I started entering and judging contests back in the 1980s. At that time the RITA was called the Golden Medallion, and the score sheets actually had points for various aspects of the book as well as space for comments. I remember my 1988 finalist, A Winning Combination, was marked down for a lack of conflict between the h/h. (I’ve always had trouble with conflict, and it’s interesting that this is the only comment I remember, other than the other two judges liked just about everything about the book.)
Late 1980s or very early 1990s RWA decided to go to a rating system. No comments. That’s when chapter contests really took off since that was the only way a new writer could get feedback.
I like judging contests for two reasons. (1) They give me an opportunity to discover new writers and books that excite me, and (2) in the process of reading the work of others, either published or unpublished, I learn things. I see mistakes being made that make me look more closely at my own writing. I see new ways to present a story, or ways that don’t work as well as I thought they might.
For me, it’s exciting to find an unpublished writer who simply needs a little guidance, whose writing is as polished as a published writer’s work, or a writer who has come up with a plot idea that is unique and, if not well executed, can be tweaked into a story that should excite agents and editors.
To my disappointment, I have also found that some writers will enter work that they know needs a lot of polish. They’ll simply slap something together so they can enter. Judging that kind of entry takes up my time, and if the writer can’t be bothered to do the best he or she can, why should I take the time to read them?
I used to sign judging sheets, but then I started hearing horror stories from others about writers who were given low scores coming after the judge with nasty emails or negative reviews on Amazon. Now I only sign those entries where I think the writing is great, where I’m sure the book, if it’s like the pages I’ve read, will soon be published, and where I’d love to know when it will be published so I can purchase the book.
I still enter contests. I figure it’s a way to get my books in front of new readers. Besides, who knows, the book or scene I enter might actually be a finalist or a winner. (It has happened.)