I got a lot of questions last night (in the RWA chatroom) about being a contest judge. In, I think, all of the writing contests each entry has to be judged by a published author. I love being a judge, it never ceases to amaze me how imaginative and creative people are.
We published judges know how confronting it can be to enter your work in a contest, we've all been there, and I have to say its good practice. You have to learn to handle criticism if you are going to make it as a pubbed author. Writing is many glorious things, but to do it for a living you cop rejection and criticism frequently. Just wait until an editor gets their hands on your beloved book. They'll rip it apart. But, they are doing it so that your book is better, so that it will sell better, you that you will get better reviews. Contest judges have the same motivation. Their comments are to improve your work. Yes we can be wrong, but we are frequently reading a part of the story out of context, and yes we miss things, but when that happens just glide over the comment. Think, 'no, she's wrong, she doesn't understand that I'm foreshadowing (or whatever)' and move on.
Just remember that judges judge because they want to help you get your book published.
Judging is no small undertaking. I usually take on 7 - 10 manuscripts, and right now I have a pile sitting on the floor about the size of a ream of paper. I devote about 1 - 1.5 hours per entry. I read it through making mental notes and getting a feel for the whole thing and then whip out my red pen and highlighter and get to work. If something is good I say so, and I say why, same for if its bad or not working. The why part is incredibly hard. Its so easy to just say 'Loved it' and move on, but that doesn't help the writer. They need to know what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong and WHY.
Its also important to remember that when you enter a contest you don't get judged by one judge. Usually its three or four. This helps put each judge's comments in perspective as well. If they all hone in on one point then its clear that point must be changed no matter how vital or poetic. Though from my experience judges see your work very differently, which is fascinating in itself, its amazing how one person will pick up one perspective and another miss it entirely.
I truly believe that it was the comments of a contest judge that got Running Scared across the line and accepted for publication by Samhain. It was in the Emerald. This judge tore my entry to bits. You have never SEEN so much red pen. At first I was confronted, couldn't look at her comments for days, but when I did I saw that she'd been constructive. I could write, the story was good, she said, and then started to use a lot of words that included trite, boring, cliched and awkward (yes I did get rather pissed-off). But she was right. Totally right. I re-wrote the whole thing and sold it two months later. I always thank heavens for her (actually I have a suspicion as to who she was and have bought all her books!!).