Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Have you ever considered … offering to be a judge?

Photo courtesy of "Idea go"/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Over the past couple of years I’ve discovered the joys of being a judge for a number of different writing contests, some full novels, others the first five and fifteen pages.

Now, you might be thinking that you haven’t published much (generally most writing contests require you to be a published author) and therefore aren’t qualified to be a judge but I don’t believe one needs to be a veteran author to volunteer one’s services.

As a newbie judge one is unlikely to be sent into the final rounds of judging. That typically goes to the more experienced authors and/or agents and editors who’ve been “judging” works for a while. As with many aspects of life where hierarchy is involved, one must earn their stripes, so to speak.

Qualifications to be a Judge

I don’t think I’ve actually seen a set of guidelines for being a judge. Yes, some may require you to be a book blogger/reviewer and show evidence of your work and as I mentioned above for those within a writing community (eg ACFW) will require you to be published.

However, in considering whether or not judging is for you may I suggest the following three criteria:

1. A love of reading. Goes without saying.

2. A love of assisting other authors.

There are many different ways we can do this and judging is just one way.

The authors have invested so much of themselves in these works so one needs to step into the role desiring to constructively assist them in their endeavours.

3. A willingness to be anonymous. This is no American idol or The Voice where the judges are the stars. In writing contests, the authors are the stars. In most cases the authors don’t know who’s judging their work and in some cases the judges don’t know the names of the authors whose work they are assessing.

I’ve had a few lovely comments from authors who’ve written to the judging coordinator and then passed it onto me. Even though we’re still anonymous it’s great knowing that an author has appreciated your feedback especially when it’s confirmed some of their own initial thoughts about their work.

Benefits of Judging

1. Read some great stories that you perhaps wouldn’t typically choose for yourself.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be able to read some historical romance novels in periods that I wouldn’t have thought to read and loved them both. In particular, I appreciated how the authors weaved a strong spiritual message through the story.

2. You learn so much about the craft

Particularly in the short contests where the author only has five or fifteen pages you see how critical it is to grab your reader in those first pages.

Typically, judges will be provided with templates that provide a structured way of assessing the work. This helps guide you in your reading of the various works.

Funny, I was only reading the other day about an author who is also an editor and he made these two comments about juggling the two:

“Well, writers become blind or blurred to narrative choices and writing quirks and it takes a good editor to help them see with clearer eyes.”

“There are other differences, too, but I’ll just mention one more: lack of investment. Writers put everything they have into their story; they live and breathe it. An editor doesn’t have that same kind of initial investment, he’s just interested in making the story as good as it can be. So when an editor says ‘get rid of the unicorn vs. narwhal battle scene,’ it’s because the scene isn’t making the book better. He doesn’t know, or care, that the writer spent three weeks getting the description of the unicorn’s ‘ethereal rainbow shimmer’ just right; he just knows it’s unnecessary.”1

I was able to relate both of those comments to being an author and a judge.

Does it help me when I’m editing my own work? I’m not so sure in the short term but like anything the more I practice the craft, fingers crossed the better writer I’ll become. The shorter contests are like a mini-writing exercise for myself and because I’m not invested in the story I’m able to quickly identify ways to enhance it.

Other Comments

It goes without saying one needs to be prepared to work to contest deadlines but these are well documented. As you'd expect reading multiple novels in a set period of time can be very time-consuming and one needs to plan ahead to ensure you fulfil your commitments. Further, it does disrupt one’s own reading routine so you need to coordinate any other commitments you may have made to authors or blog sites plus one’s TBR pile grows a little higher.

I’m excited to attack my TBR pile in a week’s time there are a couple of particular novels I’m very excited about reading.

I expect there are a few of us who may have been or still are judges and I’d love to read any comments you may have.

If a call goes out for judges from a writing organization you’re a member of why not consider putting your hand up.

Note: 1. Taken from a conversation between Stephen Parolini (author and editor) and Tosca Lee in Tosca’s latest email newsletter.

Ian Acheson is an author and strategy consultant based in Sydney, Australia. Ian's first novel of speculative fiction, Angelguard, is now available in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Angelguard was the recipient of the 2014 Selah Award for Best Speculative Fiction. You can find more about Angelguard at Ian's website, on his author Facebook page and Twitter


  1. I have done this and enjoyed it very much. I love helping a good writer write better, which is probably why I have spent more time editing other people's work lately than writing my own. As you say, a contest gives you opportunities to read and critique work you might not have seen otherwise and grow from bing stretched. But you're right about the time involved.

    1. Hi LeAnne, thanks for your feedback. Wonderful that you're helping other authors with editing their work.

  2. Good article, Ian. I have judged a number of contests and for me it is a good way to learn what works and what doesn't work in a story as I read through the stories. It does take time, so I can't always do it, but the other benefit is the encouragement and advice you can be to new authors as you fill out the judging sheet.

    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for sharing. It's important to provide sufficient advice and encouragement on both the judging sheet and the competition entry (if not a published work). We all know how this helps us grow and develop as authors.

    2. You're right, and that balance is hard, but it's important to give both positive and constructive advise. I was once in a critique group where most of the feed back was 'this is good.' But I wanted that critical eye as well to point out things that I needed to grow in. Positive feed back is also very important--we all need that--but it's not enough.

    3. I was in one of those groups too, Lisa. I ended up leaving it because I realised our goals were different. I was seeking that constructive counsel to help improve my work. There's quite a skill in providing such counsel in a supportive way.

  3. I enjoy judging - I've judged for one unpublished and one published contest so far this year, and have three books waiting for me for another published contest. Published are (in some ways) easier, because I don't have to give feedback.

    But it does take a lot of time - especially to give quality feedback on unpublished contests - and that's time I'm not spending on my own writing. I have a lot of appreciation for the judges who do take the time to add constructive comments, whether complimentary or critical.

    1. Iola, I agree about the difference between published and non-published but it's great being able to assist an unpublished author as they start out on their journey.