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Saturday, April 9, 2011

TOPIC: The tough world of contest feedback...


No, this is not some strange chemical formula or a new classification for attention deficit disorder. It's the acronym for the emotional fallout we all experience from contest feedback (and the same can be said of rejection letters if truth be known - ask me how I know!).

So, you've entered a writing contest with your work. You've put your baby out there and spent the last few months eagerly awaiting the results and feedback from the judges. You get it. You read it.

Some of it's positive. Some of it's mediocre. Some of it rips the rug out from under your feet - cuts you off at the knees and leaves you bleeding - makes you want to crawl under the bed and chew on your knuckles for the next hundred years.

The myriad of emotions sparked by this sort of feedback is what I want to address in this post. Firstly though, what does the acronym stand for?

A - anger.
(And at this point in time, I'm going to share your pain by baring some of the most gut wrenching comments I've received from judges over the last eight years, so you know you're not alone.) Here are some examples, some ranging from inappropriate to "constructive-but-I-felt-the-need-to-disagree-with-them" comments.

Example 1. (judging 3 chapters) "Heroine seems to be a plaster saint. Hero a lout with unreasonable expectations. They don't talk like people. Their names have a real '70's fantasy ring to them. 
Voice: stop using $10 words you don't know how to use well and talk naturally. Get deeper into your characters' heads and your POV problems will clear up. Five spaces begin a paragraph, not two. Don't worry about the premise. Fix the voice. Premises are cheap. Voice is golden. 
I feel this entry has been critiqued to death. You have the basic skills to tell a story and keep it interesting. That is ALL IT TAKES to get published, so screw your critique group!"

Example 2. (judging 3 chapters & synopsis) "The hook is pretty generic."

Example 3. (judging a synopsis) "To be honest, you can probably cut most of the first three paragraphs. I can see you're trying to hook the reader with the first para, but character introductions and action can do that as well as or better than a tag line. I'd recommend you get your world-building/setting out there, and then get straight to the characters."

OK, now that you've read them, can you imagine feeling angry? With maybe all three in varying degrees? Hmm-mm. I did.

So, there I am brewing with anger. The next stage of this cycle:
D&D - disbelief & denial, and these comes in varying forms as well.
  • After reading the first judge's comment I was spitting chips and hurling the score sheets across the room.
  • The second made me wonder how the judge got past judge training school - where was the follow up advice? What suggestions could they have offered to improve a "generic" hook?
  • The last one drew out a knee-jerk reaction. I was attached to that synopsis beginning, do you know how much time I spent slaving over them, how dare they suggest I cut out the opening paragraphs! etc.etc.etc.
Moving on to:
D - despair.
Admittedly the first two comment examples came at a stage in my contest career when I'd developed a pretty thick-skin, and after the initial shocking read I could relegate these judges comments to the "Disregard" file.
Very little of what they had to say was going to help me develop my skills as a writer other than to infuriate me on behalf of the beginning writer who did take their comments to heart and decided never to write again.

All that aside, there have been times I've read comments and begun to doubt my abilities as a writer. Am I good enough? Why do I bother to put myself through this? Will I ever reach a standard acceptable to be published? I thought I had this entry pretty well nailed, where did I go wrong? You ask yourself all these sorts of questions in this stage. You've got to push through, analyse your feedback objectively - see the gold amidst the debris - and come out more analytical & tougher on the other side.

And the last stage is:
A - acceptance.
The good thing about the last comment example is that the judge offered constructive advice. And once I'd cooled off and gone back to look I could see the value in what they'd suggested.

I reworked the synopsis, wrote a couple of alternate beginnings, used the advice and came up with something that incorporated some of what the judge said and something I could live with.

Some of those knee-jerk reactions you have to the judges comments are probably the ones that strike a resonating chord within you and subconsciously you know they're right. Also if more than one judge point out the same thing then you need to look seriously at that feedback with a view to editing your work.

Most judges volunteer to help you improve your skills and craft. They're not in it to belittle your ability or scoff at your plot or characters. If you take anything away from this post, and listen to some hard learned wisdom from a contest diva, remember this...you WILL go through every stage of the process I've outlined. Many, many, many, many times and at difference points in your career as a writer.

A last word on the issue - get used to it or (as one of my more shoot-straight-from-the-hip writing buddies says) get out of the game. Harsh advice. Yep. This business is tough.

But if you manage to stick it, develop that tough-skin and improve your craft, then the rewards will outweigh the hard times. Guaranteed. :-)


  1. Thank you Kylie, you've voiced some of the feelings we have all experienced. A great post and very generous of you to share it.

  2. Oh, ain't it the truth, Kylie? Mind you, contest judges are good training for having your book out there and everybody reading it!

  3. Kylie~
    Great play on the five stages of grief! It pertains to when we suffer a tragedy or get a really bad judging score.
    You rock!

  4. The joys of contests! The judge who knows all, the judge who tells you to rewrite the book in their voice, the judge who can't say something nice to save their lives, the judge who gushes over your book and loves every word yet scores 3 out of 5 in all categories... I could go on!!

    I agree with Anna. It is good training and toughens the skin a lot, but it can still be an incredibly frustrating process. Wading through the opinions of "career contest judges" can be exhausting and sometimes there isn't any gold to be found. It's taken me a long time to reach the point of accepting that one judge not liking my voice, or my premise does NOT mean I suck. I now enter contests only to try and get my work in front of editors and agents. If I happen to not make the finals, I try not to put toooooo much weight in the preliminary opinions - unless of course they're all telling me the same thing. ;-)

    Take from contests the info and guidance that helps you grow and learn. Then keep writing. No matter what.


  5. As a sometime contest judge, I'm appalled by the comments in example one. A good judge will give constructive feedback not just tear you down. Although, as Anna Campbell said, it's good practice for when you book is out there. I have a favourite review, which describes my book as the worst book ever. Clearly I have a warped sense of humour, because thinking of that review always makes me smile.

  6. I have long since stopped entering contests because of the conflicting advice. eg: "I can't get emotionally involved in your characters - too much tell and not enough show." In the same contest for the same ms, "I love your characters and get them. You are great at showing and not telling."
    Go figure. Each to their own.
    Thanks Kylie for your wisdom.

  7. Good post Kylie! I agree with Anna - I view all the feedback I get as "training" for the day I have stories out in the wild (with readers & everything) :-)

  8. *shakes head* Am appalled on your behalf at some of that feedback, Kylie.

    I particularly share your anger at the impact feedback like that would have on someone with no writing-callouses.

    On-topic, recent internet events have shown us the importance of the pre-pubbed journey in thickening up the hide against the feedback that will come (for better or worse). Just as important as the 'time-served' perfecting craft.

    Off-topic (but only slightly) I've often thought judging shouldn't be anonymous so that people were held more accountable for their comments. Know that has ramifications for the numbers who'd (then) be willing to judge but is there value in the feedback of someone who won't put their name to their comments??

    I once got 'Oh please' and 'I'm bored already' scribbled across a comp-final feedback from a NY editor and (as cutting as that was) they did put their name to it so I knew it was more than just snark. So I looked long and hard at the opening to that story and made changes that ended up being good. If it had been anonymous (and even an anonymous editor) I might have more readily disregarded it.

  9. Thanks for your various comments, everyone.

    As usual, my advice to any beginning writers entering contests, know why you're entering a contest. Is it for feedback? Is to try and final? Is it to get your work in front of an editor/agent? Also be realistic in what you expect the results to be.

    And as so may here have already said - remember contests are as subjective as editors and agents reading your work and asking for partials/fulls or sending you a rejection letter.

  10. You have hit the nail on the head here, Kylie.

    When i got my first contest resutls back, i cried and almost deleted all my MS's. But then, after i cooled down and re-read the feedback given i could see they were trying to help me and i improved my craft. Every entery and MS i can see myself getting better.

    Though, i still allways cringe when the results come in. Noone wants negative feedback, even if its constuctive. :(

  11. So true about getting any sort of constructive and/or negative feedback, Danielle. But you certainly did the right thing by stepping back and away from the comments.

    Let the rawness fade a bit and come back with some distance if you can. Often there's some gems of advice in the comments. Distinguishing what's constructive and helpful as opposed to what's not is also something you learn with experience.

  12. Great post Kylie.

    I entered my first competition earlier this year purely for the feedback. I was pleasantly surprised by many of the comments, my writing doesn't suck as much as I thought it did LOL.

    I look at it as practice for rejections by agents and publishers and try not to take the comments too personally. Like everything subjective in this world it all comes down to personal opinions. I take note of the comments about writing method and take everything else with a grain of salt (or in some cases a bucket of salt). Hopefully in the end I come away a better writer.

  13. Great attitude to have, Peta! And good on you for getting your work out there!!!

  14. Hi Kylie - contest queen if ever there was one. Great post.

    I've always said entering contests is the luck of the draw. Just like a reader, not everyone will love your book.

    As you have proven, you know how to write fab characters and stories.

    I judge a lot of contests and I try and give every entry the highest mark I can and constructive feedback and help. I spend a lot of time on the beginner’s entries too.

    We should be supporting and helping each other. This business is tough enough without us tearing fellow writer’s dreams in two.

  15. I probably would've given up after the comments from those first two judges! How cruel and totally unconstructive. Good on you, Kylie for keeping on keeping on.

