Order in the Court

Song of the Day: Listen Like Thieves By INXS


Here on MuseTracks, we’ve discussed a lot about contests. We know it’s all about love and hate. Er . . . no, I mean, subjectivity. We learn from feedback, embrace what we agree with or ignore what doesn’t work, trawl for overall opinions, and toughen up our skins like leathery old sailors.


We’ve discussed the benefits of contests. We root out problem areas, recognize our strengths, polish the craft, and aim for a coveted spot in front of agents and editors should lady luck smile upon us with a final.  The latter often leads to scaring household pets as we jump from our chairs and perform ritualistic happy dancing.


Whether fumbling through the first mazes of the writing and publishing community or seasoned to taste with years of experience, all-in-all, contests are great tools in bettering ourselves as writers.


But it’s not just in entering contests that we can profit from. There is another way, an even greater gain that writers can greedily snatch up. Become a judge. Sounds like a message from a public broadcast, doesn’t it? “You too, can prevent forest fires.”


Becoming a judge for a contest yields many advantages. Not only are you giving back to a unique kinship of people –  people who instead of stuffing out competition like a spent stogie, strive to lift one another up, stoking fellow writers’ dreams into  fiery blazes – you are helping yourself.


How? You’d be amazed at what you can learn from reading contest entries. Mistakes made, from simple spelling errors to major swirling, black plot holes, are easier to spot on someone else’s work than in your own masterpiece. This, in turn, makes you more likely to avoid making the same faux pas.


So what, you may say. I can do this with my critique group. True, but with contests, you are encouraged to elaborate and be constructive in an unbiased enviroment when explaining why you give the scores you think an entry deserves. Golly Molly, just why did you score a 3 instead of a 4? By backing up your claims, you are forcing yourself into a deeper insight into your assertion. You give yourself an honest understanding of not only the craft but of your own writing style.


As a judge, you will read entries that are complete messes, bless their hearts, and entries that are polished to an ungodly gleam. There is something to be gained from them and all those entries that fall in between. One may be completely written in a passive yawn. Here is your chance to gently guide the author to the right path, pat them on the shoulder and wave them on their way. You wouldn’t leave a comrade hemorrhaging on the battlefield, would you? There is a communal instinct to help. After all, someone probably once helped you when you needed it, right? All for one and one for all! Yip! Yip!  Then there’s the manuscript that leaves you to wondering why you haven’t seen it in the bookstores. Surely they are already on the Best Seller List. Take note of what this author did right and see if you can apply it to your own writing.


Contest judging isn’t necessarily easy, though. If you decide to give judging a try, here are a few tips.


Judge in the same category you write. This will allow you to experience what others are writing in your chosen genre. A touchy-feely way to explore what works and what doesn’t.


Judge in a category you don’t write in but enjoy reading. Maybe you write contemporary single titles but love curling up with Regency historicals. By doing this, you may pick up on strengths and weaknesses easier, ones that you might be prone to miss in your genre. Therefore, you can translate what you learn into your writing.


Pass on categories or entries that you may find moral or ethic issues with. For instance, if you are an inspirational writer, you probably shouldn’t judge erotica or paranormal manuscripts that could rattle or offend you, or make you want to scrub your skin raw in the shower. Likewise, if romantic suspense gives you heebee geebies, provoking nightmares, steer clear.


Remain open-minded and respectful.  Just as you covet, nurture and protect the stories you weave like a mother bear, so do the entrants. They, too, have put in enormous amounts of effort, time and love into their cubs.


Be fair. Judge tales based on what the contest score sheet is asking, not on what you think it should be asking. I’ve read manuscripts with multiple, cringe-worthy errors but still gave them average or better scores based on the score sheet questions. That said, I point out these blemishes in hopes to help the author fruitfully. And remember, comments should always remain productive.


Don’t get hung up on crafting rules. Many score sheets will ask about mechanics. Score accordingly. However, don’t make the entry suffer overall because you have a pet peeve over improper comma usage. Sometimes, it’s more about the entertainment value.


Explain every score, including the high ones. Don’t just point out the flaws; give the entrant reason to rejoice their strengths.  


Always be kind. Telling someone they need to retake 2nd grade English is a no-no. Most of us who’ve entered contests have come across a nasty judge or two. Ugliness is not constructive and a superiority complex will not take you far.


Don’t be too critical or too nice. The point is not to give false hope or to squash dreams. It is to follow contest score sheet guidelines and justly fulfill the expectations of the entrant.


