Writing Contests: Judge's Perspective

Reminder: I'm away from the office and without internet connection here on the farm. If you leave a comment, I'll get to it when I get back to a place with internet. Thanks! Joan

Here's today's post: Writing Contests: Judge's Perspective

I judge a lot of writing contests every year. Why? It's a way to help a writer who may be struggling with that whole "can I write or am I fooling myself" complex from which all of us seem to suffer. My heart goes out to people like this because I'm one of them too so I'm glad to light a candle for those stumbling in the dark.

When I first started writing, hardly any writing contests existed. I'd have given anything to get some feedback from "real" authors. You know, the people who actually had a book in print.

Now that I've written just about everything from newspaper and magazine articles to published novels, I feel I have some credibility so I volunteer to judge contests. Mostly, I'm asked to judge the romance genre though I judge other genres, even nonfiction, too. Each genre has its own characteristics, but good writing is good writing regardless of the genre.

Often I find myself burning the midnight oil in order to fulfill my commitment. Just recently I've finished judging two contests and have one waiting on my desk. Another couple will be arriving in the mail in the next few weeks. When you add that to my own writing, I'm, well, I'm swamped! But I wanted to share some insights with those of you who might be on the contest trail. Maybe this will help.

Who are the Judges?

Let's talk about the judges. Who are we? Hopefully, we are all published authors, editors, and agents. Of course, we all know why having an editor or agent as judge is a good thing. They'll fall in love with our entry and ask to represent and/or publish it. Right? But why published authors over unpublished writers?

Now, you aspiring writers out there, don't get your quills ruffled. I'm not saying you don't know how to write because you're not published. I'm just saying that published authors have been in the trenches.

We've managed to get published, but we also have submitted and been rejected countless times so we might just know a little more about what editors are looking for in a story and what separates a good story from a good story that will get published. So look for the contests that guarantee these kinds of judges.

Note: With so many successful indie authors now (I'm lucky enough to be one), I'll admit to thinking that some of these might have some good insight into writing contests too, but, for now, I'm talking about print-published authors because most have paid their dues and paid, and paid.

Why don't judges sign their names?

When I first started judging many years ago, I signed my name. I felt I should be willing to stand by my comments. I stopped signing my name after a couple of years. Let me reiterate that I always try to be objective and not let personal taste enter into the judging.

I give balanced comments and always find something good to say about even the most uninspired entry so it's not like I insult the writer with scathing, sarcastic remarks knowing the writer won't discover who I am. That's just not nice, and I'm a nice person. Ask anyone. So why did I stop being upfront about my identity?

Two reasons. The first reason was because I met a well-known author who told how her career was nearly ruined because she judged a contest and the entry had a strikingly similar plot line to a book she'd already sold and was in production at her publisher's.

When the author's book hit the shelves, the contestant immediately filed suit, claiming that the author had stolen her ideas. The author eventually triumphed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory taking years, ending her marriage, and costing her tons of money.

Burden Is On You

Publishers don't like law suits. They are more than willing to settle out of court even when the author is innocent of wrong-doing in order to avoid bigger legal wrangles that might drag on and on.

Sadly, this happens more often than you think. I personally know two authors who have been sued. In both cases, the authors knew they were innocent. One insisted on fighting back and did so at her own expense. The other's publisher insisted on settling, which rankled. Worse, the matter affected the author-publisher relationship. Ultimately, that author never sold to that publisher again.

Risk Is Real

In this country, anyone can sue anyone. The burden of proof is on the defendant, and the cost can be substantial. If you're unsure about the legal ramifications of anything you do as an author, educate yourself. If you question anything, find the definitive answer, before you publish the material.

Life is too short, people. I'm not alone in my unwillingness to risk hard-earned bucks, reputation, publisher relationships, and emotional health. That's why you don't see very many signatures on the judge's comment pages.

Don't Hassle The Poor Judges

The second reason I don't sign my name is that after a couple of years of judging contests, I got fed up with receiving rebuttals from contestants who wanted to explain to me why I was wrong, why I didn't know what I was talking about, why I was a loser, why he or she was a better writer than me, etc.

These are probably the same people who post anonymous, scathing reviews on Amazon and the like, which may well be the zenith of their creative writing abilities.

Takeaway Truth

Choose a contest wisely, and at least say thanks to people who have volunteered their time to help you.

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