  16. Bron, just as an aside, volunteering to judge contests is a great way to learn how to comment constructively as well as identify which comments are worth taking note of on your own feedback sheets when you get them.

    I also do it to give back to those (anonymous) judges who were kind enough to help me in the contests I entered.

    Leigh, this is why I felt compelled to write a letter to the coordinator of the contest about the comments. I was worried how a first time newbie would feel/react when faced with such bluntness. It might influence them to never put fingers to keyboard again.

  17. i have judged for several years. It is a learning experience for me as well. Sometimes it is easier to see where others have slipped the track than to recognize that in your own work. I do feel, though, that you don't need to hurt someone's feelings to give an honest, good critique. I try to give as many points as possible. However, I myself got a critique that was so harsh. And while I saw her point, it was all about her preferences, not about the work. Her last sentence said it all - 'oh, I see where you are going here. I like that.' Now, I think a good judge would read it through first, get a sense of the work, then critique it. just my humble opinion, of course. Anyway, the person scored me so low, and the other judge scored me so high, they had it scored by a third judge. but they still sent me all the feedback. And I gleaned a tremendous amount of information and guidance. But I would never enter that chapter contest (it's a big one run yearly) again.

  18. p.s. I have had several entries go on to win the top prize or place in the top three for their category - and I feel rather proud of the fact that I was a part of their contest success and future publication.

  19. Hi Kylie - great post.
    I agree with Suzanne that the contradictory feedback can be a little off-putting - I've also had one judge hate something that another judge loved - but the nuggets of gold you can find in the feedback may be the final push needed to get the manuscript ready for querying (and worth the heartache).
    I had a recent bad one. Two judges gave me 100%, one judge gave me half that and effectively judged me out of the competition - her comment was that the description of one of my nasties was far too close to the discription used by another writer she'd read (the peeling skin part). She marked me low because she was concerned about plagiarism - which had me feeling sick as well as angry. I'd never plagiarise anyone - she made a big, very negative call which was totally incorrect. (I'm almost laughing about it - probably will next week)

  20. Tyree, I think those who have entered competitions have had similar experiences - how frustrating and gutting that comment must have been for you, I'm sorry you had to experience something like that.
    Doesn't matter how "experienced" you are those things still hurt. Just have to ignore and move on. Easy to say, most times hard to do. :-)

  21. Anonymous, uggh to your contradictory scoresheet results - polarising the judges is another thing I've experienced too.

    Putting your personal preferences ahead of judging the work on it's craft and skill is certainly a hard line for judges to walk.

    I think it's important when you strike a piece you don't connect with, for whatever reason, and you begin thinking about how it "should have" been written you need to disregard the temptation (as it's irrelevant) and you should look at the craft/elements you're required to judge and stick to commenting about them, not your feelings.

  22. I recently judged the first round of a contest (overseas one)and had a couple of entries that made me wonder why I was published and not those writers! However, another couple of entries also made me realise how much I personally have learnt over many years, especially about trying to balance showing and telling. These were only the first 15 pages of a manuscript plus synopsis but it made me realise why editors - and agents -say they can tell after reading a few pages whether the manuscript is worth reading more of. That may sound harsh but it is unfortunately very true. However, when it is obviously very much a "beginner" writer, how much should the critiquer or in this case the judge point out is wrong? I mentored a writer once through the RWA then Isolated writer programme. I really sweated almost in despair over her first three chapters! I worried about NOT telling her everything wrong straight away but did bit by bit as she revised and revised. She was wonderful the way she persevered and I give her full credit for that and why she is multi-published today!
    Many years later after she had been published by M&B I asked her what she would had thought if I had pointed out EVERY thing wrong with her first effort. Her answer? "I'd never have dared write another manuscript!" Now I try to be encouraging and try to give suggestions to improve something I am forced to mark down - which I have to confess I absolutely hate doing!

  23. Mary, the impact a judge can have on any entrant can never be underestimated. Most times we'll never know the effect we have with our comments but I know I'd never have kept going without the many who encouraged as well as commented constructively.

  24. Your comments offer an interesting insight into the world of contests and feedback. I am awaiting feedback on my first ever ms which (in blissful ignorance) I sent in to the Emmy competition last November, hoping for constructive comments that I can use to improve my other work. Don't know how I'll be feeling once I get them but I plan on coming back to your comments for some perspective. I hope the judges will identify what readers see as my strengths and weaknesses. Thanks for a thoughtful sharing.

  25. Hi Sue! Congratulations on sending in your first ms to a competition (and what a fabulous one the Emmy is!). Remember, we all have to start somewhere. No writer enters a contest with a perfect manuscript or one that doesn't need polishing in some way.

    Feel free to contact me off line once you get your comments and have any questions. Happy to help.

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