Site icon Joanna Campbell Slan

How to Make a Contest Judge Very, Very Grumpy

The organizers of the contest I was judging sent an urgent email saying that a few of the judges had opted out at the last minute. Would I review two more entries?

Of course, I said, “Yes.”

One of those is still upsetting me.

You see, this particular entry featured a charming and highly original story idea. To my mind, it was “high concept.” It was a big idea that causes people to smile and say, ‘Ahhhh!”

But the writer didn’t proof her work. The 30 pages were riddled with extra spaces between words, lack of indentation for paragraphs, missing spaces between words, extra periods at the end of sentences, misspellings, verb tense mistakes (“lead” for “led”), and a total disregard for common usage of commas. At first, I simply marked these using the yellow highlight function. Toward the end of the piece, I started to get hacked off. Really annoyed.

You see, a contest entry or a query for an agent should represent your BEST work. You are consciously, and by definition, trying to set your best foot forward. To ask anyone to read your work when you haven’t gone through it and polished it to perfection is like asking a guest to come over for Thanksgiving dinner to a dirty, messy house. A house festooned with wet towels, cans overrun with garbage, dirty toilets, and a grubby floor.

Wow, you are thinking, Joanna, you’ve really gone off the edge on this.

Maybe. But then again, maybe not.

You see, writing is my profession. I worked 40-hours a week in college to put myself through school. I went into massive amounts of debt to buy an education. Despite my full-time job, I still graduated cum laude, and it would have been summa cum laude had I not gotten tripped up in a statistics class. I take my work very seriously. I believe that publication is an honor. A privilege. I take my readers very seriously. Their attention is an honor. Their time–and mine–is a nonrefundable resource that is precious.

Even today, I struggle to improve my writing. Recently I asked an English teacher for clarification on “which” and “that” usage. I’m still working to perfect my skills with those words! And even in this article, I will stop and look up spellings and meanings of words as I go along. Every piece I write is edited many times over. That’s just part of the job.

So when someone submits a piece for evaluation, I give that piece hours of attention. Yes, you read that right: HOURS. I was told to expect to spend 45 minutes judging each piece. I spent 2 and 3 hours per piece. I did not give them a cursory look and then assign numbers to the heuristic grid. I highlighted comments as I went along. I line-edited the submissions, and used the strike-through function to show wordiness. I noted missing commas, missplaced modifiers, faults of logic, and sequencing errors. Such editing in the marketplace is valued at $5 a page, on the low end of the professional editing scale. Each contest piece was 30 pages long. So I offered each contestant $150 worth of my time.

Which in this case was wasted. I say “wasted” because this particular entrant obviously didn’t take the contest seriously. Didn’t spend the time necessary to master the basics of our craft. Didn’t put in the baseline effort needed to prepare a story for a contest, much less for publication.

In short, I guess I’m miffed because I was willing to “waste” my valuable time…but the person submitting that particular entry wasn’t equally willing to spend his/hers!

Here’s the shame of it: He/She had a wonderfully creative idea for a story. He/She was gifted with a delightful imagination. These are God-given talents. All this editing stuff can be learned! But those talents are gifts.

Then there’s the underlying premise of any competition: The entrant promised me his/her best work in exchange for my time and attention.

And I was cheated.

What a shame.

Is it any wonder that I’m still sort of grumpy about that particular entry?

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