What judges think when judging competitions

Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Astrid Edwards

What judges think when judging competitions
What judges think when judging competitions

There is so much to say about writing competitions. If you are an emerging writer, winning or being shortlisted for a competition means a great deal. It means recognition. It means validation. It means hope. And sometimes, it means a prize.

We all know the benefits. Entering competition gets you comfortable sharing your work. It gives you practice following submission guidelines (always important). And if nothing else, it represent publishing practice.

It doesn’t matter what type of competition you enter, entering makes sense. Everyone wants that validation and recognition, right?


But there is a catch.

It matters what you enter.

So, have you ever thought about what the judges might be thinking?

Why judges judge writing competitions

I’ve been privileged to judge several writing competitions over the last few years, including various competitions hosted by Writers Victoria, as well as the Aurealis Awards (the annual Australian speculative fiction awards).

Judging is a wonderful experience. Most judges (including myself) do it for the love of the genre, a respect for the competition itself, or dedication to the organisation coordinating the competition. While some competitions offer payment to judges, many (and I suspect the majority) do not. Those competitions that do pay rarely do so at a level that comes close to compensating for the amount of time it takes for a judge to read and consider all entries.  

This love and dedication of judges is worth remembering when you submit to a writing competition, because it means something specific for you: judges want to read your work. So while the initial audience for work entered into a writing competition may be small – often only three or five judges, sometimes with organisation staff supporting the process – it is a dedicated audience. A dedicated audience willing and excited to read your work.

Judges give their time because they love writing and literature, and they love the genre or the prize. They believe in the opportunities behind the doors a writing competition can open for an emerging writer. They are excited to read new voices and uncover new perspectives, and they want to be among the first to read innovative new writing.

What happens behind the scenes

But sometimes, judges are perplexed by entries submitted to writing competitions.

Every competition is different. But at the heart of any competition is the fact that judges are ranking the submitted works.

In general, this ranking involves a few phases:

  1. Reading: Judges read all of the works submitted. Judges may choose to read alphabetically by title, or chronologically as entries are submitted… Any approach works, as long as all entries are read and a brief comment is entered into a master document. There is normally also a ranking system built into the document, for example, each judge may give each entry a score out of 5.
  2. Shortlisting: Each entry receives an average score, based on the initial scoring given by all judges. This creates a shortlist of works that are favoured by all or most judges. This list does not represent a definitive shortlist: all judges have the opportunity to add any work they think merits more consideration by the other judges. In my experience, judges are keen to argue on behalf of writing they admire.
  3. Debating: Judges then return to the shortlisted works for further consideration. This is stage where most discussions and debate occurs. It is not uncommon for judges to take a third (and sometimes even fourth) look at a work and change their opinion of it.
  4. Judging: The judging panel comes to a consensus on the winning work and the final shortlist. This is made public, often accompanied by a combined report from the judges.

In every competition, many more works are submitted than can ever make it to the shortlist. There is no shame in not making it to a shortlist. Sometimes what inspires  some judges simply does not inspire others.

That does not mean submitting to writing competitions is a waste of time for a writer.  I have a list of several writers who I first came across when judging a writing competition, and although their entries may not have made the shortlist, I remember their names and remain on the look out for their work. It is always thrilling when I come across their other work, and I make sure I read or buy their writing, as doing so is one small way I can support emerging writers in an industry I love.

What judges are (not) looking for

However, there are always entries which are considered to be of poor quality by all judges. In the initial reading stage, I have seen a shocking number of entries receive 2 out of 5, 1 out of 5 and even 0 out of 5 from all judges.

The submissions that are awarded low marks by all judges have several feature in common.

  1. They are not edited or proofread.
  2. They are derivative (especially the case in genre fiction, but this is applicable to any form or medium).
  3. They lack all elements of good storytelling, including engaging characters, interesting plot and believable setting.

There is no point submitting your work to a writing competition if it is not ready.

This is true for many reasons, but one stands out: you will not receive feedback on your work. So in terms of improving your writing craft, entering competitions is not a way to access feedback to improve your writing.

So before you submit, consider these three ideas

Read the previous winning and shortlisted entries into the competition. Your work does not have to be like previous entries in style or content or any other metric but one: quality. So ask yourself, are you planning to submit work that is near that level?

Edit and proofread your work, and then edit and proofread again. But editing and proofreading is not always enough. Source feedback from your peers. Feedback is critical: even the best writers know that the story they think they are telling sometimes does not appear to be the story readers are engaging with.

Don’t submit writing that is not publication ready. In practice, this means, don’t always submit your writing.

If you are confident your writing is near the level of previous shortlisted entries, is free of embarrassing mistakes and is publication ready, then go ahead and submit your work.

And as a former judge ... good luck!