Hello, readers —
Happy Ides of March! Caesar, beware!
Today, I shall tackle the difficult subject of how technique tends to be scored in literary contests. In many ways, this is the toughest category for which to set standards, partially because every judge — just like every writer, every agent, and every editor in North America — was taught something slightly different about what makes a paragraph well-written.
The problem is, not only do we all THINK we are right about this — we all actually ARE right about it.
Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? It should sound particularly odd to those of you who have taken a whole lot of writing classes or attended writers’ conferences. There, you were probably told that there is actually not a whole lot of variation amongst different styles of good writing, just what each particular market will embrace. Good writing, writers are given to understand, is good writing, across venues.
Translation: standard format is standard format across venues. Not a whole lot of variation there: specific structures, norms for spelling and grammar, preferred typefaces. And, of course, clear writing that says what the writer wants it to say AND is easily comprehended by others.
Go back and read that last paragraph again. It’s awfully important: these, my friends, are the minimum standards for professional writing. If a contest entry (or agency submission, or publishing house submission) does not come up to this standard, it will invariably score low in the Technique category.
Beyond these basics lies style. I cannot stress this enough: no amount of personal flair or innovative insight will permit a technically problematic manuscript to score well in the Technique category. Scoring rules are almost invariably set up to prevent it. So let us talk about base-level good writing before we discuss personal style, because frankly, the basics are where most points are lost in the Technique category.
Writers quibble a lot amongst themselves over whether being a good writer can be taught. I have always thought that this question is formulated incorrectly: it really should be whether style can be taught, or whether talent can be learned. Certainly, the mechanics and forms of the base level of good writing can be taught, or at any rate learned: it is hard to imagine someone absolutely new to the craft spontaneously electing to set up a manuscript in accordance with standard format. And everyone can learn to be a clearer writer through feedback.
While this base level of good writing may not seem particularly ambitious, it is a truism of the industry that the VAST majority of submissions agencies and publishing houses receive do not rise to this level. This is where the often-draconian policy of automatically rejecting manuscripts with technical problems comes from; writers with promising style, unfortunately, often get caught in this net as well.
How does this happen? Well, the formatting is the tiresome part, right? Most writers are in the biz for the self-expression, not the hours of bringing their thought into lockstep with the rules of the industry. Those who are in it for the money are either incredibly lucky or have yet to notice that writers suffer from an even higher unemployment rate than actors, which is indeed saying something. Every time some well-meaning novice asks an agent at a conference, “So, what kind of an advance can a book like…” (insert here hypothetical description of what is quite obviously to professional ears a description of the speaker’s book) …expect to receive?”, everyone on the agent panel cringes, picturing just how steep the questioner’s learning curve is likely to be. But I digress.
Since for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, many writers skip over the technical acumen-gaining step and move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, we tend to read rejection as personal, rather than professional. Naturally, it is painful.
However, it’s usually a misunderstanding of what actually occurred. Ask any publishing industry professional, and they will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are there.
This can be a very empowering realization. Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems with how she is presenting her writing. The question turns from, “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission read better?”
Yeah, I know: it’s not much of a promotion, emotionally. But at least when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can DO about it.
This is also true of contest scoring, particularly in the Technique category, where clarity is the sine qua non. Technical problems usually make it very, very easy for judges to rule out entries; as I mentioned last time, judges agonize over rating the relatively small percentage of entries that reach and surpass the basic clarity bar, not over the majority of entries that do not reach it.
So without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your score in this category is to make sure that your entry is crystal-clear. Pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it AND have some idea how to fix it. A writers’ group is ideal for this.
What is not ideal is showing your work only to your kith and kin while you are trying to catch technical problems and increase its clarity. It needs to be seen by human eyes that do not belong to oneself, one’s mother, one’s partner, or one’s best friend. Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as these first readers may be, they are unlikely to give one unbiased feedback — and only unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to help hoist your work up over the professional bar.
There is another reason to go to emotionally independent sources for your feedback: you will not feel compelled to take their advice. Lovers, relatives, and friends are less likely to understand your book as a professional endeavor, a product being perfected prior to marketing, than as an extension of you, the person they love — which in turn makes it harder, if they are the primary first readers of your work, to keep that preliminary goal of professional presentation firmly in mind.
Lest you think that this is an easy thing for a professional writer and editor to recommend to those who may not have literary connections, I do practice as I preach here. I have built a small circle of first readers, people that I know for a fact have good literary judgment and will tell me the truth when my work falters. My boyfriend — a lovely person and a sterling intellect in his own right — is not allowed to read my first drafts; the closest he gets to the early stages of my work is when I read him freshly-minted comic scenes aloud, to see where and whether he laughs. Apart from that, his role in my life is not as literary critic, but part of my support system, as is sensible and appropriate.
If I seem to be harping on the necessity for impersonal feedback, it is because every time I have served as a judge in a literary contest, I have been struck by just how obvious it is that most entries have never been seen by human eyes other than the author’s. This sad fact really does stack the deck against those entries, because clarity is so heavily weighted in judging.
Tomorrow, I shall discuss other aspects of the Technique category, such as pacing and freshness. In the meantime, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini