Confessions of a Writing Contest Judge

Summertime is writing contest season, and I’ve been doing a lot of judging lately. I know (because I’ve been one) how much time goes into preparing an entry, especially for a novel-length work whose entry requirements might include a multi-page synopsis as well as a polished first few chapters.

As a judge, however, I keep seeing the same problems. Thus, a few tips for contest entrants below, at least from one judge’s perspective.

I should add here that I know it’s hard to edit one’s own work, to get the distance needed to look at it objectively. (Ask my crit group, who saw me use the same word so often in a chapter last night they began chanting in unison whenever it appeared!) But that was a rough draft, and contest entries should not be.

Contest judges (like agents and editors) will put a lot of stock in first impressions:

* Have someone well-versed in grammar and punctuation read through your entry. This is such an easy step I have a hard time moving past it. We all miss the occasional typo or comma. But if you even suspect (and maybe even if you don’t) your grammar and punctuation skills aren’t up to par, find someone who can do a quick read-through. Trust me, it isn’t the sexiest part of writing, but it is important.

* Respect your characters in the words you choose. If you’re writing romance or women’s fiction, this is especially true for your female characters. Unless you’re writing humor or she’s doing it deliberately for effect, your heroine shouldn’t wriggle, giggle, gush, twitter (unless it involves a keyboard), hop, skip, or jump. These are kid words, and don’t for a sympathetic and strong heroine make.

* It’s said that God is in the details. So are contest wins. Be specific in descriptions. Don’t have your hero think “that’s the most gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen.” Tell us why he thinks she is so gorgeous. By showing us what about this woman sets his pants on fire, you’re telling us a lot about him without all that annoying…

* Backstory. If the sexual tension is building between hero and heroine, or the big fight scene is beginning, don’t stop to provide three paragraphs of narrative about the hero’s mom, or how he came to be in the job that led to this fight scene–not unless it’s absolutely necessary for me to know right at that point. Otherwise, it can wait.

* Watch for distracting dialog tags. Okay, I have to admit here I’m a “said” fan when dialogue tags are necessary, but I won’t take points away if the writer uses mumbled, answered, whispered, or any other verbal tag. If the dialogue tag draws attention to itself, however, it means I’m being drawn out of the story and focusing on the wrong thing (i.e., the writer). A couple I’ve seen recently that made me gnash teeth: managed and supplied. These are not dialogue tags. Really and truly, I supplied.

* Finally, don’t only respect your characters–know them. Suzy shouldn’t be shy and demure in chapter one and seducing Steve without abandon in chapter two, then shy and demure again in chapter three. Give your characters time to grow from Point A to Point B to Point C. They might have setbacks along the way, but be consistent.

Okay, kiddies, time for me to practice what I preach. My own revisions await!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

11 thoughts on “Confessions of a Writing Contest Judge

  1. Suzanne,

    Great writing tips!!!

    I entered a few contests long ago and ouch…I made several of those mistakes, but the value of those critiques were priceless.

    Now when I judge an entry I give it to them straight (in a nice way), but I nudge them to keep on writing. Never, ever give up. I also tell writers to go buy Debra Dixon’s, GMC book. A wonderful book…

    Dawn Chartier

  2. Suzanne, what valuable information. Having never entered a contest due to wimpiness, this, at least, gives me something to think about in my writing.

  3. Great tips. I’ve seen all of those problems in entries I’ve judged. Like Dawn, I give it to them straight as well. I do it in a nice way. And I always find something positive to say about the writing before I dive in with what didn’t work for me that they might want to work on.

  4. Great tips! I have one person in my critique group that is a high school English teacher. I always tell her to go to town on my drafts when it comes to grammar. I want her to find every last little point that I didn’t find on my pass through.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Dawn! We’ve ALL made those mistakes.

    Amy, don’t be scared away from contests! They’re really great ways to get feedback and an objective look at your writing’s strengths and weaknesses.

    Cindy–you’re right. Positive reinforcement is as important as constructive (never destructive) criticism. I should have pointed out some of the things I’m not seeing: POV issues are almost nonexistent, for example.

    Good idea, Samantha! English teachers, newspaper copy editors, even students recommended by local college profs…finding someone to nitpick all those details is pretty easy and definitely worth the time.

  6. Great tips, Suzanne. Have you found that being a judge has helped you strengthen your own writing? I haven’t judged any contests, but once I started editing my colleagues’ work I found all sorts of overused phrases and problems, and, yup, suddenly realized I wrote those things, too.

  7. Suzanne, you are so right on having others read what you right prior to submission.
    Good luck with reading submissions.

  8. Thanks, Kat. Yes, actually, I hope the folks whose work I’m judging get half as much as I do out of it. I’ve learned to how better to spot problems in my own work. It’s easier to see when you’re reading someone else’s work with “fresh” eyes.

    Thanks, DeanY–having more eyes read before submission (whether to a contest, an agent, or a publisher) is ALWAYS good!

  9. Great suggestions…I’m judging a contest now, and wishing some of the entrants had read your post before entering!