What I’ve Learned as a Contest Judge

My critique journey began in college, where I majored in English literature and dissected stories. While school equipped me with tools to better exhume meaning from novels, it could not prepare me for my trek into freelance editing, where I helped emerging writers find their voice, create compelling characters, and keep their ideal reader turning the page. So how do you tell an author their “lovable” character is a dirtbag, or their story doesn’t reel you in, without being insensitive? I asked myself these questions, among many others, in the five years I’ve volunteered as a contest judge for the Colorado Gold Contest and the Colorado Book Award.

If you find yourself on a judging committee, or your manuscript has finaled in a contest, you’ll likely never know who authored those clunky but promising pages or who judged your work. I hope the list below provides an adequate glimpse into a system run on subjectivity and luck. While the list focuses on judging, these lessons apply just as much to critique partners and beta readers.

1. Critiquing fiction is subjective.

No two judges will read your submission the same way. We all come to a text with our experiences, traumas, assumptions, and interpretations. While one judge might focus on the strengths of your work, another might attack it because they’ve always abhorred blond male leads. One reader could appreciate the nuance and complexity of a scene where another deems it convoluted and unnecessary. It’s all up to chance.

2. Not every reader is your reader.

The judge assigned to your pages might not be your reader, your intended audience. This is, unfortunately, a typical dilemma in both the judging and critiquing space. Knowing the difference between who doesn’t understand your genre or manuscript and who aims to lend a firm but loving hand is essential when taking advice. If it’s coming from someone who voraciously reads your genre, or who always provides constructive and specific feedback, chances are their feedback should be explored.

3. We can uplift or crush.

Good feedback equips a writer with tools to polish, flesh out, and trim. Poor feedback, and sometimes feedback stemming from the wrong reader, can crush a writer’s spirit. Be kind but constructive in your suggestions.

4. All writers have weaknesses.

Whether it be descriptions, world building, character arcs, or grammar, everyone has room for growth. The day you receive clean pages is the day you become an anomaly.

5. Be specific.

If you’re telling someone to revise a section, give reasons why the current construction isn’t working. To take it a step further, suggest ways in which they might fix it. Nothing’s worse than vague or shallow critique. Spend a moment and determine why something isn’t working for you. The writer will thank you.

6. Do not rewrite their story.

Much of an author’s voice stems from their prose, and no two people will tell the same story. Avoid rephrasing unless the original is confusing or a more apt word suits them better. Try not to restructure sentences or mess around with a section’s structure unless you can back up your reasoning in the comments. It is their work, not yours.

7. Critiquing makes you a stronger writer.

By dissecting and critiquing fiction, you exercise your ability to find faults and points of weakness in your own work. This adapted skill is vital for revisions, and you’ll find that your eye for story, character, and plot are improved by the mere art of reviewing and providing suggestions for someone else.

8. Don’t put too much stock in craft books.

More common among emerging writers, the need to fully adopt a craft book’s “lessons” can hinder your writing. While Stephen King believes adjectives are the devil, and he makes a point that overuse is often a detriment, conservative use of adjectives—or anything you’re told not to use EVER—adds style and context. Craft books are meant to be used as a reference, to either give you prose pointers or provide a single writer’s experience and craft habits. Take them as options, not gospel.

9. Some rules should be broken.

Like I mentioned above, some “rules” are meant as a guide. Therefore, some rules will inevitably be broken in a fit of creative expression or experimentation. As a judge, it’s your job to know what’s purposely on the page and what could use more finesse.

This is not a complete list of lessons, but I hope it provides insight and critiquing rules of thumb.

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