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LEST YE BE JUDGED: Contest Judging for Writers

Copyright 1999 by Alicia Rasley

Here are some things to look for and comment on as you judge an entry. Remember to read and abide by the particular contest rules, and keep reminding yourself what the contest "theme" is. (That is, a contest for "The Hottest Kiss!" is likely to bring in entries lacking a certain subtlety!) Remember also to comment favorably when the entrant does these things well. Too often we think to mark up the manuscript only when there's a problem– but success should be noted too, so the entrant knows what to do again next time. Some entrants ask that judges not use red ink, as it looks like "blood all over the paper!" But blue and black ink will be hard to see amidst the black type. Purple and green are nice, but not together!

___ Use the contest's manuscript format requirements for guidelines; if there are none, use standard guidelines: Readable font, double-spaced and about 24-26 lines per page, about 250 words per page (this might mean the margins are not 1" all round, so don't get too anxious about margins!), a header with page number and the title.
___ You don't need to be too critical about any of these elements, but remember, this is the easiest part of writing to get right. If it doesn't meet the guidelines in some important way, don't give a good score on this . But remember that editors ask for only "a readable font" usually, and that includes more than just that ugly Courier. :)
___ Look especially for "cheating"-- like putting too many lines on the page, or using too small a font. This is often an attempt to get around the # of pages rule in the contest, and isn't fair to contestants who make sure they have only about 250 words on the page. Editors do not like jampacked pages because they're hard to read. So this is a good reason to score down, but in the comment section specify not only "too many lines on the page" but also "hard to read" so that the entrant has some idea of the effect of this mistake.

___ There's little excuse for many typoes and misspellings, in this era of spell-check. A couple typoes, of course, I would probably just circle– we all miss a few mistakes in editing. But line after line with mistakes means the entrant either hasn't made any editing effort or hasn't much of a clue about how to type or spell. Don't feel that you have to correct these– just circle them. If there are hundreds, don't even bother to do that. A stern comment like "the many typographical and spelling errors made this hard to read" is sufficient.
___ Look for punctuation errors like missing commas (Jan Tom and me), misplaced quote marks ("Oh, look, she said"). Circle these errors and note the problem if it's not obvious. Some punctuation rules, especially involving commas, are flexible, either because of different "stylesheets" (journalists, for example, drop the terminal comma in a series-- Jan, Tom and I), or so that the rhythm of the sentence can be altered if desired. If you can tell this is an advanced prose stylist, allow more leeway for punctuation variation.
___ Look for the most serious sentence errors:
*Comma splice, where the writer has used just a comma to join two independent clauses (Tommy took a hike, he saw a hawk) instead of stronger punctuation like a semicolon, a period, or a comma plus a conjunction like so, but, and, or, then.
*Run-on sentence, where the writer hasn't even used a comma to separate major sentence element (Tommy took a hike he saw a hawk and a dove).
*Sentence fragments. Again, advanced writers sometimes use sentence fragments for effect, so evaluate whether the fragment adds something to the text. Less accomplished writers just fail to join sentence elements (Tommy was on a hike. When he saw a hawk).

___ Other common grammatical errors to circle and identify:
*Dangling modifiers, where the "agent" of the modifier is not the adjacent noun (Seeing her nearby, his hand shot up in a wave.)
*Misplaced modifiers, where the modifier appears to refer to the wrong noun (In a tight red miniskirt and leopard skin blouse, he felt his admiration for her grow).
*Lack of parallelism, where elements in a series are grammatically dissimilar (For my birthday I want a See-and-Say doll, for all wars to end, and getting my parents back together).
*Subject-verb agreement, where one is plural and the other singular, often found in long sentences where there's a lot between the subject and verb (The football players and the coach, Tom Beeson, who once played for the Jets and still stood tall on the sidelines, was there early for homecoming.)
____ Your purpose with this portion is not to act as the entrants' editor, but to point out where and what the mistakes are. You do not need to "fix" the mistakes if you don't want to– that's their job. Just be polite and as specific as possible. If there are repeated errors of one type, you might point that out in the comment section. If the entry is virtually unreadable because of grammar flaws, don't even bother to look for mistakes after the first few pages. No need to waste your time and overwhelm the entrant with corrections.

