By Cindy A Christiansen

How would you like to judge the last critiquer who berated your masterpiece contest entry? Of course you can’t do that. The critique form does say something about sending comments, but how would that look? A disgruntled writer gone berserk over a couple of honest…valid…critique statements about their work. For example these fine comments:

* Have you ever read a book in your life!!

* Your characters are TSTL (too stupid to live).

* Is there a lower score than 0 for Manuscript Mechanics? I’d give it to you if I could.

I mean, you only have three published books, a Master’s degree in English, and a job editing making $90.00 per hour. You sit in front of your computer screen, blinking at your returned critique, your eyes still frozen on those four little letters TSTL.

You take a deep breath and head for the chocolate to comfort yourself. Then it hits you. Just who judged this entry anyway? You return to your computer and find it was an unpublished/trained critiquer. You give a huge sigh of relief. Whew! Who cares what they think. But then you realize that this critiquer is still a reader. Oh, no. Your shoulders sag.

Who Make the Best Judges?

I’m sure we all agree it is not the grudge judge-another author with a vendetta against contest judges. STAB! STAB! STAB! It is also not the author who knows nothing about writing and wants to gain all their experience by reading someone else’s work. (All comments left blank.) Maybe you’re saying to yourself you would like every judge to be either an editor or a multi-published author. That may not be the right answer either. Surprised?

Many published authors and editors lead very busy lives. They don’t have the time to provide a lot of critique. It’s hard to get exactly what a critiquer is telling you with a 3/5 score unless they leave a comment because only then can you learn.

The best judges tend to be those who take the time to point out their reasoning for their scoring with kind explanations (notice I said kind). They also point out positive strengths about your work.

Why Judge a Contest?

You can learn a great deal about writing from reading. (I’m sure you’ve heard that one before.) A good place to do it is reading contest entries. We all know how important those first few pages are, and boy is it easy to spot someone else’s mistakes. The more you are willing to help others see their mistakes, the easier it will become to spot them in your own writing.

What Makes a Good Judge?

Of course it is someone who will put a little time and thought into it, but here are more specifics:

* Critique doesn’t mean to criticize. The definition of critique is, “an instance or the process of formal criticism”. But come on. Do we really do that to each other when we are face-to-face in our critique groups discussing our own work? What I think any writer is looking for is good honest help-constructive criticism.

* In one of my entries a judge was so critical of my characters that she said the heroine was an air-head and the hero was a moron. I had given the heroine the character flaw of being spoiled by a rich, over-protective father and the hero an unknown diagnosis of ADD which both characters overcome by the end of the book. It is also a light-hearted comedy. Did the judge take into account that I said my hero was an expert in his field? Hmmmm. Did the judge take into account that the heroine was escaping a controlling father, starting a new business, and had bought a run-down home that needs restoring? Not sure.

* There again, you as the writer need to determine whether to take a judge’s comments with a grain of salt or decide whether you haven’t done your job telling your story.

The Dos and Don’ts of Judging

1. What’s in a point? A numbering system is a great way of scoring, but what does it really tell us? Sure the contest coordinator has assigned general comments to each number like a score of 5 means, “READY FOR SUBMISSION” and 1 means, “CHUCK THAT SUCKER IN THE GARBAGE”. Something like that.

Don’t plan on judging if you can’t back up that number with a reason for it. It needs to be valid writing criteria-something specific. If you can’t identify to the writer what is wrong, how are they going to learn from it? And if you can’t identify what is wrong, how are you going to learn?

2. Don’t get a bighead. You are on a roll, marking up that manuscript left and right. You want to help this writer become the next best-selling author. The fact is, you still haven’t considered you may not know everything there is about writing yourself. Think humility. Sure you want to point out what you know but try not to come off like Mr./Ms. Perfection. Remember to make your comments, but realize they are your suggestions to the writer–not the Ten Commandments.

3. Have a heart. A writer can learn from what they’re doing right, not just what they’re doing wrong. It never hurts to point out what a writer is doing well. It can only make them better, and it makes you both feel good.

You are not going to be happy with every judge who scrutinizes your work. Being unhappy with their critique doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. If you receive two low scores and one high on dialogue, don’t be so conceited that you assume the high score is accurate. It’s not hard to figure out that your dialogue needs work. Sifting out important information is what we do as writers. If a judge tells you your characters are TSTL and you don’t agree, you need to decide why the judge would make such a comment.

After years of writing romantic suspense with serious subjects of murder, abuse, etc., I decided to write a much more light-hearted, humorous book where the villain wouldn’t go so far as to kill and the characters are a little less serious about the situation. Because it still has a protagonist and the heroine’s life is in danger, I submitted my entry under romantic suspense. The judge criticized my villain as weak and my hero and heroine as being dim-witted.

Should I throw the book away? On the contrary. Instead I analyzed the bigger picture of what was being said. I realized I was targeting the wrong genre.

Now you can head to the freezer for that box of ice cream but this time to celebrate. You’ve learned that even the raunchiest critique can benefit you if you look for the positive in it. On the other hand, if it is really malicious and you just can’t figure out anything positive the judge could have been trying to tell you, then print it off, rip it to shreds, stomp on it, and then set it on fire. That should help.

Cindy A. Christiansen is a multi-published romantic suspense author. She has judged writing contests and teaches writing classes. Visit her at:

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