Monday, 28 March 2016

Learning By Judging

I have discovered that there is a great deal to be learned by judging. I don't mean the kind of personal judging that the Word of God warns us against, but judging the work of other writers.

Most writers know that it can be incredibly difficult to edit your own work. That's because of the wonderful (??) propensity our minds have to seek the familiar, and to fill in blanks with what we expect to be there. That's why we will often read, “The boy ran fast” even if what we have actually written is, “The boy ran fats.” We expect a boy to run fast, not fat, so our mind “helpfully” corrects it for us, just like that annoying auto-correct function on a smart phone.

The good news is, that ability of our mind can be harnessed to work in our favour. Recently, I ran the first Short Fiction Award through my imprint, Birdcatcher Books. Along with several other people, I spent a couple of months judging the entries. Stories were marked on a number of criteria, including plot, characterisation, settings, grammar, style and reader appeal. I found myself reading in a whole new way, and when I next looked at my own work, that new way carried over.

It's like red cars. In the normal course of life, you probably hardly even notice red cars. But if you buy a red car, suddenly they are everywhere. Again, it is your mind seeking out the familiar. When problems in the various areas of the stories I was judging became familiar, suddenly they stood out like red lights when I found them in my own writing.

Obviously, not everyone has the opportunity to judge a writing competition (if it is ever offered to you, grab it with both hands), but you can bring the same forces to work in your own writing by pretending to be a judge. Choose a piece in the genre in which you normally write, and analyse it using the criteria above. Does the plot develop satisfactorily? Is there movement? Is there crisis? Does the ending work? Are the characters believable? Is the POV consistent? Is the dialogue appropriate to the characters? Do the settings draw you into the story? Are there any grammar or spelling errors, or typos? Does the style draw you in? If you were marking this story on each of the criteria, what would you give it out of 100?

Do this a few times, and when you return to reviewing your own work you will find that your mind's search for familiarity will kick in, and you will become aware of, and therefore able to correct, failures in any of these areas.

Lynn B. Fowler has published 2 Christian books and a collection of poems under her imprint, Birdcatcher Books. She is currently working on her first novel, which will be published in the name of her fiction-writing alter-ego, Grace L. Sutherland


  1. Well said Lynn. Enjoyed your post. Interestingly I've taken my latest book 'Holes' by Louis Sachar - a book I've enjoyed twice over to check out why it was so enjoyable. I agree that we can learn a lot by critiquing other writing. Thanks for the reminder! :)I've noted your questions to use as I do the needful!

  2. Hi Lynn - had to chuckle with your mention of red cars as I notice red cars all the time (my car is Aqua) & also how for years following the global crisis most cars were white, grey, dark or red (ie not very colourful). I tend to notice colour and numberplates more than make and model. But apart from my quirky car spotting habits - you make some great points about what to look for in stories as an writer.

  3. Thanks for a great post, Lynn. I've experienced that numerous times myself. What I find interesting (at times perplexing!) is how often we identify a weakness in our writing and work hard to develop that aspect of our work, only to find another. Red cars indeed!

    Sharing our work, even in a writing group setting, can be of great value. Even being part of a common project, like an anthology, is tremendously beneficial - even on the receiving side of edits. We gain much learning from all these editing related processes.