After entering contests and being a part of critique groups for a while, I felt brave enough to volunteer as a contest judge.
What does it take to be a judge? It’s more than, “do I like this story or not?” You do need a working knowledge of the different elements of the writing craft: story structure (especially as relates to individual genres), pacing, point of view, characterization, dialogue, showing vs. telling, basic grammar and sentence structure. Not an expert, but reasonably familiar with what goes into good writing.
Judging is hard on its own. Knowing that your comments may make the difference between someone quitting writing or finding the courage to go on is pretty heavy. I feel compelled to honesty, but not at the expense of kindness. I always try to find something I liked about the story or the writing, something solid to encourage the author with. Sometimes, though, that can be really tough. I love it when I can say more positive things than not, but that doesn’t happen very often.
So what sorts of things do I see as a contest judge?
One of the biggest is the problem of showing vs. telling. To be fair, this is a concept that only really jelled with me in the past couple of years. Before then, I was guilty of thinking showing vs. telling just meant you wrote something in real-time rather than reducing it to narrative summary. It’s much more than that. It’s the author showing me how a character feels, by reactions and internal thoughts, rather than telling me.
I also see way too much backstory—the character’s history—shoveled into the first few pages of a story. There are ways of weaving in hints and threads of why your character behaves the way she does, without resorting to huge paragraphs of explanation. Some of this involves tightening what point of view technique you use. Some of it can just be saved for later, to work in as it becomes relevant.
Other common problems are flat, clichéd, or awkward writing … passive writing … boring or stilted dialogue … too much page time given to minor events, while more significant things are glossed over.
Nobody wants to hear that their story has these issues. At least, I never really want to hear it when I’m on the receiving end, regardless of how much I know a story still needs work! It would be so nice if I could see problems on my own and correct them without being told. But, as with other things, we have to be trained to spot flaws and inconsistencies. It doesn’t make us failures to be shown where we can improve.
Approaching contests from that mindset won’t completely take away the anxiety of entering, or the sting of very pointed comments. It doesn’t magically make my feedback as a judge easier to swallow for the writer receiving them, either. But it can help us resist the subtle lure of pride where either entering or judging are concerned, and shift our focus away from that craving for recognition.