How to Judge a Writing Contest

So you’ve been asked to join the illustrious and highly-esteemed group of writing professionals known as “contest judges.” Congratulations! Now, however, you may find yourself wondering how to properly judge a writing contest. The most important thing you can do is to remain as objective as possible. Give strong works that obey the contest rules the highest marks, regardless of your own tastes. At the same time, you should not fight against your better instincts.


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    Refresh yourself on the genre. Contest judges are chosen based on their areas of expertise, but if you have not focused your recent efforts on the genre you've been asked to judge for, refresh your memory before you embark on the task. For instance, if you are an acclaimed romance writer but have spent the last year and a half working on a romance-free crime thriller, spend a few weeks immersing yourself back into the realm of romance before you even start looking over the contest entries.
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    Read entries in small batches. Reading too many entries at once will cause you to get tired. As you tire, your ability to judge and perceive things accurately decreases. Once your eyes blur or your mind feels fuzzy, take a break.
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    Read entries when you are in a fairly good mood. Like any judge, you are only human. As a result, you are prone to having fits of good and bad moods. People tend to be a little harsher with others during a bad mood. If possible, review contest entries when you feel your best—or, at the very least, at any time other than when you feel your worst.
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    Review the contest rules. Many writing contests have themes, word counts, and other conditions that must be met. Entries that do not fit the theme well or otherwise ignore the contest guidelines must be rejected, no matter how good the story itself might be.
    • Ask the person putting the contest on for a checklist or set of judging criteria. Smaller contests may leave the decision up to the judges, relying on them to interpret the contest's rules, but many larger contests will have set criteria they want their judges to abide by.
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    Ask yourself if you like the entry. This alone should not be grounds for passing or rejecting someone's entry, but it is a valid place to start. Pieces that you like are probably strong and grammatically sound. Pieces that you do not like may not be, but you should give them a second look before assuming so. Some pieces may not appeal to you on a personal level even though they are strong and fulfill the contest rules.
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    Sort through the entries you dislike before going through the ones you like. Oftentimes, it is easier to determine why you dislike something than why you like it. Be objective. If you dislike an entry simply because it is not your "style" or does not appeal to your own sense of taste, do not reject it. If, however, you dislike an entry because it contains numerous grammatically goofs or otherwise exhibits weak writing, turn it down.
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    Look at how strong an entry actually is. Each writer and reader has his or her own rules governing "strength," but there are some standard questions you should ask yourself when reading a contest entry.
    • Does the entry contain numerous spelling and grammar errors?
    • Does the entry maintain a consistent point of view, or does it jump around without warning?
    • Does the entry rely too heavily on passive tense?
    • Does the entry abuse exclamation points?
    • Is the content unique, or is it filled with one cliché after the next?
    • Does the writer use strong verbs, or are the verbs all accompanied by adverbs?
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    Start critiques by presenting the entry's strong points. Many writing contests require judges to provide critiques for each entry. By starting with praise, you make the recipient of your critique feel more at ease and more likely to take what you say seriously. Even if you struggle to find anything positive about the entry, keep struggling until you find something worth praising. There are plenty of mediocre pieces, but very few that contain nothing worthwhile.
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    Only offer constructive criticism. This should go without saying, but the criticism you offer entrants should be for their sake and should not be used as an opportunity to vent your own frustrations. Instead of merely stating that you do not like an entry, explain why the entry seems weak. Provide examples and temper your language. For instance, instead of saying, "This section of the story doesn't work," say, "This section of the story could be stronger if..."
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    Resist the urge to tell the entrant everything you know. Being helpful is great, but it has its limits. If you politely suggest two or three changes that you feel very strongly about, the writer may believe your critique and follow through on your suggestions. If you overwhelm the writer with several dozen suggestions, however, he or she may feel too discouraged to benefit from your suggestions or the even bother reading them.


  • Remember that someone, somewhere, felt you had the necessary qualifications to be a judge. If you feel nervous about how to critique contest entries and uncertain about whether you actually deserve to be in that position of power, relax. Whoever put the contest on has faith in you, so you can have a little faith in yourself, too.


  • Do not take it personally if an entrant complains or takes your critique poorly. If you sincerely made an effort to judge them fairly and only provide them with constructive remarks, then you did your job as a judge. There are a few writers out there who simply cannot accept that their work could be flawed or ill-suited for a particular contest.

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