The thing about contests is that someone has to judge them. Not many people clamor to do this job, hence a little arm-twisting might be necessary to urge people to volunteer.
I volunteered along with three other members of my writing group to judge a neighboring county’s contest entries. It’s been a long-standing agreement that their club judge our contest entries and our club judge theirs.
So there we were, sitting around a kitchen table sipping water, tea, or diet soda, passing the pages around as each “judge” read and made notes. You may think we were in agreement on our choices, but that wasn’t the case. Some gave one story high marks while another called it average. We were divided on the poetry as well. We discussed our reasons for our decisions. No minds were changed, however.
Then we voted. The results were probably as fair as they could be. The only thing we agreed on was that some of the entries were categorized incorrectly. We could tell creative non-fiction from a short story, but somehow the writers could not.
I don’t like judging for the simple fact that 90 percent of it is subjective. When I judge I weigh the merits of the story, its flow, the pacing. I want to care about the characters. I ignore typos and give some leeway on grammar. These things can be fixed. A story that goes off the tracks can’t. Yet others will leap gleefully on a misplaced comma and lower the rating accordingly.
I’ve entered contests and had my work returned with judge’s comments. Some were constructive, some not so much. Having been a judge myself, I know how impossible it is to be completely impartial. Our prejudices creep in. We like one genre better than another; we like one tense better than another. We try to be fair and push our preconceived notions aside. Sometimes we can.
Contests are important and often help the writer to become stronger, give her direction, help her see and overcome her weak points. If the writer enters in order to get this valuable feedback, she has won even if she doesn’t get to claim the prize.
Contests can provide confirmation to the winner. My hope is those who don’t place resolve not to give up, but to try again. Because it is’t the aim of contests to crush the writer who “failed.” Nor is it the aim of the judges to send a message “you’re not good enough” to these folks.
I’ve judged and been judged. Neither is easy. But in both cases, it helps us to grow as writers.