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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How to Really Irritate Your Judges

I 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.

21 Comments:

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Delle, great post! I'm so with you on the entries that try to squeeze too much in. When I open an entry and it's wall to wall TNR 12 with hardly any white space, I confess I get cranky. All my GH finalling entries were done in Courier New 12 because I didn't want to make MY judge cranky. Instead of squeezing more story in with a smaller proportional font, I cut and hacked and pruned until it fit in Courier. That said, I've never actually penalized an entrant (at least no consciously!) for font choice. If you need to use TNR 12 to fit your entry in, by all means use it. But be sure it's a riveting 55 pages you put in front of that judge!

 
At 3:06 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

When you say, "Don't put a comma after each instance of a person's name," I'm not exactly sure what you mean. I would never type, "I went with Delle, to the park on Sunday." On the other hand, I wouldn't type, "Delle let's go to the park."

Is it the first instance that you've seen? Yow.

 
At 4:03 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Thanks for your honesty and advice, Delle!

Question. When you say your biggest irritant is "pages densely packed with words" do you mean format issues like margins and font size, or the no-white-space issues that come from lack of dialog and para breaks. Or both? LOL

I must confess I am a religious TNR user simply because I find it to be easier to read than Courier. I guess without explicit rules a contest is gonna end up with variety. For a variety of reasons.

Last year, I had an editor request 1.5 line spacing and 11 point TNR. Apparently she prefers more words on a page. Go figure.

Another weird formatting question: I recently judged a contest with electronic entries and noticed variety in spacing between sentences. I always use two spaces between sentences. I researched the issue and discovered most e-pub type folks prefer just one space. Anyone know a hard and fast rule on this?

 
At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Margaret B. said...

On spacing before sentences, my understanding has always been that one space is all you need unless you're typing on an old Smith Corona! I like TNR too, but I find that double-spacing in MS Word results in huge spaces between the lines--a critique partner told me to use the Multiple selection with 1.9 for the right number of lines on the page (25?).

 
At 5:11 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Thank you, Delle! Those are great tips. I've never received stains on the entries I judged and for that I am thankful. :)

I never try to squeeze in 55 pages. I usually send in substantially less. Sometimes less is more.

BanksofMil, I always use two spaces after every period, but that's more out of habit than anything else.

 
At 5:19 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

Oh, I'm with you on the entries that squeeze it all in. Oy.

I have no idea how many spaces I use - one, I think...

Banks, 11 point font??? Yeesh, she has better eyes than me!

 
At 5:53 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I would never judge anyone lower because of two spaces after a period, but it is my understanding that manuscripts are converted to one space for printing.

I don't mind Times New Roman font or any readable font, but there are formatting nazis out there. I think, if at all possible, it is safest to convert the entry to Courier New, 12 pt, one inch margins all around, 25 lines per page (I use the "multiple 1.9 setting that Margaret B mentioned)

But it is not incorrect to use something else.

 
At 6:14 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Wow, Delle, this post is worth its weight in gold, or make that Golden Hearts! Learning what NOT to do is just as important, and in some cases more important than learning what to do. I too use NTR 12 point, but I do format with 1 inch margins all around, double spaced with 25 lines per page. I will have to try Courier to see how it looks. Great tips!!

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

On the font thing, I like TNR much better than Courier for readability, because it's proportional and just looks neater. But if I get TNR entries, I really appreciate those who go to 13 point instead of 12.

On the one space or two question, I think one space is the norm with proportional fonts. The whole two spaces after a period used to be standard practice because it was hard to see the sentence break with the old non-proportional fonts. Of which Courier is one! I guess that's a good argument for TNR.

 
At 7:18 PM, Blogger CM said...

Here's a quick question. "Double spaced with 25 lines per page"--if you do TNR 13, or 14, double spacing won't give you anywhere near 25 lines per page. Is it horrible to do TNR 14 with 25 lines per page?

 
At 8:48 PM, Blogger banksofmillbrook said...

Thanks for the info everybody. I love it when I learn new things! But I'm feeling kinda old because, yeah, I typed all my college term papers on a Smith Corona. And I was majorly stylin' because it was electric. lol.