____ First off, is this entry generally literate? If you can say yes, then focus on whether it's appropriate to the scene's purpose. It doesn't have to be beautifully crafted and poetic to be adequate and get a good score. Be sure and point out places that flow, images that vibrate, lines that sing.
____ Point out sentences that go on too long or get too complicated. "I got lost in this sentence" and "unclear" and "Can you break this sentence up?" are good reminders.
____ Look for sharp, precise word usage. That's something that editors love. Words like thing, people, tend to, man, woman, and cliches leech the meaning and life out of a passage. I will circle a word like thing and ask, "Can you get more specific? Is this thing a problem, or a challenge, or a worry, or a concern?" This doesn't mean that the entry needs to be studded with $5 words, but rather that the words chosen are as precise and purposeful as possible.
____ Some judges go out of their way to castigate the word was, calling it "passive voice". Actually, was only sometimes signifies passive voice; it can also indicate a progressive verb form (He was heading south as she was heading north, and they collided somewhere east), which is appropriate when an action is going to be interrupted. Passive voice means that the object of the sentence action is in the subject position (The ball was hit 480 feet by Sammy Sosa). A few "there was" or "it was" sentences are inoffensive, but this shouldn't be overdone.
____ Watch out for sentence and paragraph structure problems like reaction before action (She gasped in horror. The closet door had opened and a body fell out) and action/no-reaction, where the action seems to call from some response and none is provided (John shook his fist. "You blue-blooded hair-brained turkey!" Larry opened the car door and waved to the crowd). Also suggest transitions between events or dialogue passages if that would improve the coherence.
____ If description is done well, explain why you like it. "I'm so deep in your heroine's viewpoint, and I can almost feel her terror as she looks around the graveyard." Disconnected description is a major pacing problem, as if the action has stopped to let the author apply the setting. I usually suggest in those passages that they look for the descriptive details that show what's important about the setting.

___ Does the entry start well? It doesn't have to be a "hook", but the opening should involve the reader in some way. If it doesn't, is there a place in the first few pages where the action picks up and you get interested? You might note that with an arrow and in the margin, note, "This is where I started getting interested." If the first scene is mostly backstory, note that– the writer might not realize it. Conversely, if the scene has so little "anchoring" that you have no idea where you are or who these people are, point that out.
___ Where does the conflict show up? There might be several conflicts involved here, but at least one should be emerging early. Mark that point and note something like, "Is this your conflict?" or "I can see this will cause trouble for her!" If you get to the end of the scene and haven't found a conflict yet, say so. "I'm not sure what the conflict is. Did I miss it, or will it come in the next scene? Can you hint at it in this first scene?"

___ Look for signs of freshness in characterization or setting. This is reason for praise. If instead there's a lot of cliches (as there usually is in new writers' work), point this out gently. "This is sort of a cliche. Is there a way to make it more novel?" It helps to send them back to the character. "Susie is such a unique person; I can't really see her reacting in a stereotypical way like this. She seems more likely to go to the hero and demand that he talk to her, rather than running away."
___ Do you get some sense of pacing? Does every scene have some purpose to it? Does every scene have some irrevocable event that somehow contributes to the plot? If there are passages that really involve you, point that out– "I really got caught up here!" If some passages drag, try to figure out why and how it might be helped: "All this description sounds nice but slows down the action. Consider showing the room just from the heroine's point of view– does she feel confined and claustrophobic in there?"

___ Can you identify a protagonist pretty soon? Whether this is a first chapter or a scene from later in the book, you should know who's in charge. What's your first impression? You might note down in the margin, "She seems to be a strong, capable woman"-- whatever your initial impression is. That's helpful to the writer, to know how the character comes across immediately. If the protagonist is there but passive, without much involvement in the scene action, remind the writer that "protagonist' means "first actor" and requires active involvement in the story events.
___ How many characters are introduced early? If you have trouble keeping track of who's who, point that out. Sometimes writers play "hide the hero" inadvertently. If you can't figure out which of three hunky fellas is the hero, let the writer know you're dying to know which you're supposed to be falling in love with.
___ Character actions should all be motivated. If that motivation isn't immediately clear, is there a hint that the motivation exists but is hidden in backstory or the subconscious? If so, consider writing something like "I get the idea he has a good reason for robbing the stagecoach, and I'm willing to wait to find out what it is. Good suspense!" If, however, you can't understand why the character is doing something, ask-- and send the writer back to her own character. "She sure doesn't seem like the type to overreact like this. Has she got a good reason? Can you give some hint what that is?"
___ You don't have to adhere to any hard-and-fast rules of viewpoint. But see if you can sense some controlling viewpoint principle in this passage. Does the writer shift at what seem like good places? Is the shift handled subtly but clearly? You might circle where it's done well and explain why it worked for you. On the other hand, if the writer keeps slipping out of viewpoint for no apparent reason, you might underline where the shift takes place, just note in the margin at every shift "POV shift here– do you need this?" Sometimes they just need to notice that they've accidentally shifted to be able to fix it.
____ How does the dialogue sound to you? Does it sound natural? Note any especially good lines or exchanges. But also note any lines that sound like speeches, or "expository dumps", and explain why it sounds unnatural. Can you tell which character is which just by their "voices"? If so, point that out-- that's a real gift! If weird quote tags ("Oh, come on," he expostulated exasperatedly) bother you, mention it. But also point out good examples of tags.

_____ Editors like a high-concept type sentence or paragraph establishing the conflict or the situation in a dramatic way. The synopsis doesn't have to start this way to be acceptable, but if the entrant has clearly made an effort to hook the reader, that deserves some praise. These first overall paragraphs might summarize the backstory and identify the motivations, for example. BUT... you should be able to tell when the synopsis leaves that more general summary and goes into real-time event summarizing– the actual plot synopsis.
_____ Are the protagonists identified early on? Look for some definition of who they are (such as profession, role in the story--former bad boy Charlie Jones--, family situation-- Orphaned at 12, Cathy Loomis...) something that economically and effectively establishes this person.
_____ Does the opening give you some sense of where and when you are? Is the situation clear-- this is during a war somewhere in the Mideast and more or less in the present time, for example? Do you get a good sense of the type of book and the level of conflict-- is this a dark, angst-ridden book or a light romp?
_____ Do you get a sense of the conflicts early on? The entrant might have reason to withhold something for suspense, but is there a conflict even if you can't precisely identify it? Are story questions set up?
_____ Is the initiating event of the external plot summarized? The romantic plot's first encounter should be there too. I'm always amazed at how many of my synopsis-class students jump over that first event when it's so essential in establishing the story questions.

_____ Are the protagonists active participants in their own story? You should be able to tell in a synopsis that they are more than just victims, that they cause events by their actions and decisions.
_____ Does the synopsis summarize the major events, the turning points of the major plot? This might be the external plot, but can be the romantic plot too. (Probably both plots' turning points should be identified.) Sometimes synopses leave out events and substitute something vague like "they gradually get to know each other better". Point out that the editor will need to envision scenes to understand the plot.
____ Can you follow what's going on? Are there any big jumps or lapses in logic or chronology? "Wait a minute!" moments should be noted, such as when the heroine suddenly knows what she's never been told.
____ Both external and romantic plots should be clearly tracked, and the connections between them made-- for instance, does the synopsis show that their forced cooperation in the theater production deepens their understanding of each other?
_____ Is there a real progression of CAUSE-EVENT-EFFECT? Does the synopsis identify the cause of the major events (including character motivation), summarize the event, and then show some effect? Often the entrant will need to be reminded to put in the consequences of the turning point on the plot and the characters. The effect can also serve as a transition into the next event.
_____ Are the protagonists' journeys established-- how they need to learn and grow through the plot events? If these aren't clearly defined, can you help the entrant by suggesting something? "It looks like your heroine grows in courage and good judgment through the events of the plot, so that in the end she's able to see past Matt's rough exterior to the good man within– is that what you intended?"
_____ Did each major action seem well-motivated? Was there any point where you thought, "This heroine wouldn't do that?" Sometimes entrants want to make sure they cram every event into the synopsis and need to be reminded about putting in the motivation.
_____ Does the synopsis show the romantic conflict, but also how they overcome this conflict? Does it show how their accord grows as they take on the challenges of the plot? Do you feel confident in the end that they are compatible enough to stay in love forever?
_____ Is the emotional effect of each romantic turning point defined? For example, after the first kiss, does the synopsis tell how it affected the hero and/or heroine, and also the relationship? (Their first kiss demolishes John's defenses. He can no longer deny that he needs love, and specifically Sandy's love. But...)

_____ Can you get a sense of the pacing of scenes? Are some scenes overly described, where others are just sketched in? Be on the lookout for the incredibly shrinking plot, where the first half of the book gets 5 pages of summary, and the last half gets a page-- a sure sign that the entrant hasn't plotted, much less written, the whole book.
____ Do you see any structural problems? Does the conflict develop and intensify in the middle section, then come to a head at the crisis/darkmoment/climax section? Is there an actual event at the climax, one where the external plot is resolved? Does the synopsis define the role the protagonists play in the climactic events?
____ Is a final resolution scene summarized, showing the consequences of the plot events? Has the romantic conflict been resolved to your satisfaction, and does the final scene give some sense of the nature of their love? Do you feel the internal conflicts have also been resolved?
____ Were all the story questions answered? Any ends left dangling? Now that you've read the whole synopsis, is there anything you still don't understand? Can you list the questions you have? (I just have a few questions-- When does Kerry learn about Mike's past? Who tells her? Does Mike actually find the locket or does someone give it to him?) Of course, space limitations might restrict how much information the entrant can convey, but it doesn't hurt to identify what you missed.
____ I always note something like, "I'm sure most of this is in the story itself, and just didn't make the cut for the synopsis." That lets the entrant know you're aware of the selective nature of the synopsis process.

____ It helps to write a mini-essay at the end of the entry, or on the back of one page, summarizing your response. Try the "sandwich" technique– start with whatever praise you can honestly generate, and write an entire paragraph about that; do a middle paragraph on what you see as the most important correctable problem, emphasizing solutions (recommend a "fix", or a particular how-to book, for example); then end with another nice paragraph even if it's only to say "good luck!"
____ If you think any aspect is admirable, say so, and underline it and put an exclamation point after it. "Your prose is wonderful– publishable level!" "Your hero was very compelling!" "I loved your dialogue!" Elaborate on any element that's especially well-done.
____ Sometimes with "almost-there"entries we write the most criticism, because we realize they're just a bit away from being terrific and we want to help them get there. If so, say so! You don't want the writer to think your two pages of suggestions means the entry is riddled with problems. Say, "This is so close to 'there', I'm taking extra time to help you. Hope to see this on the shelves soon!"
____ If you're really stretched for something to praise, go with description. I like to identify the internal, external, and romantic conflicts, especially when they're sort of there but not really developed. If I'm not sure, I put a ? at the end. "Internal conflict, hero: He's feeling guilty about something, and so can't commit?" Sometimes all you need is a neutral summary to make the problem clear: "Your hero goes from wanting the heroine's money to thinking that she's poor to despising her for being a rich girl to thinking he isn't good enough for her, all in one page."
____ Go with questions and "I" statements for greater tact and aid. "Does he have enough motivation for this?" will be more effective in provoking thought than "needs more motivation" might be. "I didn't follow this part-- got confused when she didn't respond to his love song" gives a sense of reader response better than "you lost it here somewhere".

____ Are you judging entries against the standard of "publishable" or against "the greatest fiction ever" or against each other or against some average of unpublished work? Generally the finalists in a contest should be at or very close to publishable level, but don't have to be eligible for the Nobel .
____ What in your estimation deserves the highest score for an element? If you end up with scores much higher than other judges, you might raise your standards. A 5 on a scale of 1-5 for an element like "Is the dialogue realistic?" should be earned with the most authentic, character-distinctive dialogue you've read in a long time. Merely good dialogue would rate a 4. Reserve the 5 for elements done very well, or you'll end up with "grade inflation".
____ If you tend to show up as the lowest scorer, look at both your low- and high-score standards. The 1 should be reserved for the totally clueless, or it loses the distinction between pretty bad and lamentable. The 5, in my opinion, should mean "really terrific," but doesn't mean perfection.
____ A rule of thumb-- contest coordinators tell me "finalist" usually starts between 3/4ths and 4/5ths of total points (between 75 and 80 points out of 100 total). The absolute top entry might get 9/10ths of the total (90 points out of 100 total). So if you routinely (or never) score entrants in that range, you might want to adjust your standards a bit.
____ Be careful not to let one element bleed too much on others' score. For example, I've found that one action of the hero might be so nasty and unmotivated that I can't like him at all. It's fine then to mark down the "hero" element of the scoresheet. But that one action doesn't automatically mean the whole plot is doomed, or the conflict is beyond saving, and so those elements might not need to have their scores lowered. Think– if this one hero-action were removed from the story, what score would I give "plot"? But be sure and let the entrant know that the plot would be improved by the modification of that one element.
____ You might ask the coordinator, or decide for yourself, how much of the plot score should be based on the plot outline in the synopsis, or whether it should be restricted to the chapters. Personally, I feel like the synopsis is there precisely to show how the plot evolves, so I generally take the total plot into consideration. But defer to the coordinator's definition on this.
____ Score in pencil, or on a computer. When you're done with reading the whole entry, stop for a moment and think whether this ranks as very good, pretty good, average, etc. Then add up the score. Does the total score fit your overall impression? Sometimes we like a whole entry a lot better than the sum of the elements. I usually go back and make some modifications in scores then-- change a few of those 3s to 4s, for example-- to better reflect my holistic ranking of the entry.

____ Praise is necessary. The entrants need to know what they do well so they can do it again. (Not to mention it soothes the wounded ego.) Look for opportunities to say something nice, even if it's just "your manuscript is formatted very well-- good work!"
____ Beware of the beastly "but": "Your dialogue is fresh and fun, BUT your action scene doesn't have much force." That's like giving a kid candy and then snatching it away. Go ahead and elaborate on the praise-- "Your dialogue is fresh and fun. I really felt like I knew these people. I especially liked it that each character's voice was distinctive. The voice of Red, the hero's father, was amazing– I could hear him in my head." New paragraph. "Your action scene could be more forceful if...."
____ When you're done, can you go back and put in more little strokes? Just skim through the entry, and whenever you see something – a line, an image, an action– done well, put a "nice line!" or smiley face or "yes!" in the margin. Judges tend to be problem-solvers, and that's good, but let's remember the very human need for reinforcement too.

Suggested Strokes to Jot in the Margins:

Yum! (such as after the hero's description)
I like this
Good line
Nice line
Great image
This is good
Good prose here!
Nice job
I love this part
Hey! You surprised me!
This passage really flows
Good transition
I like the way you handled this
You go, girl! (when the heroine does something good)
Terrific byplay here-- lots of sexual tension

Go to previous articles:

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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The Story Within Writing Series

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