Friday, March 30, 2012

Aussie Writer on the Journey: What I’ve learned from judging Writing Contests


by Narelle Atkins

I’ve been judging writing contests for a few years now, and I believe my experiences have helped me to revise my own stories.

My goal as a judge is to provide constructive feedback to the entrant to help them improve their story and grow as a writer. Sometimes this means providing gentle comments about why something in their story isn’t working for me. Or explaining why they need to improve a specific aspect of writing craft and directing them to helpful writing books. It always means providing positive and encouraging comments on the aspects of their story that work well. And occasionally I’m wowed by an entry that is ready for publication. In this instance I will give an entry a perfect score and let the author know I’m looking forward to buying their book!

It’s very important as a judge to explain why you are giving an entry a less than perfect score. The entrant will want to know why their story isn’t working for you and I offer direction or suggestions on ways to improve their story. It is not the role of a judge to do line edits or rewrite sentences.

Contest judging has helped me to hone the critiquing skills I need to apply to my own work. I find it much easier to see the flaws in other people’s manuscripts than in my own. Judging has helped me to step back and critically appraise my own work during the editing process.

By judging contests I’ve also learned more about writing craft. I need to understand point of view and characterisation in order to effectively judge these craft elements in contest entries. When reading a contest entry with a critical eye, I am learning the importance of writing craft in our stories. If a story isn’t working, I try to discern the aspects of writing craft that need to be improved. An understanding of story structure is also important and I believe we learn this by reading widely in different genres. I also look at whether a story fits genre conventions. For example, a romance must have a hero and heroine facing conflict and struggling to achieve their story goals and happily-ever-after romantic ending.

Contest judging is a way of giving back to the writing community. I’ve appreciated the time and effort volunteer judges have put into reviewing my entries and I hope my comments help contest entrants move forward in their writing journey. I’ve also received some lovely thank you notes and it’s good to hear that contest entrants have appreciated the time and effort I’ve put into judging their entries.

Have you judged any writing contests? What have you learned from your judging experiences? Have you been a reader judge for published or unpublished contests? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.




Narelle Atkins writes contemporary inspirational romance. She resides in Canberra, Australia with her husband and children. She can also be found at the International Christian Fiction Writers blog.

Narelle is a co-founder of the 30 Minute Bible Studies website. In May she will be launching a new 30 Minute Bible Studies blog. To learn more about Narelle, please visit her website.

16 comments:

  1. I know I am not the best writer, so am often hesitant to enter contests. At school, I was better at Maths and Science, than English. But doing prompts and short stories and maybe entering a few things can be helpful.

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    1. Hi Mel, I've found entering contests to be helpful in so many ways. And most judges volunteer because they want to help entrants improve their writing. A couple of times I've entered contests knowing an aspect of my story isn't working, and a contest judge has pointed out the problem and offered solutions. I hope you will receive excellent feedback if you do decide to enter a few contests :)

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  2. This was an interesting perspective from the other side of the fence; thank you. I thought it interesting that you found it easier to spot flaws in others' work than in your own: I guess it's easier to murder others' darlings than one's own. ;)

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    1. Hi Peter, I sometimes cringe when I receive back critiques because I've missed so many obvious things. I think it can be hard to see the flaws in our own work because we're absorbed in our story world and emotionally attached to our characters. I know I read other writer's stories with fresh eyes and the writer has to work hard to engage me and draw me into their story world :)

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  3. I think I would be too scared to judge someone else's work. I would probably second guess every critical comment I made, and then tell myself I don't really know what I'm talking about. :) But, good on you for doing it, I'm sure those writers really appreciate the feedback & encouragement. :)

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    1. Hi Amanda, I remember those feeling well when I judged my first contest. I probably sucked as a judge when I first started judging contests. And I suspect those entrants may have received a higher score from me than I'd give now because I've learned more about writing craft. In many ways judging is like writing and I do believe we get better with practice :)

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  4. I've never judged a writing contest but I do understand your point about how looking at someone else's work critically can encourage you to take a more careful view of your own.
    It sounds like you offer the writers of the stories you read helpful and constructive comments/encouragement. Keep it up!

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    1. Hi Penny, thanks for your encouragement :) I wish I had more time to judge contests because it's such a worthwhile experience.

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  5. I've judged a few writing competitions. I reluctantly put my hand up to do so, thinking I should be willing, even though I felt unworthy and unqualified. I've entered many competitions myself, and figured I should pay my dues. After all, another busy writer had taken much time to look over my entries. I value that highly and felt compelled to repay.

    I didn't realise the blessing would be all mine, once again. Dragging my eye over entry after entry, quickly gave me an education no writer should be without. I saw how immediately great writing grabs you in the midst of 'just ok' writing. How the cadence of a story pulls the reader in and keeps them there, or how an absence of the same, leaves them wishing for something more. I was able to line up entries in order of best, down to the least. Not easy, but when you have to do it, you also have to know why you're putting one story above another. That in itself, is the beginning of an education!

    What I value most from my judging experience, is the opportunity to identify what worked and what didn't in a given story. I agree with you Narelle, this is so much easier to do when looking at another writer's work than our own. It's given me the confidence to work with my critique partners, to be gentle and/or brutal with their 'darlings', and really, really listen when they pick up on something in MY chapters which needs the same attention. Brutal or otherwise :)

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    1. Hi Dotti, I agree with everything you've said and I'm glad you've been blessed through your judging experiences :) I definitely believe judging helps you become a better critique partner. I also believe readers who aren't writers can provide valuable feedback on stories and you don't need to be a published author to be a good contest judge. I've had insightful feedback from contests from both published and unpublished judges.

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  6. I applaud you, Narelle, and any others of you who have judged contests! I'm thinking of the time involved and given willingly to help others. Yes, I can see where you have to be familiar with writers guidelines in the different genres to be able to make constructive comments. And yet besides keeping all the rules, like you say, it's the way the story "grabs" you that counts in the long run. And that usually means the writer has worked hard along the way to hone his or her craft.

    Sometime ago I paid a US editor for a substantive edit on a story aimed at the US audience, and I learned s-o-o much from it. I learned I was a cliche queen, so I now allow my characters to be this way but try to avoid it myself! I also learned through blood, sweat 'n tears (kidding) how to construct each scene where the character has a goal they need to either reach or fail in the attempt, and that keeps up the story pace.

    One of these days I might get courage enough to judge another's writing, but right now with weekly radio programs taking a very big slice of my time, I daren't offer my services.

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    1. Hi Rita, I agree contest judging can be time consuming and the time involved does depend on the individual entries. Excellent entries that are ready for submission are the easiest to judge :) I've found the more I judge, the faster I can move through the entries.

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  7. Well done Narelle. I don't think I am writer enough yet to judge other people's writing - on the other hand - it probably is a helpful task for me as a writer. Will help me see the flawns in my own better am sure. It's great that you've judged many competitions and I can well understand that it must be a task where you learn a lot as much as you give out.
    Just about to send entries into two short story writing competitions so your words were very timely,
    blessings,
    Anusha

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    1. Hi Anusha, thanks for your encouraging words :) Good luck with your entries in the short story competitions!

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  8. Great post, Narelle. I love judging contests and then see writers grow from the experience. It's very easy to not want anyone to pull apart our 'babies', but once we're past that initial feeling everything becomes a tad easier.

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  9. Hi Lee, I love reading books that I've previously judged in contests and seeing how the story has evolved :) I agree that critiquing/judging can initially be hard and it's an important skill to learn as we strive to write excellent books for His glory.

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