Writing contests have been popular for many years and the ones with the largest prizes receive thousands of entries. If you are lucky enough to be chosen as a judge for a writing contest, you have your work cut out for you. Even with a panel of ten judges, it can take weeks (or even months) to sort through all the entries. Still, it can be a rewarding experience and you’ll likely read plenty of wonderful stories or poems that others might never get a chance to see.
Know the Genre. Just because you’re a wonderful writer of prose doesn’t mean that you can judge a poetry writing contest. You don’t have to know how to write poetry, but you should know a good specimen from a poor one. Generally speaking, writing contest judges are chosen based on their knowledge of the genre, but if someone makes a mistake, you’ll need to take an impromptu crash course to muddle through.
Understand the Purpose. Some writing contests are broad enough that you simply need to look for the most well-written piece, while others have strict criteria that must be followed by participants. For example, if an essay writing contest is centered around a specific theme, the winning entries must adhere to that theme. Even if you stumble across the most beautiful essay ever written, it can’t win unless it follows the guidelines. As a judge, you have to make that call.
Weed ‘Em Out Most writing contests include several rounds of judging during which various goals will be met. The first round of judging might simply be an opportunity to weed out those entries that can’t possibly make the final cut. It isn’t a time to judge writing style or dialogue skills; instead, focus on eliminating the entries that don’t follow the guidelines.
Work Slowly. You wouldn’t want a writing contest judge to skip over your entry because he or she was exhausted, so don’t make that fate possible for one of the entries in the contest you’re judging. Take ten or so manuscripts at one time and take breaks between each set so you don’t get overworked. Use that time to take a walk, get a snack, smoke a cigarette or chat with other judges.
Use a “Yes or No” Strategy. Until the final round of judging, don’t waste time with “middle of the road” entries. Instead, mark each manuscript with a “yes” (it has potential) or a “no” (it doesn’t). This will make the process go much faster and you can save your analysis until you have a smaller pile of promising entries.
Judge by Writing, Not Subject Matter. It’s easy to lose perspective on your objectivity when judging a writing contest. You might be tempted to put an entry in the “yes” category just because you think the story is interesting or because you agree with the author’s point of view. Instead, try focusing on the writing itself-the technical skill, the grammar, the word choice, the continuity of the peace-rather than the author.