A Question of Ethics

What I Learned When I Judged A Writing Contest

When you’re a writer, editors and contest judges can seem like miniature deities. They have the power to judge your work and determine its future. I knew sitting on the other side of the table would have challenges – I just didn’t expect the ones that arose. The following is drawn from my notes, messages, and some things I learned “after the fact.”

Great Adventures Always Start Small

Most writers enter contests, especially when we’re trying to get established. Every win, every publication is a boost, right? It’s practice, it’s an excuse to write, and when we don’t win – well, we have a new story to clean up and try to submit somewhere.

My first contest was a flash fiction competition. I lasted through two rounds, and walked away with three new stories. The contest I had the most fun with was a multi-phase short story competition.  Each writer picked an element – a thing that belonged only to them.  For each round of the story, the contest issued a second element. Those two things together became the prompt for your story.

I thought it was such an imaginative way to get different stories from different writers, without having to issue unique prompts to each person! I was delighted, the next year, to be invited to be a judge!

I shared enthusiastically in my writers’ groups, which had the added bonus of letting a lot of terrific writers know that this contest existed. As more friends expressed interest, they kindly set up separate events and talking spaces, where I wouldn’t see their conversations and inadvertently learn which of my friends might belong to a specific prompt.

Round One: Sympathy for the Devil

My first lessons were very much “as expected”.

See this?


It’s a period. Also known as a “stop”, and a “full stop”. When you see two of them – what goes between them is called “a sentence.”  Not a paragraph. Not three different thoughts/action sequences involving four different characters (but if you must, kindly name them, rather than referring to every single one of them as “she” and “her”).

There were some fantastic, amazing stories! There was also the moment when I walked up to my husband and leaned close to his face.  Without being asked, he affirmed, “Nope. Not bleeding out of eyes or ears.” I offered to let him read the pages I was holding. He declined.

Declined.  And that’s when I realized that editors and slush-pile readers can look at the first paragraph and decide “no.” Just like that – set it aside and not read it. But not I. I would read every single word.

Fortunately, there were very few of these – but I did develop some empathy for agents and editors who spend their time sifting through piles of unsolicited…writing.

These were the pains I had expected, and it was well worth it to read some really wonderful stories!

I tried to leave conscientious and useful feedback.  I know the feeling when a judge leaves you a numeric score and you can’t figure out how they got there, so I tried to share the answers. There’s no really good path for that, in the end – all criticism hurts when we first read it, and the only thing that hurts more than inaccurate feedback from some anonymous jerk – er, judge – is accurate feedback from an anonymous judge. Hopefully, once that first sting fades, the writers will find something useful in it. My only worry was that I was sure some of them would turn out to be my writer-friends. I hoped by the time the contest was over and I discovered who the contestants were, “useful” would have triumphed, or they’d at least have forgiven me the bruises.

I also had a weird conversation with the person running the contest (from here out, we’ll call her “CR”: Contest Runner). We were talking about the practice of publishing the names of the judges, (some contests do, especially if their judges are high-profile.) and she commented that she prefers not to because she “likes the mystery.” There’s nothing wrong with that – it just struck me odd, that day, the idea of enjoying ‘being mysterious” with writers about who is assessing their work.

But, hey – sometimes, things hit you funny.  And CR’s clearly a nice enough person – she even reached out to four contestants who hadn’t turned in their stories to check on them. (“if I haven’t heard anything in a week, I’ll assume there won’t be any more submissions.” I thought that was very generous of her, and said so. At least one writer turned in their story days after the deadline – and in most contests, that writer would have been out of luck.)

Round Two: The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men

I was feeling good about Round One!  The weeks passed, and I eagerly awaited the next stack of stories. I turned in my first-round scores, and two weeks later, saw in the writers’ group comments that folks were still waiting for results, so I asked CR about it. It seems some of the judges weren’t being timely, and I empathized with her about people who don’t stand up to their commitments. But – knowing that people were on tenterhooks, I also pointed out that it was a shame writers wouldn’t be able to use the feedback to inform their writing, since their second round stories were practically due, and third-round prompts would be upon them soon.

The day after Round Two ended, the stories arrived in my in-box, and once again, CR noted that she had reached out to authors who hadn’t submitted, and was “waiting to find out if any will be late submits.” A few hours later, another story arrived.

Friends remained thoughtfully vague in shared spaces, and when they began chattering, a week or so later, about finally having received their Round One feedback, I sent a few messages to share encouraging words. One friend was frustrated by some of her feedback, as we writers always are, and going through that mandatory writer-moment of over-feeling criticism. I offered my now-traditional “vaguely-encouraging comments”.

And then, disaster struck.

She unthinkingly responded by sharing some of her feedback. And it included a reference that made her story recognizable to me. I now knew which contestant she was.

I mean – I knew a lot of the writers who were competing, and I’m only human – I had guesses and theories. (Update: As it turns out, one of the two I was really sure of – was totally wrong.) But this – was different.  Now I categorically knew which stories belonged to a friend.

I reached out to CR to let her know. I assured her that I felt I could still judge impartially but that my beliefs weren’t the point – contestants needed to know that judging was fair and unbiased. I offered to step back – but I also knew she was having trouble with the reliability of some of the four judges (I’d later learn that after the first round, only two judges remained).

“I have already turned in scores for the first two stories, so there is an ability to compare my early judging to late judging to ensure nothing changes now that I know. But still, totally understand if that’s not enough.”

I think given you’re the *only* judge that is getting scores in on time and with decent feedback I’d appreciate it if you continue. Having spoken to one contestant last night I know they value your feedback.

We discussed it for a while, and she agreed to send a note to the contestants to let them know, assure them that she’d be watching my scoring to ensure that the second-half scores didn’t suddenly change, and I updated my scoring spreadsheet to include graphs to make it easy to see changes in trends. Transparency, and a path for contestants to express concerns to her directly. I pointed out that some of the contestants were friend groups; people talked to one another. We agreed that it was best to be transparent from the start so contestants could have confidence in how things were being addressed.

That e-mail doesn’t seem to have ever gone out. Later, I’d learn that the writer reached out to CR, too. CR encouraged her to keep writing, and to “keep the name of the judge to herself.”

Round Three: It’s How We Handle Our Mistakes That Counts

A week after Round Three ended, the stories arrived, with a note letting us know that CR would be checking in with 8 people “as a courtesy” but that she “doubt[ed] there’[d] be extra stories.”

She messaged me the next day. Seems she had accidentally CC’d rather than BCC’d those 8, and they all knew who the others were.

“Oops,” I replied, then pointed out that she had been giving them a second chance, despite their missing the deadline, so maybe folks could chill a little. “Guessing you sent a follow-up,” I continued, to explain/apologize.

“I haven’t, but I will momentarily.”

“You made a mistake. You own it, and people get over it.”

As I read through the stories, I realized my friend had not finished hers – it still contained sketch notes of what she intended to write at various points. Another story’s file arrived blank.  I e-mailed back to all the judges to see if it was just me or if the file had arrived damaged. CR sent me an uncorrupted copy of the damaged file.

“Thanks for the re-send,” I replied, then asked “with all the extra time you gave people, did [My friend’s prompt] turn in an updated file or do we just grade the incomplete version?”

No reply.

I messaged the writer and asked whether this was the final version. She responded very briefly that was the version turned in and there wouldn’t be another. 

I’m sure she felt my eyebrow rise. A few minutes later, she commented “I desperately want to tell you something…but I think I shouldn’t.” I reminded her that my job as a judge was to read and grade stories – otherwise, whatever it was, was something she should discuss with CR.

“I’ll explain after the contest is over.”

The conversation was getting too close to the boundaries we had set. We agreed to talk once my final scores were submitted.

What was bothering her, I’d learn, was that she had been told to “turn in her story as-is or take a pass”. That she had been sent the prompts late, given an extended deadline to accommodate – and others had their stories accepted despite being submitted after her extended deadline, while she was being told to submit on time or not submit at all. and then, a week later, CR had emailed 8 people to invite them to submit their stories.

When next I spoke to CR, she claimed she had never received my email, so I asked again whether I should grade the incomplete story or expect a new version

“Oh, no. the story was incomplete. And no one got extra time.”

“But you were emailing folks like a week after, who hadn’t turned in stories yet…? So only some were offered extra time?”

She insisted that, because nobody had sent anything, it didn’t matter. She reiterated that nobody was offered more time.  I suggested that contestants might be justified in feeling it was inequitable that only some people got offered the opportunity to turn in their story after the deadline.

“I NEVER offered anyone extra time. That wasn’t the point of the email I sent after Round 3…I have given you what you needed. So I’m going to tend to my youngest who is currently sick.”

So…wait.  She emailed to ask about their missing stories, just as she had done in earlier rounds, but offering them extra time “wasn’t the point of the email”? What would she have done if one of them replied with a story submission – stuck out her tongue at them and laughed “just kidding!”? When she accepted late stories in the prior round?

While it did turn out later that the poor kid has pneumonia, it’s also the point at which I recognized CR’s trend of “having plenty of time to talk until she didn’t like something, then always having some family crisis to attend to.”

These two realizations offended and annoyed me. My reply certainly showed it.

By emailing people after the deadline and inquiring about turning in stories, you made a de facto offer to accept stories after the deadline. Whether or not it was your intent, it is the outcome. Far more significantly – when confronted with that fact, you’ve chosen to be defensive and then to leave the conversation rather than to thoughtfully address the topic. THAT is what I will take away from this conversation. /smh

She wailed that I didn’t want to listen to what she was saying, then pivoted to the sick child. Despite our lengthy conversation, she huffed that the contest was the last thing on her mind just then.

But hey let’s push the issue shall we? One author didn’t submit a full story. I accepted it. No author submitted after the deadline and no one made any attempt to submit after the deadline. Nor would I have accepted any story after deadline. End of.

But…sending out an invitation for stories she never intended to accept, I pointed out, would be intentionally unethical. I didn’t point out that she had accepted late stories in the prior round – just thanked her for letting me know clearly who she is.

