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Monday, November 8, 2010

Lessons Learned Judging Contests

Right now, all my spare time goes to reading manuscripts for a contest. This isn't the first contest I've judged, nor is it likely to be the last. Although the effort is certainly time-consuming, it's also a great education. I thought I'd share some of the lessons learned, lessons that apply to any contest you enter.

1. Read the directions. I know you're probably thinking, well, duh! But I can't tell you how many people goof this up. They misread the word count or the number of layouts or the sizes or word length or whatever. They don't include everything that's requested. I suggest you print out the rules and highlight them as you check them off. Ask someone to double-check your efforts. It's easy to get confused when you are nervous, and all of us get nervous when we enter c0mpetitions.

2. Don't annoy the judges. Another, duh! However, one person in this contest sent me a testy email demanding to know why I hadn't acknowledged receipt of his manuscript. I hadn't acknowledged it because I was out of town doing booksignings, and I hadn't seen it. I gave his work a fair reading, but another judge might not have been so forgiving. The rules said not to send anything that required a signature for receipt, which is a pretty clear indication that they didn't want the judges to be bothered. (Yep, that's what that means.)

3. Do put your name on everything you send in. When I judged the Best of British Scrapbooking and Card Contest, I was shocked at how many entries were not properly labelled. When a judge is comparing a lot of entries, it's easy for your work to get separated from your cover letter. Make it clear what's yours. (Of course, if the contest is a blind contest, ignore this.)

4. Use your head when you package your entry. One of the Best of British entrants copied six of her layouts onto one sheet of paper, then folded that paper into itsy bits and stuffed it all into a tiny envelope. It came out looking like an origami project gone wrong. Two of the manuscripts I received were packaged in stuff that caused a huge mess, with stuff falling out, sticking to everything, and generally causing havoc. Another chose a box so big that I might have to add an addition to my home to store it. Another taped and bound her manuscript with such gusto that I spent twenty minutes trying to release the papers and a half an hour prepping the packing materials for the recycling bin. One person three-hole punched his manuscript and put it in a binder. Most readers prefer loose pages. That means we can slip them into a bag and haul them around with us easily. The binder was definitely overkill, although I appreciated that he was trying to make it easier on me, it wasn't.

5. Be honest but not stupid. Don't tell the judges you just whipped this project out in your spare time for a lark. Look at it from a judges' point of view. Here we are giving these entries our best, spending our time on them, ignoring our own work, and a person who didn't give this much effort is basically dissing our craft! If you don't care, don't enter. Leave the field open for people to whom the contest matters. Also, don't tell me how many contests you've entered and lost. That does not inspire confidence!

6. Tell me about yourself, but don't go overboard. One entrant in the Best of British did ten layouts all featuring photos of her. She was sprawled over a sofa with a rose in her teeth and the header was "BEAUTY." She was posed in a half shadow of a doorway with her head cocked back and her eyes closed. That one was called, "MYSTERY." By the time the other judges and I got to the fourth entry--"SEDUCTIVE"--we were rolling on the floor laughing. Needless to say, she didn't make it to the finals. By the same token, tell me your background, but twenty pages of stuff or a page that looks like it came from a publicity kit are not going to help you. They'll just make my eyes glaze over.

7. Make sure you mail your entry in plenty of time. It's really sad when an entry shows up after the deadline. Mail delivery can be unpredictable, and usually if you ask, the folks at the post office or at Fed Ex or wherever will give you the broadest range of arrival times. So do yourself a favor and mail/send your entry in early.

Then move on.

Yes, move on.

Don't fret about this contest. You learned something by getting ready for it. You completed something important. You grew. So you've already benefited, you see. And someone, somewhere saw your work and formed an opinion of you. If you don't make it to the winners' circle in this contest, you might still advance somewhere, somehow in another.

Yes, it's hard. Yes, you are nervous. And yes, we've all been through this. Remember that the judges know what this feels like. And we're rooting for you. We sincerely hope you'll do well, because we enjoy seeing good work.


Sarah said...

Love this post- great advice and funny, too! :) TFS!

Maris Soule said...

Good suggestions, Joanna. Contests are like a dry run for submitting to an agent or editor. I've heard editors tell horror stories about mss they've received. If the writers followed your advice, they'd have a much better chance of receiving a good read.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Thanks, ladies. You know, contests are tough on the nerves, but you really do want to put your best foot forward, and I hope by sharing these tips, people will be able to let their work shine rather than tripping themselves up!