Recently I entered a writing contest where it seems judges' ableist attitudes prevented me from progressing to the finals. I have a strong feeling that is the case because I entered my book A Thing Called Compassion, which covers disability rights and abuse against disabled people. Those judges claimed they didn't like my book, without giving any explanation as to why they didn't like it. This makes me think the judges were covering up ableist attitudes, and when I tried to bring this up with the contest co-ordinator, she claimed other people received negative feedback without explanation too. This is strange, as I have a friend who judged these contests in the past and she was told that if she had any negative feedback, she had to provide an explanation behind that feedback. So, it seems the people running the contests have changed the rules suddenly.
OK, so, here are rules I think I should apply to judging writing contests:
1. If you think a certain event in a book wouldn't happen in real life, or you can't understand why a character would make a certain decision, think again. The author might be writing about their own personal experiences, or know someone who has been through them. If you claim they wouldn't happen in real life, that's invalidating these people's experiences, which could have been traumatic or causing negative flashbacks for all you know.
2. Don't give a story low marks just because a certain character reminds you of someone you know and are not fond of, like an ex-spouse or colleague you don't get on well with. Sure, it can be a bit off-putting when a character reminds you of someone you wish you hadn't met, but marking a story down for that isn't fair on the author. After all, the author doesn't know about the people you've been unlucky enough to meet in the past.
3. Don't let little things like the occasional grammatical error or words you feel have been used incorrectly ruin the whole story for you. I know it can be irritating, but the point is to enjoy the storyline, not nit-pick every little fault. Only mark it down in a big way if errors are persistent.
4. If you are bigoted or prejudiced against people because of race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, disability, etc, don't even bother judging. Many authors write to have their voices heard, especially when it comes to human rights issues. If you're going to hate a book because of that, contest judging isn't for you. Full stop.
5. Know the difference between constructive criticism and putting down. It is never OK to say an author doesn't know how to write. It is OK, however, to point out little bits here and there that might need improving if the book isn't already published (without nit-picking, of course) or say that you don't agree with some things in the book (without outright putting the whole story down). Like I've mentioned in Rule 3, nit-picking is a bad thing to do - never rip into an author over one tiny part of their book you don't like. If it becomes a bestseller, you'll end up choking on your words.
So, there we have it. These rules should be easy for anyone to follow. If you can't follow them, don't judge writing contests.