How to Really Irritate Your JudgesI judge a lot of contests. Every time a new packet arrives, I open it with excitement, filled with the hope and joy of finding a wonderfully written story within, or an exciting new author who can learn something from what I've learned. But there's also a certain amount of dread, too. Because sometimes there will be entries that are just grueling to read. Yet I know no author ever set out to write a badly written story that hurts my eyes and my brain.
Sometimes it's just little things, too-consistently applied, that make a story hard to read. Sometimes just changing one approach could make a huge difference, and sometimes that difference can turn a passable manuscript into a winner. But if no one tells contestants what irritates a judge or turns the stories they love so much into one that irritates a judge, how can they fix things?
First off: all judges are negatively impacted by sloppiness. Sorry, it's human nature. Some entrants think judges should look beyond mistakes and sloppiness, but I disagree. If you don't care enough about your story to present it in a good light, why should I believe it's worth caring about?
I think all judges sub-consciously are daring the author to seduce them into their story as they read, but at the same time they're hoping you will succeed. Every distraction-- a spot of unknown origin that makes them wonder if cold germs contaminate the page, misspelled words that remind them you forgot about or don't know about Spellcheck-- distracts the judge from your story just that tiny little bit. Will a judge care about one instance when you used "their" instead of "there"? Probably not. But if you consistently make grammatical and spelling errors, the judge can rightfully assume you do not know how to use the tools of your craft. And she won't be hooked.
Here are a few simple things you can do:
Take the time to run your document through Spellcheck.
Read each sentence slowly for grammar or mis-use of words. Know the difference between "bear" and "bare".
If you haven't learned how to use commas correctly, please take the time. DO NOT put a comma after every single use of a name.
Make sure each paragraph is a true paragraph, and the sentences are all related.
Make sure your font isn't pale (check your printer setting and be sure it's not in draft mode).
Don't use an unusual font or one smaller than 12 point.
Use standard formatting: one inch margins, double spacing, with proper headers, etc.
No spots, major wrinkles, or mis-aligned printing on any page.
Make sure all pages are there, in order, in all the copies you submit.
Scan through the first words of each paragraph. Do you see tons of "he's" and "she's"? Try varying your sentence structure more.
Scan through for unusual spacing of lines and words-- especially if you changed font.
Start a new chapter on a new page.
Probably the one thing that frustrates me most as a judge are pages that are so densely packed with words they become difficult to read. I know the instant I pick up one of these manuscripts that it will take me much longer to read. And chances are excellent, I will not enjoy what I read. Why? Because the author thinks if she can just get me to "the good part", I will love her story.
I won't. I might have, if she had started with the wonderful part, because that's the story, not all the stuff that came before it. She's trying to fix the wrong flaw.
It's really difficult to find just the right place to start a story, and most of us struggle with figuring out what's backstory and what really belongs. But ask yourself why those first few chapters aren't "the good part". Chances are, you've spent some 30 pages or more writing what comes before the real story begins. If so, get rid of it. Save it to another file. Just tell the real story, and you'll hook me.
So forget the formatting game. Don't try a smaller font, narrower margin, smaller line space. Yes, judges can tell when you're squeezing. What it means to them is they have a difficult read coming up. Don't give me 30 pages of getting to know your characters. Show them to me in the midst of action and conflict if you want me to love them.
If you think you understand "Show, Don't Tell", yet judges keep dinging you on it, go back and read the book again. It's not as easy a concept as it seems on the surface. I'm not saying you should never use "Telling". A truly good author uses both in a seamless manner that moves the story forward. But there's no question "Showing" hooks the reader far more than "Telling". Some judges really truly cannot stand reading a story by an author who doesn't understand this concept. Just saying...
Poor use of Point of View also drives a lot of judges crazy. Some don't care, and you can head-hop as much as you want as long as you make it clear immediately you've moved to a different head. But how do you know which judge you're going to get? Frequent head-hopping makes it harder for the reader to identify with any one character. That means she cares less. I can deal with POV head-hopping in a story as long as you don't hop into a different head in the same paragraph, or worse, within the same sentence. But I'm fully aware that you've weakened the impact of your story, and I will mark you down for that.
You can never create the perfect manuscript, so don't worry about it. But if you want judges to be excited enough about your story that they will give it top scores, then pay attention to how to make a story exciting. Learn how to thrill a judge instead of irritate her.
Think that can't be done? It just happened to me a few weeks ago. Two separate entries so totally engrossed me, I forgot entirely to judge them, and I was finished so quickly, I couldn't believe there wasn't more to read. It was no surprise to me that these two finalled. Maybe your story didn't, and if not, I know that doesn't seem fair, because you worked hard, too. But if you really want to win, learn these techniques and practice them. Then I will be as excited about your story as I was about those two. And your story will start winning, too.