I wasn’t being unethical. If they had submitted I would have addressed it

You *invited them to submit by sending the inquiry.

Nobody f***ing did so it’s moot

No – the fact that the contest runner is behaving in an intentionally unethical manner is not moot.

Seriously drop it

Once someone starts cursing and trying to sound intimidating, there isn’t really a conversation to be had. I assured her I would meet my commitments, and then she wouldn’t hear another word from me.

The next morning CR, clearly in damage control mode, emailed all the writers to say that she’d had “an unfortunate” conversation with one of the judges. The usual (multiple) mentions of her personal woes were interspersed with the assertion that despite her supposed efforts at rectifying the situation, she felt she had “fallen into a trap”, and if anyone thought they had been treated unfairly, she’d appreciate it if they hit reply. The message, sent just before she forwarded the final set of stories to the judges, threatened to “cut the competition short” because she wasn’t enjoying it any more.

My friend replied. CR ignored her email. Just as she had with mine. My friend followed up via messenger. Rather than acknowledge the concern, CR merely issued high-handed dismissals, essentially informing the writer that their concerns were invalid and asserting her own blamelessness.

Ignoring valid inquiries, gaslighting concerns, and recharacterizing her own actions, just as she had done with me. Early in our acquaintance, CR had mentioned that she was in the middle of some kind of controversy with someone who “didn’t like her” and was trying to undermine her small press. I hadn’t asked for details, just accepted her description of it as some malicious person with a vendetta. Hindsight being 20/20, I wished I had asked more questions.

Round Four: And Then, No More

Does it seem like I am gossiping? Or complaining? That’s certainly not my intent. Obviously, I learned to stay away from this individual in future. But what about right now?

This person is treating contestants differently – some are getting extra time and some are not.  I have a problem with that. I’d have a problem with that if one of the people impacted wasn’t a friend. I have a problem with someone who conceals material information from contestants. Who ignores her mistakes (like not apologizing for the CC/BCC gaffe), diverts the matter of her own responsibility (changing the subject to her woes and demanding sympathy rather than acknowledging errors) and attacks people for pointing them out.

I have a problem with being known as a judge for a contest that I feel has been conducted inequitably and unethically.

My first reaction was to resign. I honestly didn’t want anything to do with this anymore. 

My next reaction was: the final set of stories would be arriving any time (less than 48 hours later, as it turned out). By this time, only two judges remained. Would walking away be good for the contestants?

I told myself it was only fair to them to see it through at this point. I think that’s true. Or maybe I am justifying it to myself. Or didn’t want to have to explain walking out. Or didn’t want to be seen in the same light as two other people who made the commitment to judge and didn’t last past the first round.

Maybe…well maybe a million things. Humans are wired to see themselves as the good guys. Your brain, neuroscientists assure us, will look for ways to make that so. CR got huffy, went on the attack, and attempted to shout me down rather than acknowledge her mistake. Perhaps I’m just creating my own narrative in which I can be the good guy. Oh, great Hero me, sticking in there “for the writers’ sake.”

The Round Four stories arrived. My friend did not submit. She might have, she says, if she had known that the incomplete story would still be scored.  Based on my own scores – and the fact that the other judge seems to have scored her similarly – I think she might well have been a finalist. Perhaps not. We’ll never know. 

I’ve turned in my scores, met my commitment, did the best job I could – and normally I’d feel good about that.  Instead, I feel frustrated and unhappy. Uncertain whether I made the ethical choice.

If I had resigned after the friend exposed her identity, there’d have been one judge for half the contest. Is that a reason to stay? Or should I have stepped back regardless? My friend’s incomplete third story and nonexistent fourth means the choice didn’t affect the judging in any way. But it’s the choice, I am examining, not the outcome.

Did my friend sabotage herself because of that passing error?  And if so – did *I* sabotage her by reaching out to encourage her and creating the opportunity for that error?

What about that last exchange with CR?  Was it ‘integrity’ to see it through for the writers – or did integrity demand that I walk away the moment I understood who I was dealing with?

And what about the people who do well in the contest?  There’s some terrific writing there, and they have earned their results. Have I protected and sustained that for them? Or just been complicit in tainting and diminishing their achievement?

In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By not walking out, am I that silence?  By speaking, am I breaking that silence or soothing my own conscience?

I don’t have an answer. Just a lot of questions. Please, share your (respectful and thoughtful) thoughts in the comments. If you think you know who I am talking about, don’t name them. This isn’t about shaming people, it’s about examining my own motives and ethics. It’s also not about judging me – so save any hate or praise. Just – honest thoughts bout the ethics of this situation. What would have been the right things to do – and why do you think so?

Overall, I think the contest ended pretty much as it otherwise would have. When I see the results, I fully expect to recognize some of the names, and to be able to genuinely celebrate with some of my friends. But I’ll also be well aware of the fact that someone who might have placed put herself out of the running or, more accurately was put out of the running by CR’s choices. My friend may have been ‘punishing herself’ for her gaffe by not finishing her third story. Or CR’s unequal treatment of her may have been to blame. Or both.  But the question that is on my mind tonight is the extent to which I fostered that or made it possible.

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