By nature, judging is subjective. Each judge has their likes and dislikes and own beliefs. And of course, this will invariably affect an entry’s score. The key is to remain honest and fair.


Bottom line, being a judge can train us to become better writers in both what we perceive and what we achieve.


Have you ever judged? Do you have judging tips? What is your opinion of judging? Let me hear from you.

25 Responses to Order in the Court

  1. Great post, Jenn! I haven’t judged as of yet. But when I do, I’ll want to judge in the category I write. I want to be as fair as possible and be able to give good feedback. That’s hard to pull off when you’re not familiar with what the author is trying to do. Just my opinion for what it’s worth. 🙂

    P.S. I’m on pins and needles waiting for that all important phone call from you! LOL Hang in there!


    • jbrayweber says:

      Hey Missy!
      It’s not as hard as you think. As a writer, you tend to pick up what another is doing so long as you don’t apply preconcieved notions. Besides, you can simply mark down the first thing that comes to mind, good or bad, then go back, really think and construct reasoning for why you felt that way. You are being fair and constructive when you are honest.

      P.S. You’ll be one of the first to know! :- 0


  2. amy talley says:

    Excellent post on contests – think every potential judge should read it even if she/he has been judging for a while. I have found judging a way to give back to those who have helped me a long the way. And I am very careful about my judging, not treating it capriciously at all. But I am also fair; no sense in not giving true feedback tempered by helpful suggestions.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Aw – thanks for the kind words, Amy. Careful – you’re Southern charm is showing! 🙂

      And you’re right. We should not be capricious and always remain true when judging. Everyone wins that way.


  3. Jeannie Lin says:

    Great post Jenn! I like the point you said about not getting hung up on mechanics. I don’t go back and look for errors — if the writing mesmerized me so that I couldn’t think of commas, that’s a tribute to their craft.

    I enjoy judging contests. For one, I do feel like I owe a lot to judging and feedback from contests. It really does help you as a writer too. You get a small feel for what it’s like to sit at a slush pile. You’re just picking up each manuscript and hoping this one’s a winner. One that you’ll fly through and be sad when the last page is done.

    Then you think critically about it as you comment — what was it that was working? What were those few tweaks that would have made that so-so entry shine? When you turn that same eye on your own writing, you now have a little bit more insight into how to make your own opening shine.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jeannie! I like the way you equate contest entries like a slush pile and hoping for a real winner. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

      Thanks for stopping by! Oh – and congrats again on your “8 pages”!


  4. Stacey Purcell says:

    I’m taking the plunge!
    I’ve signed up to judge and am eagerly waiting for instructions. I will take your suggestions and apply them to the pieces I get to read. I hope that I can provide some really useful feedback to the person who is trusting me enough to do my best by them.
    I believe with all my heart that as members of this wonderful organization we should give back. I have entered a few contests and have received something critical to my manuscript from each. That’s not saying I agreed with everything the judge had to say, but usually would find one thing that I missed.
    Thanks for another great blog. Stacey


    • jbrayweber says:

      YAY! Stacey’s finally going to do it!
      I’m telling you, your eyes will open and you will see things differently. Especially with your own MS. And judging from your critiquing methods, you will provide great feedback and you will give them your best. It’s in your nature, Stace.


  5. Jessica says:

    Great post Jenn!
    I’ve judged a few contests and have always tried to be really objective and score based on the scoresheet. I like judging a lot, but am always worried about striking the right balance of compliments and criticisms (you know what I mean, I hope)
    Anyways, it is definitely a great way to learn and to give back!


    • jbrayweber says:

      Hi Jessie!
      Yes – striking a balance can be a challenge, most notably when an entry is either very much in its infancy or when it seems too perfect. Being objective and scoring based on the scoresheet is important. When we are honestly aware of that as we judge, I believe we are doing right by the entrant.

      Thanks for popping in!


  6. John Roundtree says:

    Hey, Jenn!

    As usual, awesome post. I judged SOLA’s Dixie Kane this year — a rewarding experience. And you’re so right, it does bring new perspective to our own writing. Great job! –John


    • jbrayweber says:

      When am I not right, John? Hmmm? LOL!

      Seriously. When I first started judging, it didn’t take me long to realize what a valuable tool it was for my own growth. Done right, contests are win-win. Both the entrant and the judge learn from each contest experience.


  7. You’re right, Jenn. Judging contests allows for distance that is impossible when dealing with the work of people you know—especially your own.

