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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.
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.
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