Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I'll be the judge of that

Being Editor in Chief of a magazine and running a contest have unique pressures, but one of the commonalities between the two is the necessity of impartial selection.

Just as important as impartial selection - maybe even moreso - is the appearance of impartial selection.

Would you want to submit to a contest or magazine with a history of the coordinator's close friends winning a disproportionate amount of the time?

The answer is probably no.

In magazines, this is relatively easy to get around: do blind judging, and make it known that you do blind judging. You don't have to trumpet the fact that you do it to everyone, but it can be reassuring to have 'don't include your name in the body of your submission' as part of your submission guidelines. Issues focusing on particular writers are a separate issue completely. Another option is acquiring an unimpeachable reputation, or drawing from a wide enough field that there is no way you could know most of the people submitting. But I like process and things I can trust more than I like relying on my reputation, and Victoria in particular was not an incomparably vast pool to draw from when I was working on Island Writer.

In contests like Adam's Anything Goes Writing Contest, entries are submitted directly in a forum thread, so names are attached. We also spend a fair amount of time just conversing there, and the contest runs monthly through most of the year and fortnightly through the summer, so it's inevitable that he ends up getting to know people. Strangely, studies I made up just now have shown that when you spend a lot of time talking to people with similar interests, you end up friends with some of them!

The difficulty is that then you still have to judge them side by side with people whom you have never met, and you need to do it fairly.

In the couple of years I've been hanging around in the contest, I've only seen it implied once that the contest might be less than impartial, and by someone relatively new who was doing a one-on-one challenge with a regular, and concerned the regular would have an advantage. This post is not in response to that person. This post is not in response to anything in particular except my own nagging need for transparency, because knowing for myself that I judge as fairly as I am able does not reassure the people considering entering my contests. In this case, Adam ended up not being the judge at all: he called in another contest judge and participant in his contest who billed themselves as hating everyone equally.

Yes, this is the bit where I shamelessly upload video of myself (it's also on Adam's site).

The transparency of including critique as well as results has been one of the reasons Adam's contest has fared so well despite his quite scandalously becoming friends with some of the regulars. As I suggest in the video, the level of critique is pretty indicative of how the judge is going to come down about results.

This model might not work so well with larger-scale contests in which getting feedback to more than 50 or so people would be truly onerous, but on the kind of small-scale contest he and I are running, it's the kind of transparency that encourages people to enter.

Transparency preserves the appearance of fair judgement, which lets us feel less bad when our friends win on the strength of their writing. It is not our fault that we make friends with people who write well.

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