Scoring Criteria, Part IV: God is in the details

Hello, readers —

I am going to move on to the technical parts of contest judging, the Technique, Presentation, and Mechanics categories. To the uninitiated, these all can sound very much alike, so I shall take them one at a time. The most important thing to understand right off the bat is that they all are, irrevocably, detail-oriented.

It seems to come as a surprise to a lot of entrants that much of contest judging turns on tiny details, but actually, it’s true of agency and editorial decisions as well. It may appear silly that having a slug line in the wrong place (centered in the middle of the footer, for instance, instead of right- or left-justified in the header), would weigh heavily enough in a reasonable reader’s consideration that it might knock an entry out of finalist consideration or prevent an agency’s first reader from asking to read the rest of the book, but it does happen.

Why? Well, contests are really intended to reward manuscripts that do not require significant additional work; agents and editors prefer to see manuscripts as close to print-ready as possible. From their points of view, rejecting a well-written but unprofessionally formatted work is akin to a fisherman throwing back a too-small fish: they would like to catch it again after it has grown a little more.

And no, as nearly as I can tell, not one professional reader sits up nights, gnawing his fingernails and worrying that he’s let the next great American novel slip away over a technicality. The pool of applicants is simply too large; if he misses one, he reasons, there will always be another. It’s like applying to an Ivy League school: Harvard could fill every year’s freshman class with applicants with near-perfect SAT scores from Manhattan alone, so how much consideration do you think the admission office gives an application whose essays were obviously not proofread? Or ones that did not adhere to the application’s requirements?


Similarly, in a contest — particularly a highly competitive one, such as the PNWA’s — there are pretty much always many more entries from talented writers than there are spaces on the finalist rolls in each category. However, as I have mentioned before, a good 80% of entries will contain at least one major contest rule violation, and roughly 90% will feature non-standard format. With so many other talented writers to reward with precious finalist status, most judges are not going to worry a great deal about the promising writers who have yet to learn how to format a manuscript properly; they want to recognize and laud the writers who are ready to hit the big time.

This is one reason that I advise writers to enter contests where entrants get actual feedback on their entries: if you’re the fish that’s thrown back, you would like to know why, so you can grow big enough to stay in the net next time.

The major exception to this technical selectivity (and I hesitate even to mention it) is the kind of contest where they tell every entrant that she has won, and for only $500, she can attend an award ceremony where she’ll be given a ribbon! Or for only $200, she will be able to buy a book with her poem in it, along with 4700 others! This kind of contest, much like a vanity press, makes its money from stoking the egos of submitters.

Which is fine, as long as everyone concerned realizes that it’s a non-competitive situation. Such contests, however, are seldom upfront about this fact, for it would make what they are offering for their $500 or $200 appear less valuable, so do be careful about where you enter your work. In a legitimately competitive contest, details will be scrutinized closely and scored accordingly — which makes those contests worthwhile to win.

The Mechanics category is where the least subjective of these details are evaluated. Is the punctuation correct? Is the spelling? (You would be astonished at how few contest entries appear to have been adequately proofread.) Are the margins as they should be? Does the entry adhere to the contest’s formatting rules?

While spelling and grammatical errors can be a matter of mere oversight, not adhering to contest rules is generally a matter of not having read them — and accordingly, these latter violations tend to be scored more harshly than proofreading problems. Often contests will tell judges to mark down habitual mistakes and consistent grammatical errors — punctuation that reveals that the writer is not sure how to use a possessive correctly, for instance, a surprisingly common phenomenon — more heavily than ones that appear to have been inadvertent, single-instance lapses. The hope is that the writer who does not know the rules will go out and take a writing class, but that the inadvertent error-maker will simply proofread better in future.

As nearly as I can tell, there is a single, easily fixed reason that so many entries do not adhere to requested contest formats: in the book categories, at least, most entrants apparently just print up the first chapter of their book and submit it as is, without taking the time to check whether its current format even remotely resembles what the contest organizers have seen fit to specify. This scares contest judges a little, frankly, because almost invariably, the basic formats requested by contests are slight variations on standard format — which means that the oddball manuscripts the judges see are being seen by agents and editors, too.

Again, if you have any doubt about this, or are clinging to the atavistic notion that the publishing industry cares only about writing quality, and not about format — please, for your own sake, volunteer to be a first-round judge in a competitive literary contest as soon as possible. After reading just a few entries, it will become abundantly apparent to you why the professionals insist upon standardization: there is so very much variation in what is submitted that comparison would be impossible without the imposition of some rules.

To give one common example (and one that I have actually seen get contest entries disqualified), many writers have picked up from printed books the practice of not indenting the first paragraph of a chapter, or they have (again, having seen this done in printed books?) decided that each paragraph should be indented either 3 or 7 spaces, instead of the standard 5. But (and regular readers of this blog should stop up their ears now, having heard this rant before) MANUSCRIPT FORMAT AND BOOK FORMAT DIFFER IN MANY SIGNIFICANT WAYS. Formatting a manuscript (or an entry) like a book does NOT make it look like a book, to professional or judging eyes; it merely makes it plain that the writer does not know much about the publishing industry.

It may seem a trifle silly that a judge (or agent, or editor) would take umbrage over something so simple as a couple of spaces missing at the front of a paragraph, but think about it: all literary contests have page limits for entries, right? When an entry does not indent the first paragraph, the writer gets five extra characters; when indentation is truncated for every paragraph, that’s two extra characters available per paragraph. While that may not seem like much, over the course of a 20-page entry, it might well add up to an extra paragraph or two of additional writing space for the fudging entrant. When someone is trying to make a long chapter conform to space requirements, that’s a lot of leeway. Similarly, an extra-long habitual indent, like an extra-large typeface, might be a means of making a scanty manuscript appear longer.

Thus, even if (as is generally the case) an entrant made this formatting choice out of simple ignorance of standard format, a judge may be instructed to read it as a deliberate attempt to cheat. It may be unfair, but it does happen.

This is not 9th-grade history class, people. Spelling, grammar, and format do count, and no one gets to fiddle with type size (or print at 98%) in order to fit within the stated guidelines. If you try it, I can guarantee that your entry will lose points in the Mechanics category.

Another popular way to lose points in the Mechanics category is through too-light photocopying or printing. Just as when you submit work to an agent or editor, every page of a contest entry should be clearly printed in dark ink on brilliantly white paper. Yes, this does discriminate against poorer entrants, who may not have access to good printers, but then, so do job interviews: it’s significantly more difficult for people with smaller incomes to scare up a suit in order to make a good first impression on a prospective boss than it is for more affluent people.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t run the universe, so I can’t address the underlying socio-economic injustices that may be leading entrants to mail in fuzzy photocopies. If you want to win a contest, you will need to dress up your work. Suffice it to say: if you are able to pay $50 for an entry fee, it is worth the extra few dollars to have decently readable copies made.

Long-time readers of this blog may recognize many of these Mechanics factors: they are essentially the provisions of standard format. (If you are in ANY doubt about the strictures of standard manuscript format, rush right to my post of February 19th for a refresher.) It just goes to show that I have been telling the truth all along: it really will save you time in the long run if you just adhere to standard format from day one of writing your manuscript. You may have to tweak it slightly in order to make it conform with the formatting regulations of wackier contests, but seldom much.

Tomorrow, I shall move on to the Presentation and Technique categories. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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