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The Ethics of Coordinating a Contest

By on Friday, Mar 11, 2011 in Judging and Running Contests | 0 comments

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A little while ago I did a post on the difficulties of judging the GH.  Today I have some comments on being a category coordinator for my local RWA chapter contest.  Judging the GH was a piece of cake compared to this job!

I have a new appreciation for the ethical dilemmas of contest coordinators.  For new judges–making sure they are mentored in their judging, and don’t submit scores that are too low or too high.  That is a very gray area.  If a person has never judged before, and gives an entrant a very low score, say a 30, would you bring it to their attention?  Okay, I hear all the “yeses” out there.  But what if they give someone a 50?  Some judges, such as myself, believe that a score of 50 should be reserved for entrants whose entries aren’t submitted in English.  But others feel that a “50” is a justifiable score.  So do you call the judge out on that or not?

If an entrant “deserves” a 50,  I still would not give them a 50.  Why?  Because I believe a 50 is a crushing score.  A brand new writer, maybe entering a contest for the first time, may not know the basics of a romance entry in a contest.  They may not understand about internal conflict and external conflict.  Their plot may be weak or nonexistent.    Their dialogue may be stilted and their writing may be full of cliches.  Their characters may behave erratically and you may despise their hero or heroine.  This person is never going to win the contest, so why crush them?  In my opinion, giving them a score in the 60s or 70s serves the same point–it tells them their writing needs more work, but in a far less vicious way.

People enter contests for one reason–for feedback.  And our job when we volunteer to judge is to deliver that feedback in the most mentoring way possible.

I just cannot understand the mentality of judges who may deliver spot-on criticism but dish it out in the cruelest way possible.  Statements like I hate your  hero, your heroine is too stupid to live, your characters are not interesting, you don’t have a plot, etc. are tactless and hurtful.  The tone and the delivery of such comments demonstrates a lack of skill set on the part of the judge.

If judges would imagine they are sitting across from someone telling them these comments, would they phrase them in quite the same way?
When you are up close and personal with someone who looks vulnerable, the answer is NO.
So why be that way on paper?

Do judges like this assume the worst about people–that they are lazy and didn’t do their homework and so deserve to be treated as harshly as possible?  Sort of a “tough love” philosophy?  I imagine in my mind that these are the same people who would say that anyone living in poverty should just stop whining and get a job.  Maybe they feel publishing is a difficult business and people may as well hear how badly they suck right up front?

Can we not assume that contest entrants are simply at different skill levels, with different access to knowledge and mentoring?  They are looking for feedback, are likely not confident about their writing, just looking for some help.  Why crush someone’s dream?

When I did peer tutoring at the university writing center in grad school, we were taught to always point out what the student did well first.  Play to their strengths, and then they are more willing and able to accept their weaknesses.   (My experience is that this works with kids, too.)  Statements like, “portions of _____(your plot, your dialogue, the actions of your hero, whatever) confused me because…” or “I really think you could amp up the conflict by…” or I think your ____ is good, but I would make the following suggestion…”  are so much more tactful and kind.  They still get the message across, too.  And the person doesn’t go home crying!

Judges volunteer their time and spend a lot of time on their entries.  And a contest coordinator has a responsiblitiy to be fair to the entrants while not manipulating anyone into changing their scores.  But if a judge tends to be very direct and critical, I would at least like to see a general statement about the entry given up front that mentions its strengths before the judge plunges into a page of criticism.

Because there is always something good to be said.

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