The Judging Season

This is one of my favorite seasons, and can also be one of the more frustrating.

I volunteer as a fiction judge for several writer organizations, and each year I revel in the excitement of receiving those batches of fiction in my inbox.  The excitement lasts until I begin the time-consuming task of reading through those manuscripts, making notes, and scoring the enclosed sheets, knowing that with each stroke of a key on my computer keyboard, I could be crushing the dreams of a less initiated writer.  At the same time, I could be reading the next bestselling novel and not know it. And there are those that qualify as bestselling writers.

There is often a large disparity between the various writing talents of the entrants of these competitions.  I try to remain objective while reading the twenty-some pages of each hopeful candidate.  And even though the prizes offered for the individual competitions are not typically large, the validation of having your writing earn a place among many other entries is deeply satisfying, and gaining recognition, however modest, can be wonderful.

Remembering my own first forays into the competitive writing industry, I approach each manuscript with both trepidation and eagerness.  Sometimes, the entries are too obviously rushed and appear in a shoddy state.  Egregious grammatical errors, misuse of punctuation, storylines that make no sense or are seemingly borrowed from a recent motion picture release.    (indeed, one year recently, I encountered a manuscript that did exactly that, and being a film buff, I recognized the film that had been plagiarized and not too skillfully reworked into a piece of fiction. Needless to say, I didn’t pull any punches in scoring that particular piece.)

If a writer has obviously labored over their entry and paid attention to details, it’s a joy to read; even if the story isn’t all that original, it’s easier to provide them with positivity and encouragement, seeing their Herculean efforts on the page.  And as judge and invisible mentor, I do strive to keep positive, offering helpful suggestions rather than a strong or even mild tearing down (even when warranted).  Sometimes it’s a struggle to come up with one positive thing to say, and those are the frustrating moments mentioned earlier.

I wonder, in those moments of frustration, what the circumstances were that would cause that unknown writer to submit a piece that’s riddled with grammatical errors, punctuational errors, and other things that seem like common sense things every writer would/should/could know in this era of informational overload.

But perhaps not.

So, stepping into the role of teacher, I offer what wisdom I possess.  All of these competitions are based on “blind judging,” so it’s rare I would ever meet one of the contestants.  However, if a particular piece is simply outstanding and I happen to be attending the writing conference from which that entry originated, I will introduce myself to the writer and thank them for entering, and congratulate them on their writing prowess.  There’s never any jealousy on my part, for I know that there is room on earth for every single writer ever born.  Some of these contestants I have remained friendly with over the years, which is inspiring to me, a guy who now considers himself a veteran among the as-yet unpublished writers.

Judging these competitions inspires me and makes me appreciate where I came from in my own writing career.  And most times I want to reach out to some of those manuscript authors who made the worst of the errors, and guide them to seeing their way to a better path.  I also know that that’s a bit presumptuous.  Every one of us travels our own paths to reach our individual destinations in life, writers included.  So instead I like to imagine that I’m their invisible Mr. Miyagi.  And I reap the priceless reward of being able to grow along with each and every one of them.

3 thoughts on “The Judging Season

  1. I have judged two years in a row now, and I find it deeply rewarding. Part of it is the “pay it forward” mentality, since I will never be able to repay all the instruction and good will that has been shown to me by writers further along the path. Another part is the shock to discover that I actually know things! I see problems that are probably daunting to a beginning writer (and were once daunting to me) and I can offer helpful advice. Wow.

    And of course, it’s also helpful to sit on the other side of the desk from time to time, to feel a little bit what editors feel, to know that it’s not personal and to know that editors really and truly want to find a good manuscript.

    • Exactly, Margaret! It’s also helpful to know that the other judges (mostly unknown to me) are experiencing things similar to what you and I do. Sometimes I wonder why I do it…and then I remember. Paying it forward.

  2. Speaking as Daniel Laruso to Mr. Miyagi: Domo arigato. 🙂

    I finished my first batch of judging chapters this year and it brought back fond memories. In fact, I returned to your comments to see how you said a few things. LOL

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