Editors as Writing Contest Judges

Originally posted on Romance University on July 13, 2009 by Kelsey Browning. (Post no longer available.)

When I first began my writing career a little over two years ago, I had no idea the romance genre offered such a wonderful vehicle for gaining feedback-or for dispensing such conflicting opinions-on a manuscript. Yes, I’m talking about writing contests. Writers know why they enter them: to obtain those insights from other writers, to test the waters with a new story, to catch the eye of a final judge. But why do editors give their precious time to volunteer as final round judges? Danielle Poiesz from Pocket Books is with us today to answer that question and more.

Welcome to Romance University, Danielle!

Kelsey: Approximately how many writing contests do you judge each year? How many of those contests are focused on the romance genre?

Danielle: I judge about 3-4 contests per year, give or take, all focused on the romance genre. I mainly judge romantic suspense, single title, and contemporary romance categories. I’d love to get into judging more crossover YA though!

Kelsey: What’s your primary motivation in judging contests?

Danielle: I think contests are a wonderful tool for unpublished authors. Contests give authors an opportunity to have their work read by people in the industry and receive constructive criticism so they can go back and revise. I am all for helping an author rework her project so that she has a better chance of getting it published. There is a lot of unrecognized talent in the world and I think it’s very important to nurture it and I love being a part of helping it grow. That’s why I judge contests. And if I happen to find an author to acquire along the way, that doesn’t hurt either! ;-)

Kelsey: Tell us a little about your judging process and how you rank the finalists. Do you normally send feedback?

Danielle: When I judge a contest submission, I read it straight through as I would any agent submission that comes across my desk. I take notes whenever something jumps out at me as positive or negative, and when I’m done, I take a look at the score sheet and consider the areas the sheet wants me to rate. Some contests are much more specific than others, asking for 10 different areas to judge on a scale of 1-10. Others are simply ask us to rank the submissions first, second, and third.  I always try to give as much feedback as my time allows, because, as I mentioned earlier, I believe these contests should be used as a constructive tool for aspiring writers.

Kelsey: How do you think contests help or hinder aspiring authors?

Danielle: Again, I think these contests are a great help for authors. But I must clarify that they are only helpful if the author is open to such criticism. Honestly, there usually is a good deal of work to be done. Even published authors have things to be improved after a first draft comes into their editors. So, I think if authors take the comments us judges give objectively and don’t take them personally, it can be incredibly useful.

Kelsey: Would you share some of the mistakes you often see in contest entries?

Danielle: I think some of the most common mistakes are the ones that are the hardest to fix-a story being too familiar and not fresh enough, and the characters falling flat and not being distinct enough within the world of the story. These are more over-arching issues that need to be addressed if an author is going to get published. There needs to be something new and different about the story, whether it be a freshness in the voice that overpowers the familiarity of the plot, a unique and engaging hook, or a surprising (but believable!) plot twist. A reader should also be able to read a line of dialogue, without seeing which character is speaking, and be able to figure out who it is based on the character’s way of speaking or their tone or even their body language. Each character needs to be distinct and one of a kind. I find this is a problem even with published authors, where the characters all just sound the same. Just like real people, everyone has an individual personality. In real life, we have our voices to distinguish us at the very least, but since a reader can’t literally hear the character speaking, they need to be able to recognize him or her through other means.

Also, on a more technical note, there are often grammatical errors in contest submissions. Typos, misspellings, et cetera, that really shouldn’t be there. Just like when writing a college essay, cover letter, or a resume, you don’t want to have minor errors that indicate carelessness or poor attention to detail. As someone who does freelance proofreading, that’s a pet peeve of mine!

Kelsey: What about the positives you see in contest entries?

Danielle: The positives vary more greatly than the mistakes it seems. My favorite positives though are when a writer’s voice is super fresh and engaging, a character is relatable and likeable despite his/her flaws, and when a writer totally surprises me. Another pet peeve of mine is predictability, so when I’m totally taken aback in the best of ways, it’s such a wonderful feeling!

Kelsey: How often do you request partial or full manuscripts? Has this lessened in the tight economy?

Danielle: I’ve only requested two manuscripts total as a result of contests-one partial and one full MS. Unfortunately, they did not turn into acquisitions. The economy definitely plays a part in how many we request. I really need to fall in love with a submission to request it, as that’s generally our policy for acquisitions, as well. If I’m unsure when I read it, then that’s my answer.

Kelsey: If you see real promise in a writer but not enough to ask for more material, how do you convey this message to the entrant?

Danielle: When I’m judging, I always try to be as honest as possible. It’s not helping anyone for me to sugar-coat my opinions (too much :P ). That goes not only for the weaknesses I see, but for the strengths as well. So, I will flat-out tell an author in my feedback if there is something I love about their story or their writing, or if there’s a certain aspect they should focus more on because it’s so compelling, I’ll share that too.

Thanks to Danielle for her insights! We hope her answers were helpful for our RU readers.

Please be sure to join us on Wednesday when a special guest will be here to give a man’s perspective on the RWA National Conference (and all those women!).

Danielle Poiesz currently works in the editorial department at Pocket Books. She is the editor of Pocket’s Ellora’s Cave anthologies, has completed developmental and line edits on several other titles in the romance/women’s fiction genres, and is a frequent finalist judge for contests for a variety of RWA chapters. Prior to working in editorial, she worked in the sales department at St. Martin’s Press where she learned the ins and outs of the book publishing industry. Danielle graduated cum laude from Boston University in 2006 with a BA in English.
She also has experience in similar fields, having done script analysis for a film producer and co-founding the Boston University Editorial Society and its literary magazine, The Back Bay Review. In her free time, she devours books of all genres or works on writing her own novel and short stories.