Scoring Criteria, Part VIII: Tone

Hello, readers —

I’ve really been warming to the topic of presentation, haven’t I? As long-time readers of this blog already know, few things get my proverbial goat more than standards to which writers are held without being informed of them first… and the Presentation category of contests is often where such standards are applied most strenuously. So let’s dive right back in.

For those of you who missed yesterday’s installment, the Presentation category is where the judge assesses how well the author addresses the main question or subject of the piece, as well as how clearly the author makes a case for it. In order to determine the latter, many judges — however charming, erudite, or generous they are in their daily lives — metamorphose into that nasty third-grade teacher who claimed that your correct math answer did not count if part of your numerals strayed outside the little box where you were supposed to write it.

Imagine, if you will, the least charitable reader in the universe, a sort of inverse Santa Claus, someone who loves great writing but snarls at any deviation from perfection. Okay, maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly: that reader would be the query screener at a really popular agency, or perhaps the editor’s assistant at a major publishing house. The contest judge would be the snarler’s mother, or father, or college roommate. Suffice it to say, the judge and the screener would get along great around a Thanksgiving table; they could swap manuscript horror stories over drumsticks and stuffing.

Now, in real life, most contest judges are lovely people: intelligent, learned, giving of their time. This last is the most important point, of course, as the vast majority of first-round judges in literary contests are volunteers — including, usually, yours truly. The organizers are often paid (although not always, and seldom very much), and if the final-round judge is a celebrity, or as commonly happens, an agent or editor attending a conference attached to the contest, he or she is often paid as well. But bet your bottom dollar that the people deciding whether your entry will be seen by that final-round judge are volunteers.

Why take this into consideration? Well, these people are taking time out of their lives to judge a small mountain of entries. They want to be the very first person to discover that fabulous new writer. As I said, they tend to be lovely people with fine intentions. They truly do want each entry to be a winner.

So how do they end up as snarling nit-pickers? After slogging through entries that don’t follow the rules, entries with severe mechanics problems, entries barely coherent, their enthusiasm for the project tends to wilt. It’s not as though they can simply discard entries with too many problems to make finalist, as an agent or editor could; no, they must read them in their entireties. They must evaluate them in detail. They even, in some contests, must write up substantial commentary for the entrants.

Is that picture firmly in your mind? Now envision the next entry from the pile, an over-explaining manuscript that does not trust the reader to draw fairly straightforward inferences, or a manuscript that is not clearly argued. Or a manuscript full of clichés (yes, it happens), or full of characters adopted directly from an array of popular sitcoms.

Okay, now picture this: your entry is the one after that. Do you think your judge is going to be in a good mood? Or do you think your judge — that kind, generous, noble person who volunteered her time to help writers everywhere succeed beyond their wildest dreams — is going to fly into a tizzy at the first misplaced comma?


Which brings me to the issue of tone. Narrative tone is nearly always rated in the Presentation category: is it appropriate to the story being told or the argument being made? Is the narrative voice pitched at the proper level for the target audience, or would it make more sense for an older or younger readership? (Sarcasm, for instance, is seldom appropriate for books intended for very young children.) Is the narrative voice trustworthy, or does it talk down to its audience? Is the manuscript jargon-laced?

And so forth. Allow me to suggest, as gently as possible, that you have a third party — preferably someone from your target demographic — read your entry for tone BEFORE you submit it to a contest. Or, for that matter, before you submit it to an agency or publishing house. Writers are not always aware of the tone implications of their work; that’s one reason that we all need feedback.

The other reason is that your garden-variety judge, much like an agent or an editor, may be very touchy by the time she gets to your entry. You may have intended no insult, but even a subtle nuance may cause her to rear back like Godzilla and engulf your entry in flame.

I discussed yesterday the dangers of assuming that one’s judges will share one’s point of view, ethnicity, sex, political affiliation, etc. These assumptions often appear most strongly in the tone of the book, regardless of whether the argument acknowledges such assumptions overtly or not. A book by a children’s writer who believes that most children are intelligent, for instance, will read quite differently than one by a writer who believes that they are merely small, ill-informed adults. An essay on job choices in the 20th century by someone who believes that women should not work outside the home will read quite differently than one on the same subject by someone who would like to see at least half the Supreme Court made up of women.

It’s inevitable — so make sure that when you enter your work in contests, there’s nothing in it that will gratuitously offend a judge who is not from your background. Or class. Or sex. Or generation. The chances that your entry’s first-round judge will resemble you demographically are not very high, but the chances that the judge, whoever it may be, will be a tad cranky by the time he reads your submission are close to 100%.

