As I judged a writing contest this last week, several commonalities struck me about the entries.
A few things cropped up over and over again:
- Point of View issues: No point of view. Or poor execution of point of view. Or some funky version of an omniscient narrator. None of which worked.
- Telling instead of showing, which is especially weak when it’s during moments that should be tense or emotional.
- Punctuation mistakes. Not only were sentences punctuated incorrectly (which editors hate), but a lot of the time the wrong punctuation made the text plain old hard to decipher. Good punctuation acts as sign posts so the reader knows what belongs where, who’s doing what, and where the pauses belong. It’s worth learning how to do it right.
- Awkward or stilted dialogue.
- “It was all a dream” cop-out endings.
- Starting in a boring place—often way too early—and including lots of extra back story and other elements that didn’t belong to the core story.
- Padding sentences with extra baggage, like the piece that used the term, “a forest of trees.” (As opposed to what, a forest of pretzels?)
As I made my way through the entries and jotted notes in the margins, I found a pattern: The worst entries had very little red ink, while best ones were covered with my scribbles.
At first that made no sense.
After a little reflection, the reason dawned on me: The best entries were ready for polishing. I could indicate redundancies, awkward sentences, or motivation issues. I could make concrete suggestions for improving a paragraph or a description. These authors knew enough to take such suggestions and run with them. They have the basics down and just need someone to point the way down the path and give them a nudge to get going.
What I’ll call the “non-winning” entries were on a different level altogether, and not in a good way. The majority had major problems—problems that went beyond what I could suggest or help with in a quick margin note. With these writers,“Show this,” “Begin with the moment of change,” or, “Be sure to keep a consistent point of view,” would be like speaking a foreign language to them.
So I had to sit and stare at those stories to figure out what to say to their creators. Where do you begin to point out a path to someone when they aren’t even on the map? To use a different metaphor, I can’t suggest how to decorate a house when the foundation isn’t even in place.
I tried to give some kind of constructive suggestions to everyone, but it was tough. The non-winning folks got a lot of “fun image”-type comments and have large sections with no red ink at all, while the winning entries almost look like I bled on them.
I feel bad about that; I hope the winners don’t get discouraged but instead see the feedback as a chance to grow and improve as writers.
Next time you enter a contest or get feedback from an agent or editor, keep this in mind: The more specific the criticism, chances are, the better writer you are. If you stunk, there would be no way to point out every weakness; the judge/editor/agent on the other end wouldn’t know where to start.
The moral of today’s post: Never look at feedback as merely cutting you down. Instead, open your arms and let it in. It only goes to show that you’re already good, and weighing the suggestions carefully will only make you better.