Give the Perfect Score. Sometimes as judges, we feel like we are expected to find fault or mark off for violations of imaginary ‘rules of writing’. But it’s a horrible feeling to see your favorite entry eliminated and know that it might have won if only you hadn’t nitpicked. Focus on story. If you loved it, if it hooked you, give it a perfect score.
The 1’s are for the Cat. I have never given a one, but if I did, it would mean that the cat ran across the author’s keyboard and typed utter gibberish. Ones serve no purpose other than crushing the newbie author. In any contest, a three carries the message that improvement is needed without being unnecessarily hateful.
Love Your Category or Bump Up the Ones You Hate. In a perfect world, everyone would only judge their favorite category. But if you end up judging a category you never read, take the time to ask around and find out what’s expected in that subgenre. And if you know you hate a certain story element—such as the secret baby or the reunion plot-- bump up your score just a little bit to make up for your subconscious negativity.
Don’t Send it Yet. I never send my scores on the same day I judge them. I have found that certain unrelated factors—fatigue, interruptions, the number of entries I’ve judged that day—can affect my judgment. So I wait a few days, and then I look them over again to see if I’ve been consistent. Did I always count off the same number of points for the same type of problems? Was I too harsh on the ones I didn’t like? The stories that have stayed on my mind for days might get bumped a little higher just for having that “keeper” quality.
When in doubt, Pump it Up. You may have noticed that these tips are all about pumping up scores, rather than counting off. And that’s because writing contests serve two purposes 1) recognizing excellence and 2) encouraging new writers. As long as you’re not sending a lousy entry to the finals, it’s okay to score on the high side. Don’t be the evil judge. There are plenty of other judges out there willing to play that part.
So there you have my tips on judging writing contests. Did I leave anything out? I would love to hear how you judge your GH contest entries.

14 comments:

  1. Great post! I ran our state's RWA chapter's contest last year. Man, oh, man. What a job. Being a judge is a tremendous commitment. You've made some great suggestions. I confess I was surprised when I read the range of scores for a single submission. Some were from love to hate. And, the hate sometimes was really hate. Then, there were the folks who clearly were supportive and constructive. Thanks for the post. Words well spoken. Cassy

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  2. I'm not judging the GH, although I'm judging another contest soon, and these are all excellent points. I really like the "Don't Send It Yet" suggestion. I like to give myself plenty of time to think about what I've read, so that I can give the contestant the best feedback possible.

    I also try not to wait until the last minute, since I had the experience once of losing all my comments when I thought I was saving the document. Ack.

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  3. Thanks Clarissa - I always expect to see wise words on your posts and you didn't disappoint. In judging, we hold a critical obligation -- to distinguish and reward excellence. However, I believe that we also have a duty not to cause harm. Of course I'm borrowing the Hippocratic Oath. And why not? Writing is a vulnerable process, but we don't diminish the truly amazing talent in our profession by being supportive and nurturing of apprentice writers. I keep in mind that every single entry has a human being behind it. I really hope that those judging my work want to help me improve.

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  4. All great points, Clarissa. My thinking is that a manuscript with 3s won't final, so why crush someone's dreams? I just parted ways with a CP not too long ago because she was too harsh. She even said it was a CP's job to bring me down a notch. I don't know about you, but even with a deal on the table I am insecure about my writing and don't need someone verifying that I might suck. I know that sounds like I'm a wimp and need thicker skin, but my other CP can say the same thing in a much nicer way and offer solutions.

    Which brings me to my tip for judging contests. If you're going to point out a problem, offer a solution that works for you.

    I once judged a paranormal as an emergency for a coordinator. I don't read the genre, don't get the genre, but the writing was so terrific, I gave it a really high score, and it finaled as it should have.

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  5. Thank you, Cassy, Liz F.,Liz L. and Donna. You all have wonderful ideas about judging and I would feel privileged to have anyone of you judging my entries.

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  6. All great comments. I would never give a 1. Well, maybe if the cat ran across the keyboard. I believe in honesty with compassion whether judging a contest or critiquing others' work.

    The only tip I have is not to give your own likes and dislikes too much weight. I try to judge based on objective criteria, such as clear GMC, hooks, etc.

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  7. Thanks, Samantha. You're a great critiquer, so you must be a fantastic contest judge.

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  8. I just sent off the GH entries I judged and I am on board with you Clarissa. I've judged other contests but not the GH so I was a little shocked at the one score only. I agree that contests are meant to encourage writers, not cremate them. And I must have had you whispering to me because I waited a few days after reading the entries before sending in my scores and then I ended up bumping up several scores :)

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  9. Thanks for the comment, Meredith. I think I am as excited to see the ones I gave perfect scores to succeed as I am my own work. :)

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  10. It is so heartening to know how some judges think. As a newbie writer, I feel a 3 does sound much less soul-destroying than 1, though it is just as effective as a kick in the butt :)

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  11. Hi Damyanti! Thanks for commenting at the Lady Scribes. Good luck in any contests you enter.

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  12. I was a judge in a contest only once. I decided then that judging another's book was too troublesome for me. Who was I to judge someone else's book? I tried my best to pick out the good in each story, but when it came right down to it, I didn't feel I was qualified.

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  13. Great post! I always feel honored to judge, and I learn so much from other people's writing. It helps me recognize things in my own work that I otherwise wouldn't see.

    I completely agree with letting a story sit, and reading and grading it at least twice.

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  14. Thank you for a wonderful, heartening post, Clarissa! I have long wished that there was real training required of contest judges--one that provided objective feedback to the prospective judge (such as to give each one a short article to read and then mark it with comments and scores. Afterward, all prospective judges' comments could be reviewed and compared as to how each judge scored the same piece. Then feedback could be provided to each candidate.) Judging is a commitment of love made by each person who volunteers their precious time...to not only award excellence but to provide constructive criticism where it's warranted...but only where it's warranted. I personally will pray that you're one of the judges who scores my next contest entry!

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