So, wow, I looked at my potential GH entry in Courier 12 and it made a HUGE difference in number of pages and thus, a whopping difference in my ending hook. Hmm. This is not a surprise, but... I'm not trying to squeeze, honest! I'm just trying to end at the most compelling stopping point (without major rewrites.) Perhaps I'm too attached to my planned stopping point.

But with 13 pt TNR at 1.9 spacing I end almost at the same spot as 12 pt TNR double spaced. Definitely tweakable. I think I'll compromise and go with that.

 
At 9:02 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

I know many entrants hope to get more of their stories in by using smaller fonts, but as a judge I just turn into Miss Crankypants when I'm forced to read tiny print. I don't believe it's worth it. Find a spot earlier in your story to stop, even if your entry is a few pages short of the max.

One space after periods. The double-space after periods is a product of high school English classes, I believe. :)

 
At 9:30 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Tomorrow Jill is going to talk about shortening your entry and on Friday Pris will talk about ending on a hook. I'm sure both of these will help.

Try not to obsess too much over fonts and spacing. If you like TNR and your entry ends in the right place, it's okay. If you have 26 lines per page or 24 or so, it doesn't make that much difference. Just don't go too small.

 
At 12:55 AM, Blogger Elyssa Papa said...

I have WriteWayPro which supposedly formats to manuscript formats ... Does anyone else who uses the progrma know if this is true?

However, all my documents are in Word before I transport them to write way, and I use TNR, 14, exactly at 25 lines per page. I didn't know you could do that with Courier New.

 
At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a great post - I really appreciate hearing a judge's POV. Once again, you emphasize the basics - formatting, POV, grammar, spelling, and using a critical eye. Mostly, I loved the tone you used in the post - a little weary, a little positive - are you sure you're not an editor!!!

Margaret

 
At 10:50 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

BanksofMillbrook: One space after sentences is the norm since the advent of electronic publishing. An extra space can mess with margins, justified text, etc.

Margaret B: The norm is 25 lines on a page, but see Diane G's second post for info on this. The GH gives you more flexibility on typefaces than some editors. There are a number of ways to jimmy the line count, as people have mentioned. Since I've never had an editor ask for TNR, I always use 12 pt. Courier New and put my bottom margin at .7".

TNR at 14 pt, huh? Learn something new every day.

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Me, an editor? Bwa-ha-ha-ha!!!!
No, just a weary judge and contest coordinator, right now overwhelmed with getting down to the finalists right now.

Norah, all my winning GH entries were in TNR, but I used 13 pt to make sure the judges didn't label me as a "squeezer". Besides, with my weird eye problems, I can't find my own mistakes in 12 pt TNR.

One of my publishers wants submissions in TNR 12 pt, 1.5 line spacing. So I do it my way, then convert to meet their needs. I just can't see my own errors in TNR.

Yes, Esri, some entrants, far more than you would believe actually place commas after every name as if th name is being used in address. "John, went to the store." Honest! Almost always, these same entries omit commas where they absolutely need to be. Somewhere along the line, they've gotten commatizing backwards.

Banksofmillbrook, yes, both. Once I received a manuscript in 6 pt TNR, with margins set at about .8 inch, and paragraphs indented only one space! This one also had only one or two paragraphs per page. There were not even separate paragraphs for dialogue. With many grammatical and spelling errors, not to mention typos, it was a nightmare to read. The sad thing was, although her plot structure still needed help, the contestant had a very good story idea.

Elyssa, I've tried Write Way Pro, but didn't find it useful for me, so I'm sorry, I really don't know how it formats on a page. I have friends who swear by it, though.

CM, I agree, 24-26 lines per page is too much for TNR, whether 12, 13, or 14 point. If you use TNR, regardless of size, just set it to double space and you'll have the right spacing. TNR actually has wider line spacing than Courier, so you CAN get away with setting it down to 1.9 or 1.8 and it looks very nice. If you want to approximate the Courier word count, try TNR 13 pt at 1.9 line spacing. That's the closest.