    My mom always said, “The things that bother us most about others are usually reflections we see of ourselves.” When judging contests, this is especially true, so it helps to note those things that really bothered you—not just for the up-and-coming writer but for yourself.


    • jbrayweber says:

      If I keep telling you this, you may start getting a complex. But, WOW! You are an amazing lady. You always have the right words, the perfect anecdote, and an infectious atttitude. Obviously, some of that personality of yours came from your wise mom.
      You should write proverbs for fortune cookies! LOL!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Gwynlyn!!


  8. Judging is hard! I’m nothing but critical of my own work, and when I read as a judge, I find that I’m nothing but critical in that context, too.

    All I can say is that a scoresheet is kind of like an emotionally laden email — it’s usually a good idea to let it simmer for a day or two before you send it off. I seem to find ways to soften my criticism and add more praise when I go through an entry a second or third time.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Hi Jamie!
      You’re right to sit on an entry for a day or two. It gives you time to really think about what you want to say with constructive comments as well as encouraging ones. Plus , sometimes your understanding of either what you want to say or what the author was trying to convey becomes clearere to you.

      Thanks for stopping by!!


  9. Laurie DeSalvo says:

    I have judged some chapter contests and the GH, and the one thing I notice is that the gems are quite easy to spot. Out of a stack of GH entries I had maybe one that made me sit up and go, WOW. It showed me that in order to final, and in order to sell, I needed to take my writing to the next level. I think entering contests can point out problem areas that aren’t working for you. But judging contests shows you what IS working. It pushes you to push yourself.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Gresat insight, Laurie! I have to agree with you. Well polished, well written pieces certainly make you want to push yourself further.

      I recently read a STELLAR contest entry. I was convinced that this author was already successful and just trying out her chops in a new genre. I simply was floored and I took careful notice of what she did right!! 🙂


  10. Elisa Beatty says:

    Fun, smart post, Jenn! I’m new to both contests and judging… because I’m a teacher, I’m used to giving feedback, and I think I do that well, but I’m also scared of being a meanie, and probably have kept the numerical scores too high so far…. It’s hard. Damn, not like I needed another hard thing to deal with.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Thanks, Elisa, for the kind comments!
      I don’t think you’d be a meanie for being honest. As a teacher, I’m sure you don’t talk down to your students when correcting them. That would be counterproductive. I believe you would be quite nurturing, instead. 🙂


  11. Tammy Hoganson w/a Tamara Hogan says:

    I agree with a comment Laurie D. made about the gems being easy to spot. Such manuscripts are a pleasure to judge, and to learn from.

    What’s absolutely heartbreaking to me is when some aspect of the story you’re judging shows a lot of promise: its premise is wholly original, the world is unique, the hero is absolutely mouthwatering, the conflict has a lot of potential. and so on – but from a technical perspective, the manuscript is laden with so many verb tense, point of view, grammar, punctuation and spelling errors that you can’t make your way through it without reading each sentence, each paragraph, each page multiple times.

    In the last contest I judged, I was assigned two such manuscripts, and it took every bit of my writing skill to provide the feedback the author needed to hear, in a way that (I hope) didn’t clobber her self esteem.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Oh, I so agree with you, Tammy.
      I’ve read some really great storylines but there were many grammatical errors that made the story drag or, dare I say, painful to read. But however much work is needed, I try to put in tons of energy to help that author out. I once made some very horrid, newbie mistakes. I had some great feedback on how to correct my mistakes. The judges took the time to steer me to become a better writer. Then I had a judge (okay, two judges) roast me over an open flame in a very, very demeaning, sarcastic way. Good thing I have attitude!
      Thanks for coming by.


  12. Suzan says:

    Lot’s of good points, Jenn. I’d add one more – judge others how you wish to be judged.

    I’ve had my share of rude/unknowledgable judges when I’ve entered contets. I keep that in the forefront of my thoughts when I’m writing/typing comments on a judging form.

    One of nicest compliments I’ve received as a judge was from a contest coordinator. She said she hoped I would be the judge she pulled in a contest someday because I gave thoughtful feedback.


    • jbrayweber says:

      Oh yes – Do unto others as you would have done to you. ABSOLUTELY!
      What a super compliment coming from the category coordinator. You obviosuly are doing something right!

      Thanks, Suzan!!!!


  13. […] Order in the Court Jenn Bray-Weber discusses the work that goes into judging contests and how you should choose which contests you might want to judge. What does judging a contest have to do with making you a better writer? A lot. You will see a lot of examples of successful and unsuccessful writing, and you can use that knowledge to improve your own. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: