How To Judge a Writing Contest

It is not unusual for sponsors of a writing contest to approach local authors or English instructors and request their services as judges.  Sometimes former winners of a writing contest are asked to "pay it forward" by serving as judges for a subsequent competition.  Depending on the size and scope of the writing contest, a well-established professional author or authors may serve on the final judging panel.  Judging a typical writing contest, especially during the opening rounds, can be a time-consuming project, but there are some ways to separate the wheat from the chaff and arrive at a final decision you can live with.  Here are some tips for judging a writing contest:

  1. Be sure you understand the sponsor's judging criteria.  A writing contest isn't always about finding the most flawless or polished manuscript.  Each contest's sponsor may have different criteria for determining the ultimate winner.  Adherence to a theme, creative use of a product's name, or emotional appeal for the reader may actually matter more to the sponsors than grammatical perfection.  When you agree to become a judge in a writing contest, ask the sponsor for guidance before receiving hundreds of submissions.  It pays to have some idea of what a winning entry should look like.
  2. Disqualify non-compliant entries early.  The first round of judging may simply be a matter of weeding out entries which clearly do not meet the mechanical requirements of the contest.  Be aware of minimum and maximum word counts, for instance.  If the entries should be double-spaced, eliminate anything with single spacing.  If an entry is illegible beyond repair, a judge shouldn't be forced to read it.  Entries without proper or complete contact information can also be disqualified early.
  3. Judge entries in small batches.  Once you have a supply of acceptable entries, try to read them in manageable batches.  Even the best reader or editor is bound to get tired after reading a few hundred manuscripts.  You don't want a potential contest winner to slip through the cracks because you were mentally exhausted.  Find something else to do between readings, or discuss previous entries with other judges, as long as it is permissible to do so.  Some contests insist that judges not communicate amongst themselves while scoring entries.
  4. Give each entry a simple yes or no vote during the middle rounds.  Either an entry shows potential or it doesn't.  Even if you can't settle on a shortlist of deserving winners, you can still whittle down the pile substantially with a simple "go or no go" strategy.  In this way, you'll only be dealing with the better entries in later rounds.
  5. Judge what you actually read, not what you would write. Sometimes judging between finalists is a very subjective process.  It can be easy for a judge to project his or her own feelings into the judging process.  If you're judging for a final winning entry, try to pull yourself away from a personal favorite enough to look at it objectively.  Are you seeing what is written on the page or how your own entry might have looked?  Be prepared to disappoint some good entrants who didn't quite make the mark.  It's often a matter of degrees during the last round of a writing contest.


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