I have seen a lot of discussion lately about contest judging. There is a big blame-it-on-the judge outbreak for making snarky comments or having a God complex and not liking the manuscript. Maybe it’s because I just finished donating my time to judge two contests, I’m in the middle of a third, and coordinating a fourth (and they wonder why I have no free time, but at least I don’t have to judge the one I am coordinating), but I feel I have to say something on the issue, both as a judge, and as someone who enters contests.
Most people who agree to judge contest have anything but a God-complex. They give up their time and expertise to read manuscripts with absolutely no compensation. They do it to give back to the writing community that nurtures them, not to hurt an anonymous contestant.
Maybe we don’t always know how to say things in ways that are guaranteed to hurt no one’s feelings. (Yeah, I know we are writers, so words should be our profession, but come on, did you ever put anything down and expect everyone in the world would get exactly what you were trying to say? Really?) I have received a few painful remarks in my contest days, and remind myself that that comes from a judge’s limited time and experience, and the difficulty in seeing how your words will be perceived. Besides, one I heard from a few editors and reviewers, I learned real pain. My only compensation was they actually cared enough to give more than a form rejection or to refuse to do a review at all.
My own writing improved when I learned to stop caring about the exact words used, and to take them as guidelines. Each judge’s comment became a pointer to an area I needed to look at more closely. If readers had a problem with a particular chapter, character, or phrase, it behooved me to not stop blaming them and search for ways to resolve the problem. And in the end, that is what the judges are, enlightened, knowledgeable, readers.
Again, not every reader will get my stories. So I don’t make changes to meet every comment. I can’t, sometimes they are contradictory, like the time one reader told me my heroine was too smart to make such foolish decisions, and the other told me she was obviously too foolish to pretend to be so smart. Go figure. I decided to change nothing about Yolanda Dare, heroine of my award-winning debut novel, Pull.
In the end, it is not the judges, or the reviewers. It’s not what they say or how they say it. Maybe there is a God complex, maybe there isn’t. But in the end, I get to use my skills, to listen to my instincts, and determine what should be on my pages. The judges comments are simply tools for my toolbox, not whips to beat my ego.