This is not to say that contest judges do not make a substantial effort to think like your ideal reader: they do, given half a chance. But if the writer does not specify clearly who that target reader is, it is hard for the judge to make that cognitive leap.

Just so you know, when a contest’s rules ask you to specify target audience and category, it is doing the writer a FAVOR: this device carries the two-fold benefit of allowing the savvy writer to show she’s done her homework (by picking marketing categories and demographics that already identified by bookstores; if you’re in doubt about your book’s category, check out my posts for February 13-15) AND to allow the judges the opportunity to say, “Well, this isn’t the book for me, but I can see its appeal for its target audience.” The more niche-specific your work is, the greater the favor this is to you. Trust me.

As a nonfiction judge, I have noticed in recent years the rise of a tone problem probably attributable to the way commentators argue on television, as if only a dangerous maniac would disagree with their interpretation of events. In print, this manifests as a tendency to treat all other arguments (and argument-makers) as idiotic.

As Mark Twain said: In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.

This is a problem that crops up most often in the synopsis. Clearly, the tone implies, any person of sense will instantly recognize the argument in this book as the sanest piece of advice since Mrs. Disney prodded Walt to stick some great big ears on that rodent. Everyone else who has ever written on the subject (at least, anyone who disagrees with the author’s point of view) is certifiable, and probably dangerous to the republic to boot.

As a judge, I always wonder what the entrant was thinking when submitting such an entry. Obviously, it never occurred to him that any right-thinking judge might disagree with him, but that’s not why such entries generally get such low marks in the Presentation category. It’s the utter lack of consideration for the reader. For necessarily, if the piece castigates everyone who does not agree with the author, the reader — any reader unfamiliar with the argument, and thus available for conversion to the book’s point of view — falls into the predetermined idiot category. And calling your readers stupid is just poor strategy, if you want people to appreciate your work.

It’s easy to dismiss this kind of presentation, which (as you have probably already guessed) appears most often in entries that aspire to social or political commentary. You can never, ever assume that in a blind readership situation, the judge (or agent’s assistant, or editor’s assistant) will automatically be or think like you. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to assume that the judges will NOT be like you in several important respects, including sex, race, socioeconomic status, generation, educational background…

You get the idea. If you’ve got a point of view, by all means, be up front with it, but a general contest may not be the best place to air it, if you need to be judgmental.

Again, I’m not positive that all writers who produce entries in this tone are aware of how it may come across to others, so the safest thing to do is to get feedback from an independent source who does NOT agree with your worldview. This is the best way to weed out implications that may incense your unknown judges. (I’m just going to leave the probable response to your imagination. Suffice it to say that if you’re picturing a little old lady flinging flaming darts at a manuscript, you’re not far off.)

Although there really is no substitute for getting outside feedback, there is one flag that you can look for as a signal that you might want to reexamine your entry’s tone: what’s known in the biz as the Dreaded “We,” an almost invariable indicator of unexamined underlying assumptions in an argument. As in, “We burn fossil fuels indiscriminately, without regard to their effects on the ozone layer,” or “We all think of love as being about equality, but is it?”

Who are we here? Americans? North Americans? Residents of industrialized countries? Everyone standing on the planet?

Users of the Dreaded “We” seldom specify. Presumably, “We” used in this way is a pseudonym for pop culture, rather than the mindset of individuals, but this is inherently problematic. “We” may be described as monolithic, but no society is actually made up of people who think identically. Certainly, North American culture isn’t, and not every reader is going to appreciate being lumped in with everybody else. It may not be the author’s intention to imply sheep-like thinking and behavior, but that is in fact the underlying implication of the Dreaded “We.”

If the argument in the last three paragraphs seems like an extreme reaction to a relatively innocuous word choice, let me tell you, it’s a complaint I’ve heard dozens of times from both contest judges and editors of various stripes. Because, you see, these fine readers honestly do pour themselves heart and soul into reading entries and manuscripts. They are rooting for magic to happen. When it doesn’t, they are naturally disappointed — and take it out in the scoring.

It may seem a trifle strange that judges and other professional readers care so much about word choice in a manuscript (conceivably, more than the author does), but often, it is true. If you were entering a cooking contest, you would expect the judges to care whether you tossed in a pinch or a tablespoon of salt, wouldn’t you? A literary contest is no different — no detail is too small to escape scrutiny.

Try to find this flattering, rather than annoying: imagine, your writing being taken so seriously that total strangers argue over the strength of your narrative voice! We — in the dreaded version or not — should be pleased about that.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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