I neglected to mention one very important reason to avoid cramming or squeezing. Judges unconsciously allot themselves a certain amount of time their minds think t should take to read a 55 page entry. If you have crammed yours so that it takes 30% longer to read, the judge will get the feeling that your pacing is very slow. And actually, if you have taken 30% longer to get to the point-- the very necessary HOOK at the end of the third chapter, then your pacing really is very much off. Something is wrong with your story structure. But that's another blog.

 
At 11:50 AM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Me, an editor? Bwa-ha-ha-ha!!!!
No, just a weary judge and contest coordinator, right now overwhelmed with getting down to the finalists right now.

Norah, all my winning GH entries were in TNR, but I used 13 pt to make sure the judges didn't label me as a "squeezer". Besides, with my weird eye problems, I can't find my own mistakes in 12 pt TNR.

One of my publishers wants submissions in TNR 12 pt, 1.5 line spacing. So I do it my way, then convert to meet their needs. I just can't see my own errors in TNR.

Yes, Esri, some entrants, far more than you would believe actually place commas after every name as if th name is being used in address. "John, went to the store." Honest! Almost always, these same entries omit commas where they absolutely need to be. Somewhere along the line, they've gotten commatizing backwards.

Banksofmillbrook, yes, both. Once I received a manuscript in 6 pt TNR, with margins set at about .8 inch, and paragraphs indented only one space! This one also had only one or two paragraphs per page. There were not even separate paragraphs for dialogue. With many grammatical and spelling errors, not to mention typos, it was a nightmare to read. The sad thing was, although her plot structure still needed help, the contestant had a very good story idea.

Elyssa, I've tried Write Way Pro, but didn't find it useful for me, so I'm sorry, I really don't know how it formats on a page. I have friends who swear by it, though.

CM, I agree, 24-26 lines per page is too much for TNR, whether 12, 13, or 14 point. If you use TNR, regardless of size, just set it to double space and you'll have the right spacing. TNR actually has wider line spacing than Courier, so you CAN get away with setting it down to 1.9 or 1.8 and it looks very nice. If you want to approximate the Courier word count, try TNR 13 pt at 1.9 line spacing. That's the closest.

I neglected to mention one very important reason to avoid cramming or squeezing. Judges unconsciously allot themselves a certain amount of time their minds think t should take to read a 55 page entry. If you have crammed yours so that it takes 30% longer to read, the judge will get the feeling that your pacing is very slow. And actually, if you have taken 30% longer to get to the point-- the very necessary HOOK at the end of the third chapter, then your pacing really is very much off. Something is wrong with your story structure. But that's another blog.

 
At 2:20 PM, Blogger Laurel said...

Thanks for the 'Rules-of-the-Road' post, Delle, especially helpful for the newbie contest entrant I am. I had not even considered bending contest rules to squeeze more in, so perhaps I should say the comments were informative!

I am bemoaning the 1 verses 2 spaces between sentences debate. I didn't learn this habit and developed it for mss because I heard it makes it easier on the eyes.

A question: I see writers are adjusting the bottom margin; what about the top margin to accomodate the header? It seems very squeezed in with only the inch margin, but if I increase it to 1.1, that's not following the 1 inch all around rule. Anyone heard complaints about this? What's the typically used font size in the header?

 
At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, now I'm totally freaked out, and am SO glad I'm reading this! I JUST mailed a contest entry in TNR 12 pt and am sure I'm going to be labeled a "squeezer"! You can insert your own swear words/grumbling here.

I really do prefer TNR to Courier - Courier seems so faint on my screen compared to TNR. So TNR 13 double spaced is okay, not a squeezer? I haven't sent my GH entry yet, thank GOD!

Margaret

 
At 2:06 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

One space between sentences from what I'm told but this is an easy fix, using Find and Replace in MS Word. One of the very last things I do.

The two spaces comes from old typing classes. That's how folks were taught. I still type that way, don't think I can change but I can "find and replace".

While we're on the subject of formatting, a recent question has been about the indent at the start of a paragraph. Is it true that it should be omitted at the start of a chapter or a scene break?

 

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