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Are You in Danger of Becoming an East German Judge? (Reprise)

It’s that time of year again!  Since so many of us are judging Golden Heart entries right now, it was suggested that I re-post my blog from last year about how to decide what scores to award.  So here goes!

In an effort to remain politically correct, first let me apologize to all East Germans who have gotten a bad rep from the Olympic judge whose lowball scores garnered a perfectionist stereotype for them.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never read a perfect novel.  During the course of a story, I invariably find a typo, punctuation error, or notice some characterization or plot problems. Even one famous, bestselling author, whose name I won’t mention, mistakenly used the phrase ‘combustible engine’ instead of ‘combustion engine’ (and her editor let it slip by).   My apology to this author if she actually meant the engine was highly flammable.

Judging an unpublished contest entry is a highly subjective process and shouldn’t be compared to published works that have had the benefit of professional editing.  Work I might see as flawless, you might notice imperfections in and vice versa.  This is why I believe Romance Writers of America® established a judging scale of 1-9 for the Golden Heart® contest rather than the 1-10 system most of the world uses to rate things.  A ‘9’ should be defined as ‘close to perfect’ and not totally flawless.

In 2004, the GH competition was receiving so many entries, in order to help widen the margin for the finalist list, RWA® was forced to switch from using only whole integers to allowing decimals in scoring, which I believed gave birth to a lot of East German judges who are more reluctant to award a 9 to an entry.  Here’s why:

I was a double-finalist in the single title category in 2004 (before RWA members became accustomed to using decimals), and both of my entries received four 9s out of the five scores submitted.  Ironically, the manuscript that DIDN’T win actually scored a tenth of point higher than the one for which I won my first Golden Heart award, so I figured it might have been a close second.

Naturally, I was dying to know if the book would’ve won if it hadn’t been pitted against my GH winner.  When I reentered the non-winning manuscript in 2006 and ultimately won a second time, my preliminary round scores contained only two 9s and three high 8s.  The story hadn’t changed, so it made me wonder if more judges were defining a 9 as perfect.

In the next week or so, many of you will be receiving Golden Heart entries to judge (if you haven’t already).  To avoid becoming an East German judge, I suggest keeping a scale of 1-10 in mind while reading the entries and using the following criteria when scoring them. Please keep in mind, GH entries aren’t meant to be compared to each other.  If you receive six sensational entries that leave you screaming for more, then by all means, give every one of them 9s.

10 PERFECT                                              This score can’t be awarded This book should  be a published bestseller.
9 Sensational Regardless of a few punctuation/grammar errors or a typo or two an editor should catch, you wish this novel was already published so you could buy it and read the rest right now!
8 Well above average The entry has BOTH a compelling story and good writing.  It’s ready to submit.
7 Above average The entry is a pleasure to read, BUT minor polishing is needed.
6 Average It’s an enjoyable story, BUT some line-editing is needed.

OR

It’s well-written, BUT the plot or characters seem ordinary.

5 Mediocre NEITHER the writing NOR the story draws you in.  BOTH the plot and writing need some work.
4 Slightly below average EITHER the writing OR the plot needs heavy revising.
3 Below average BOTH the writing AND the plot are flawed.  The book needs a total rewrite.
2 Well below average EITHER the writing OR the plot are so unskilled, cliché, confusing, or contrived the entry is a chore to read.  The author should study his/her craft and begin a new project.
1 Amateurish BOTH writing AND plot are seriously lacking. (You want to throw the entry against the wall.)

How about you? Are you judging the GH this year?  Do you feel frustrated when you read a really great entry and there are just a few tweaks you know would make it fabulous, but there’s no way to let the author know? Do you get as excited as I do when you read a SENSATIONAL entry and then see it become a finalist, or better yet, go on to win?

41 responses to “Are You in Danger of Becoming an East German Judge? (Reprise)”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is so smart and clear and helpful, Laurie! Thanks so much for agreeing to run it again. (The phrase “East German Judge” has totally become a catch phrase with many of my writing friends.)

    I love the idea of thinking of it as a ten-point scale, but with scores of ten ruled out. 9s are fabulous, but not entirely perfect, and judges shouldn’t be afraid to award them when an entry really wows them.

    And the rest of your breakdown of how to think about scores is incredibly helpful! I hope judges everywhere will read this closely!!!!

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  2. This is a good repeat. You put everything into prespective in an easily understood format. Nice job.

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  3. Thanks, sweetie. As usual, I can count on you to be up at this ungodly hour. I’m hoping it’s because you’re writing and not because you hurt too. 🙂

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  4. Lyn says:

    Thanks for this Laurie. I’m not a GH judge, but last year, here in the UK I was asked to judge 50 short stories for a National contest. I think I was fair and didn’t act like an ‘East German judge, (I hope) but if I’m asked to do it again (or indeed to judge anythng) I’ll certainly use this scale of points.

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  5. Absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for this, Laurie. As a first-time GH judge this is so helpful.

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  6. You’re quite welcome, Carolyn. The GH is a great contest to judge since you don’t have to make comments. Although, sometimes I wish we could give some feedback–especially when an entry is really good and just needs a little revision.

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  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    I learned something new today thanks to you, Laurie!

    I was a little startled seeing the word ‘mediocre’ used to describe a manuscript at the midpoint (5). “Whoa, that’s a little harsh, isn’t it?” I thought.

    Then I went to the dictionary and looked up what the word meant:

    [mee-dee-oh-ker] adj.
    1. of only ordinary or moderate quality; neither good nor bad; barely adequate.
    2. rather poor or inferior.

