This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, May 12, 2008

Judging Manuscripts 101

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor 

Over the years I’ve entered and judged many writing contests. Some are very helpful with extensive feedback with great suggestions on how to improve my writing. Others leave a lot to be desired. Yes, contests are subjective, but at what point is something subjective or just downright rude and uncalled for? I suppose that is subjective, too.

I’ve listened to writers talk on writing loops about how the hardest contests were the ones that actually helped them the most—although at the time it was painful and didn’t feel like it. On occasion this has been true for me as well. However, I’ve also learned just as much from judges who didn’t call my characters names, write demeaning comments that made me feel like a child being chastised, who remembered that their writing style isn’t my writing style, and who realized that just because something “didn’t work for them” doesn’t mean it won’t work for someone else.

If you are an untrained judge, who has been writing for several years, a few rules of etiquette will go a long way in grooming other writers.

  • Don’t call the hero and heroine names. If you don’t like a particular character, his or her behavior, motivation, or lack of motivation, simply state what it is you don’t like and why. Even in an undeveloped story from a new writer, the author is on intimate terms with that hero and heroine. It will feel no different than if you’re calling one of their family members a name. Be a little sensitive.

  • If you aren’t sure about something, don’t mark off points. If you aren’t familiar with a particular historical time period, setting, place, or location, state your concern about it, but don’t mark off for something you don’t know. I get frustrated when a judge comments, “I don’t write historicals, but I’m not sure if that word is appropriate for this time period” or “I don’t think wallets were in use at this time”. It’s okay to make the statement, but if you aren’t sure, don’t take off points. The author has probably done the research that you haven’t.

  • Don’t correct preferential punctuation. There are lots of punctuation marks (especially commas) that are preferential. The key is being consistent in their usage. Don’t go through a manuscript and mark punctuation that you “prefer” to be one way, if the author has used it correctly in a different way and has been consistent.

  • When writing comments, don’t talk down to the author as if you are superior. It doesn’t matter how multi-published and award-winning you might be. Arrogance is still arrogance. I’m less likely to listen to someone who sounds arrogant, because they make me feel as if they are incapable of being objective. Be careful in how you phrase things. I’ve later discovered some judges who I wish I’d never discovered. My first thought is to mark them off my influencer/reviewer list. That person can’t necessarily be trusted to be objective, and I’ll run into enough of those that I don’t know about.

  • Stating “it doesn’t work for me” is ambiguous. If you can’t give a valid reason as to why it doesn’t work for you, then it may be you and not the writing. Don’t take off points for something you can’t explain. As a judge you need to dig down deep to give your feedback, just as much as you’re expecting the author to do in his or her writing.

  • Don’t try to rewrite the story. Look at how many times you’ve made comments on the manuscript, “I would do this or I would do that.” Are you trying to rewrite the author’s story? Most likely you would write it differently. That’s why it isn’t your story. If you find more than three places where you’ve tried to suggest the author write the story differently when judging only one chapter, then you might want to reconsider how you are judging the manuscript.

  • Don’t judge genres you don’t like. Do authors a favor and judge what you are familiar with and what you read. Otherwise, you might be more of a confusion to a new author than a help.

  • Always say something positive. Even if the manuscript reads like a fifth grader wrote it, you can probably find something positive to say. Every writer has strengths and weaknesses. Try to encourage their strengths. The rest will come with time and persistence.

  • Don’t be condescending. If you have gone through the entire entry and you’ve said nothing positive and then you get to the end and decide you want to soften the blow and start making all these positive comments, it’s quite obvious what you’re doing. The author will feel as if you are trying to play them for a fool and then he or she will struggle to take your comments seriously.

    If you judge because you really want to help writers improve, and you want your judging time to count, then keep a few of these etiquette rules in mind, and I’m sure you will not only be helpful, but seriously appreciated—and probably in demand for contests.

    Happy Judging!