This is my third year as a judge for Ink and Insights, but no matter how many dozens of stories I evaluate, I come to the scoresheet every time with a certain amount of anxiety about how to best deliver advice and justify my scores.
What has been most helpful to me is thinking about judging in the same way that I do grading English literature essays. The goals of the two activities are more-or-less the same in that I’m trying to explain to students/writers how to refine their ideas and deliver them with more accuracy and effect. In this light, I score manuscripts according to percent ranges that to me mean certain things. I consider an essay or story above 80% (200 in the case of this year’s contest) to be a standout work, and 90% (225) or higher to be just about ready for publication, assuming I were the target audience. More often, entries end up in the 65%-79% range (162.5-200) that reflects work that is on the right track, but still needs a lot of polishing to varying degrees.
But what does this mean for the contestant?
As should be clear by now, every judge brings his or her own biases and preferences to the contest, but that alone doesn’t account for the way we score entries since our job is to show you how to do what you’re doing better, not make it into the thing that we most want to read. And so, I try to understand what the writer is going for, to think about what kinds of stories a manuscript reminds me of and how it’s staking out a unique and memorable position in the market. Just as I encourage my students to dig deep into a given issue and discover their own original position, so too do I believe that a high-scoring entry should do something profound and exciting.
Some judges and readers may prefer a lot of action, explosive character drama, or wonderfully unique protagonists. All of these things are important and do count a lot for me, but I’m willing to forgive a slow build up or unpolished character design to some extent if an entry has thematic depth, a sharp outlook, or a sophisticated style. I like to judge an entry by how well it delivers on its premise and how willing it is to explore the issues it raises. In order to do that effectively, a story must have all the building blocks of great storytelling, of course.
And so, I compare fiction, and all writing for that matter, to a complicated jigsaw puzzle: you must search for just the right pieces and fit them in all the right places to make a complete picture. Whatever that picture is, a lighthearted MG fantasy, a dark satire, a steamy romance, a poignant historical adventure, a tense mystery, every missing or wrongly-inserted piece mars the finished story just a little bit. My marking, therefore, reflects the number of pieces that I think are missing or out of place. A perfect score means that your story, so far as I have read it, is complete in every way, with nothing needed to be added or taken away. No matter the score, my opinion is that you can make your story better by finding the most important pieces and figuring out how to integrate them in the best way possible.
I am very careful about not scoring stories too high because doing so would lead writers to the conclusion that they have little work left to do, and falsely giving that message can be destructive to a career. When I first learned how to grade papers, my mentors made me recognize that the responsibility of a grader is to both the discipline and the student. In the short term, being an easy grader might make students feel good and make you a popular instructor, but in the long term you harm the integrity of academic rigour, or in this case literary merit. More than that, you encourage students to think they don’t need to grow any more, and you teach them to be satisfied with what’s easy. I believe that every entrant into the Ink and Insights is serious about their craft and hoping to improve, so I would be remiss if I didn’t mark stories as harshly, and I think fairly, as I do.
If you consider my scores as a percentage, that percentage is how complete I feel the story to be based on what I’ve read. There have been times when I wish I could give higher marks to stories with brilliant or charming ideas that nevertheless struggle with more technical issues, and there have been times when I’ve grudgingly given high marks to entries that I find unremarkable, but are perfectly written and structured. In either case, my advice is the same: listen to all the advice you can get and use it if you can.
Aaron — Third year as Ink & Insights judge