    Thanks for reacquainting me with the correct meaning of this word!

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      Glad to oblige, Tammy. I was extremely impressed with the quality of the entries in my judging packet this year. There wasn’t a single mediocre one among them. It speaks well of RWA authors that all of the submissions I received were at least average or better.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        I got a fabulous packet of GH manuscripts this year, too – including one that I think could go all the way. I’m crossing my fingers.

        Last year’s packet was…tough going.

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      • C.J. Chase says:

        Some years I feel like such a pushover because I give out so many high scores. And some years I feel like a curmudgeon. Ugh. This is a curmudgeon year. I’d rather have one of the packages where I give out high scores like candy and feel vindicated when one (or more) of those entries finals/wins.

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        • Laurie Kellogg says:

          I agree CJ. I hate having to burst some hopeful author’s bubble. Although, years like this one make me feel like I’m being too soft. Then I have to remind myself that sometimes I luck out and get all great entries.

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        • Elisa Beatty says:

          I had a mixed bag last year, and I’m hoping that’s what I have this year…I’ve only skimmed the first couple pages of the first three of my entries this year. I’m hoping to strike gold with number four or five.

          It really is a “mystery box”…anything could be in there, including 2012’s top NYT Bestseller.

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  8. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    The RWA should include this in the judging packet (which BTW – I still don’t have). Grrrr

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    • Elise Hayes says:

      Have you checked in with Carol Ritter at RWA, Kelly? Given the sheer number of entries, some are bound to get lost in the mail and I’m sure RWA would appreciate your alerting them to that possibility.

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      Are you sure you’re supposed to be getting a packet. Did they list the titles under your account profile ‘my contests’ page?

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  9. Elise Hayes says:

    I’m not judging this year and feel a bit guilty about it, but this winter I decided I needed to put my own writing first and foremost. The Winter Writing Festival has really been helping me with that.

    Kudos to all of you who volunteered, though–I hope to do it again next year!

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      Sometimes we just have to say NO, Elise. I know a few people who volunteered to judge and didn’t receive any entries, so it doesn’t seem they were shorthanded.

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  10. Thank you for running this again, Laurie! This is so helpful and makes the whole scoring thing so much clearer.

    I’m not judging the GH this year, but the Rita, and I’m a tad worried. As these are already published books, I wonder how much of this I can transfer to the Ritas. I couldn’t imagine a published book ever deserving of a one or two, not that I’ve ever given a score that low anyway. I just think the competition will be fierce and will depend much more heavily on how the author keeps up the pace, develops the plot and the characters, and wraps up all the loose ends, all the while holding the reader’s attention.

    Keeping my fingers crossed. 🙂

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      I think you could probably apply most of this to judging the Rita. Although, I don’t think you’ll get any books that would score less than a four. Does the Rita also use a 1-9 scale?

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  11. Great post, Laurie! This year the GH entries I’ve received have been really good. I just finished reading one that I hope will make the finals and gave it a high mark. It was a pleasure to read. Your system is a good/fair one for us all to keep in mind. Thanks for posting it!

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      It’s exciting to judge an entry that has the potential to become a finalist, Marian. I had one entry this year that I think could make it. If I’d gone only on the strength of the last forty pages I would’ve given it a 9. Unfortunately, the opening was yawn-worthy. It was one of those times when I really wished I could’ve told the author how much I liked her voice, writing, and story and why I couldn’t give her entry a 9.

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  12. Rita Henuber says:

    Judging is very difficult for me. I love it, but obsess about getting it right. I always think my entries are going to be the winner in every contest I judge. It pains me to take points away. Just draw me into that good story, make me want to keep reading so much I track you down to get the rest of the MS and I’m yours.

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    • Diana Layne says:

      I obsess too, I hate to take points away and yet if there’s an entry that needs help, I obsess on how to best help the entrant (in other contests where I can comment) knowing that they’ve likely put their hearts into this story and how do I help them without crushing?

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      That’s one of the reasons I love judging the GH, Rita. I can score it more as a reader, rather than picking it apart as a writer to analyze whether the GMC were clear and if the sentence structure was varied enough, etc.

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  13. Diana Layne says:

    Thanks for the refresher, Laurie!

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  14. Jess says:

    Laurie,

    Great timing. This topic came up on another loop and I was trying to remember where I’d seen this fabulous list last year. Yay! Now I know where to refer the new judges.

    This year’s packet of GH entries was phenomenal. I’m certain two will be finalists.

    I’ve never been one to withhold a high score if the entry deserved it. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a few come into my hands over the past few years. Seeing those women final made me stand up and cheer!

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      It always makes the awards ceremony a lot more fun when you’ve got manuscripts you’re rooting for.

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  15. Tina Joyce says:

    I’m not judging the GH this year, but this is a great refresher, Laurie. Thanks for putting it up again. Maybe this should become a yearly reminder.

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    • Yes, on EVERY RWA loop. Maybe in the RWR or added to the packets. When you hold someone’s dreams in your hands, having viable guidelines helps.

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      • Laurie Kellogg says:

        I think RWA deliberately keeps the scoring guidelines vague, so I don’t think that’s something they would approve.

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      • I agree with Gwynlyn about holding someone’s dreams in your hand. This is my first time judging the GH and I was surprised the quidelines didn’t offer a matrix or more information on how to score (though I think I understand why they don’t).

        Thanks for posting your ideas on an approach, Laurie. Now I don’t feel like I’m out in left field somewhere. 🙂

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    • Laurie Kellogg says:

      Thanks, Tina. Sounds good to me.

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