RWA contest judges get plenty of boos and hisses — even from me, the Grammar Wench. Instead of finding a way to utilize those score sheets as something other than trashcan liners, disgruntled contestants shrug off their judges’ annotations as vengeful, obtuse, or power-trippy. Listen to any contest support group and it sounds a lot like a bad review support group. Do any of these comments sound familiar?
“Must have had PMS when she wrote that!”
“Must get a thrill from tearing down others!”
“Forgot her Prozac today!”
“Me, grammar-challenged? She needs to take remedial English!” (*From my own rant files)
Thus, RWA contests are associated with crapshoots, with finding the right judge at the right time who just happens to be in a good mood, as often as they’re associated with friendly, rational assessments by individuals capable of rising above personal stresses to give a helpful read to a writing peer.
While I’ve been subjected to more than one shocking critique by an RWA contest judge, I still endeavor to appreciate the time and effort they invested in the judging process, especially when they obviously did a lot of work mauling me like a dogtoy.
But I’m not here to be all butterflies and roses about contests judges and chastise everyone who dares to sour on them. Like the Grammar Wench could do butterflies and roses! Instead I’m here to speak directly to judges, would-be judges, and to critique partners about strategies we can use to keep our hard work from going to waste. And this, of course, is presuming that the said judges and critique partners actually work hard instead of glance over a piece, draw a smiley face or two, and schlep down some unexplained scores.
Here’s what I’m saying. Judges, fellow critters who care, let’s not give our victims, I mean, our peers, an excuse to write us off as crabby appletons who just want to bring them down. I’m not suggesting you blow sunshine up their nether regions or perjure yourself, but there are ways to lessen the pain of being told that the proffered chapter is not camera ready.
1) Always use friendly, rational language, even if you feel like your brain is pouring out your ears after reading the selected piece.
Ex. of unfriendly language Hated it, Loathed it, Ridiculous, Imbecilic, Worst thing I’ve ever read, Offensive, Horrible, Please take an elementary English class. Also, in many cases it’s hard to get a contestant to buy that words like “Unpleasant, Illogical, Irrational, Poorly written, Farfetched, Vacuous, Painfully Slow” came from a judge who actually cares. Which you are, otherwise quit now and go into bill collection before you rip anyone a new one.
Ex. of how to say the same thing with kindness — See above, only follow with “Bless your heart.”
No, seriously! Use phrases like “Some readers might have problems with…”; “I had concerns about X because…”; “The first chapter might have more impact if…”; “Maybe you could try X or X”; “You might heighten the reader’s bond with the protagonist if…”; “Readers might want to know about X at this point in the plot”; “I wonder what would happen if you tried X?”; “At this point in the plot, I became curious about X”; “This confuses me here because…”; and so on.
Even “I didn’t care for this” is risky, depending on the reasons given. Stating personal preference as your rationale for downgrading a manuscript negates your authority as an open-minded and thoughtful judge. Give reasons beyond personal dislikes (see number 4 below). Moreover, the word “sucks” should be confined to vacuuming references, unless you loved it and you write, “It sucks that I can’t read any more of this!”
2) An obvious recommendation, but don’t say anything you wouldn’t want said to you. If you’re one of those folks who claim they can take it on the chin and would rather people “just be honest and tell you if it stinks”, your rules are different. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want said about your beloved child, your spiritual beliefs, or your butt and thighs.
3) If you stray too far into quips and sarcasm, you’ll probably lose YOUR reader. Then all your time critiquing her partial will have been wasted. You aren’t judging or critiquing to show how clever you can be, and if you are, shame on you. This is a particular challenge that I face, because I like to assume everyone will get my jokes. Think of your peers as mostly humorless, even if their writing selection is comical.
4) It might be difficult to separate your personal tastes from the way you judge. It’s impossible to do it totally, but be aware of your own biases when downscoring. A skilled judge or critiquer has the ability to see beyond the content of the story to its structure, its mechanics, its writing clarity, and its likelihood of appealing to the public.
Ex. You’re sick of cop heroes. You don’t like sex scenes in the first chapter. You don’t like goofy humor. You don’t like angst. You don’t like books set in small towns/big cities/pretend countries. You don’t like medieval historicals. You don’t like alpha heroes. You don’t like secret baby stories. You don’t like the name Homer. And so on and so forth.
Your best bet if you have strong personal dislikes related to content is to send the manuscript back to the coordinator and tell them you don’t think you can be fair. If you find yourself doing this with more than one or two entries, you might want to rethink judging until you can overcome your biases enough to treat the situation more professionally.
5) Likewise, avoid rewriting too many sentences or poking a peer’s writing style into your shape. This is another area where it’s difficult to differentiate between personal preference and areas that truly need improvement. Double check grammar recommendations you dole out.
Ex.: Lots of people like headhopping. Lots of people are POV purists. Telling someone there is only one right way to do this won’t help anybody much but you, in pontificating your predilection.
Ex. 2: Right now, adjectives, adverbs, gerunds and other fanciful ways of expressing oneself are not highly regarded in literature. But don’t give into the temptation to tell a hopeful writer she “can’t” use adverbs or she “can’t” start every third sentence with a gerund phrase. Suggest moderation and extol the virtues of sentence structure variety or avoiding repetition when it’s not for artistic effect.
All in all, since we’re the first round and not the celebrity judges, it’s best to think of ourselves as readers or brainstorming buddies. We’re equals, not the final opinion, not somebody smarter or better, and we don’t know everything. Always keep in mind the author probably thought she was close to polished. Don’t raise her hackles. Raised hackles cause deaf ears and then, poof, all your hard work has just been tossed out the window because of that one comment that came across as snotty as a cow’s nose. While some recipients of your pearls of wisdom will be so fragile even pointing out misspelled words will be taken amiss, you have it within your power to avoid sounding like a raging bitch or a condescending know-it-all.
What judging and critiquing boils down to is exercising your own skills as a reader and writer while not calling attention to yourself. Even when telling people things they don’t want to hear, you can do it smoothly because the English language is your paintbrush and you are a word artist, a story crafter. Right? Right. Otherwise you wouldn’t be doing this because you’re sure as hell never going to get rich. Read carefully, with an open mind for the market, and offer suggestions that will hopefully propel yon maiden towards publication and earn you a spot on her acknowledgements page.