Monday, July 1, 2013

One Way to Judge Your Own Writing

I’ve done a lot of writing contest judging for RWA and its chapters, and I've been surprised to learn that that judging can strengthen one’s writing skills (see previous post on this subject, available on this platform). But I also think that a writer can use the tools of judging to grade her own work. The key to this is a good scoresheet, and I intend to provide one as part of this posting.

The background is that once I got experienced as a judge, I noticed that some of the contests used poorly designed scoresheets. Sometimes the questions were badly expressed or ambiguous, resulting in uneven scoring by different judges. Other times the scoring would be disproportionately weighted toward one aspect of the writing craft. Quality or degree of story conflict is a frequent offender. Conflict is easy to generate in nonfiction, let alone fiction, so one question out of twenty dedicated to conflict is a good weighting. Yet I once judged a contest whose scoresheet had four out of twenty questions devoted to conflict. Some of the worst scoresheets are missing entire categories. For some unfathomable reason, dialogue is the most likely to be missing. No, I’m not kidding. I’ve judged several contests whose scoresheets had no questions evaluating the quality or effectiveness of dialogue.

But the worst offenders in my view are the contests that don’t even bother using a scoresheet. Judges are expected to produce a single overall score. I’ve tried it, and it produces a very amorphous, hugely subjective result. Worst of all, it deprives contestants of the quantitative feedback they need on the various categories of writing skills. Yes, judges are expected to add constructive comments to the manuscripts themselves, but these are also expected to be diplomatic enough that discouragement won’t be inflicted. This is a good point, and it is how judges are trained. But it also means that unless a contestant has a scoresheet for feedback, she won’t know how to prioritize her writing improvement needs.

I got fed up with the disservice these shortcomings were heaping on aspiring writers and decided to design a scoresheet to use when one wasn’t provided. Eventually I ended up offering it to various chapters, and it became the basis for the one currently used by my own chapter. I am enclosing it at the end of this post, and you are invited to use it freely.

But I also wanted to mention before closing that any writer can use this or any good scoresheet to evaluate (by judging) chunks or samples of their own work. If you’ve produced a work or part of it and you’re not sure how well it stacks up, then putting the first fifty pages through a judging cycle using a scoresheet may just give you the quantitative insight you need.


Generic Scoresheet for

RWA Chapter Writing Contests


Total Score      



Entry #:                                                            Entry Title:      

Category:                                                              Genre: NA

Judge’s Code:      


Judge Profile:

RWA Contest Finalist


Scoring Key:

5 = Outstanding   4 = Above Average    3 = Average      2 = Below Average 1 = Needs extensive work

Please Note: If a score of 3 or lower is entered, comments must be made in the comment sections below.

1. Does the story begin with an interesting hook, prompting you to read more?
2. Do you quickly develop a convincing sense of time and place?
3. Are the character’s descriptions effective? Can you picture them?
4. Are character’s actions/reactions appropriate, consistent, and credible for the genre?
5. Are main characters sympathetic despite flaws/faults?  Are you rooting for them as the story progresses?
6. Does conflict (internal or external) flow naturally from the character/s or does it seem artificial or forced?
7. Is the plot progression building into an interesting story?
8. Are plot elements logical and believable within this genre?
9. How well does the dialogue match the characters?
10. Is the dialogue realistic? Does it read naturally for the time period and genre? Does it accurately reveal the voices of the characters?
11. Is the narrative Clear? Does it provide imagery? How well does it animate the characters, time and place, as in showing rather than telling?
12. Is the pacing effective? Does the pace and amount of backstory fit the action, tone and tension of the story?
13. Do you get a vivid picture from the writing? Does the writer use creative figures of speech and at least a few of the five senses?
14. Are points-of-view and transitions handled well?
15. Is the entry presented professionally with few typos, good grammar, and generally accepted punctuation?
16. Is the prose dynamic, easily read, and dominated by active verbs?
17. Is your interest piqued? How much would you want to read more?
18. Overall, how well are the elements woven together to produce a promising story?
Total Score (highest possible is 90 points)


If a score of 3 or lower is entered, comments must be made. Please feel free to include additional comments in the body of the manuscript.



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