Sifting for Colorado Gold
Sunday, August 27, 2023

With the Colorado Gold Writers Conference right around the corner, I want to take a moment to talk about the process of judging a writing contest. One of the major features of this annual writers conference is their Gold Rush Literary Award, which is a chance for unpublished writers in a variety of genres to get their works in front of literary agents during the conference. This year, I served as a judge for this contest. This was my first time judging a writing competition, and I have to say, it was a strange and eye-opening experience to see things from the other side of the fence.

I always knew contests were a bit subjective. I mean, it’s not like there’s a standardized answer sheet that judges can use to see if the authors got it “right.” And yet... there sort of was. I was given, basically, a grading rubric. It actually looked a lot like the charts used on my daughter’s homework to judge whether she got a passing grade on an assignment. Something like, “Shows a basic understanding of grammar: Student falls short of, meets, or exceeds expectations.” Only there were A LOT of categories to grade, and not all of them were even present in all of the entries I read. How do you judge the quality of something that isn’t there? Like, “Are the supporting characters relevant?” in a story that only introduced one character.

Then comes the subjective part. Do I think this person understands grammar? Do I think their main character has a full growth arc based solely on the synopsis and the first ten pages? Do I think the stakes are high enough for the genre they’re writing in? Is the narrative voice clear? Is the pacing right? Are the metaphors appropriate? Talk about subjective! One person might think comparing a cab driver’s head to a pineapple is the most clever thing in the world, while another could find it trite and cliched. (No one actually compared a cab driver’s head to a pineapple in any of the entries I judged.) And to complicate matters, not all of the entries are judged by the same people. How could they be? There are way too many for a single person to tackle even an entire genre, let alone the whole contest. So now you have a bunch of different people judging a handful of stories each, but those stories are then stacked up side-by-side. What if one judge thinks capital letters and periods are all that’s really necessary to hit the mark of “understands grammar,” while another is in love with semicolons and counts off anybody who doesn’t use them every time the opportunity arises? What if the judges have a different idea about where commas go, because let’s face it, the writing community as a whole can’t ever seem to agree on exactly where commas go.

So yeah, each entry gets a subjective grade that is then compared to another entry’s equally subjective grade provided by a different judge with a different background and personality. Now this isn’t to say there’s NO consistency in the process. At least for this contest, each entry was judged by two different people to, hopefully, provide a balanced view of the work. And obviously, as judges, we all TRY to be even and fair to the best of our ability. I’m just saying, human opinions leave a lot of wiggle room. One judge might read their assigned entries after having a brilliant, relaxing day that’s left them feeling generous. Another might judge after a long slog through a double shift that’s left them hating the world. Just like readers, I suppose. There are a lot of variables that can affect how your work is received.

I guess the main take away that I’m getting at here is this: Don’t let success or failure in a competition affect you too much. Yes, if you win, you may get an amazing opportunity, but you’ll still need to keep proving yourself every step of the way, whether that be to agents, publishers, or readers. If you don’t win, you may be tempted to take it personally, or to feel like you’re not good enough. Don’t let doubt dictate your path. I’ve had books that won multiple awards in some contests that didn’t even make the finalist cut in others. There are just too many variables at any given instant to take any of this too seriously. So if you win, smile. Enjoy the moment. Then move on and keep writing. If you don’t win, be disappointed. Lament the moment. Then move on and keep writing.