During recent years I've been given the opportunity to judge writing contests. This has been an honour and a privilege. Writers trust work they've laboured over for weeks and months to me to read and evaluate.
In the judging process it's important to keep in mind the solitary hours a person has put into the work. She's given up valuable time to be with her family and friends to sit in front of the computer for long and sometimes unproductive hours. Writing is a sacrifice. Because of this human element I believe the process of judging contests is about encouraging the writer to do better. I don't ever want a writer to lose sight of her goals and hopes because of my insensitive remarks on her scoresheet.
Writers who enter contests are at varying stages in their careers. Some are beginners looking to see if they have talent, or if they are in fact writing in the right genre for them; some are seasoned writers close to publication standard hoping they will win the contest so that their work will by-pass the slush pile and reach the editor's desk of a publishing house much more quickly; some are intermediate writers who are honing their craft and seek feedback so they can take their writing to the next level; and some writers are trying out new ideas to see whether the project is worth pursuing.
Through all the entries I've reviewed, I've always made sure I give honest and encouraging feedback. I'm always aware of the writer. No matter what stage she is at in her career, she is hoping her work is good enough to win. I judge each entry on its merit. Some aspects of the writing are better than others, eg. great characterisation, but poor plotting and conflict. Usually the score sheets are designed so that a score is apportioned to all aspects of the writing. The scores give great feedback for the writer because her weaker areas are highlighted by the amount she's been given. I believe it is the writer's responsibility to be mindful of each judge's view of her work. Every judge sees the work differently. It's important the writer weighs the comments of all judges and takes what resonates with her and make the changes accordingly.
Nothing gives me more pleasure when I hear a writer say they applied some of my suggestions to their work, and now they are published. This is also encouraging for me because the next time I judge I'll apply the same or similar method of appraisal to help another writer.
If you ever get the opportunity to be a writing contest judge, say yes. You're encouraging a wannabe writer on her journey to publication--a rewarding experience, and learning something about yourself in the process.