Thursday, July 16, 2020

Dear O'Abby: My feedback is mixed. How do I know what's right?

Dear O'Abby,

About six months ago I entered a writing contest. I didn't win, but the email I was sent from the organisers told me I'd made the shortlist of ten.  They also included some feedback from the judges, which was overwhelmingly positive for the most part, while pointing out a few areas where my story could be stronger.

This contest is run twice a year, so I polished up my MS, using the feedback from the judges, and entered again the next time the contest opened to entries.  I didn't expect to win, but I certainly didn't expect to get an email with judges' feedback that was completely different to the feedback I got last time.

These judges seemed to think my story was TERRIBLE.  The characters were poorly drawn and weak.  The plot was full of holes and the reader was asked to suspend disbelief to a degree that stretched plausibility.

What is going on here?  How can the same contest give such different feedback on what is essentially the same story?



Dear Gobsmacked,

I'm sorry you got this kind of feedback.  It's disappointing, I know. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time.

You've probably heard before that reading is subjective.  What one reader loves, another might hate.  It sounds like you've come across one of these situations.

Contests are often judged by volunteers or 'celebrity' judges and if the contest runs frequently, the pool of judges is likely to change regularly.  Therefore, judges who may have loved your story last time, may not be there the next time you enter to see how you used their thoughtful feedback.  And the new judges may not have the same taste or experience with your genre as the previous ones.

The trick is to not let this get you down.  And certainly not give up on your story.  If you're happy with it and you like it, then that's good.  Don't let an email from a stranger make you give up on it. 

Let that email sit for a few days, until the sting wears off.  Then go back and read it again.  Is there anything you can use in there?  Is there anything that actually resonates with you?  I often find that once I'm over being hurt by negative comments, I can often find something useful in them.

In fact, negative feedback is often more helpful than positive feedback, although I think people giving feedback should always try to balance the good and the bad.  There's got to be something to like about almost every story, no matter how badly written it is.  Even if they just like the fact the main character has a dog they are kind to, it's important to mention that before diving into everything they perceive is wrong with the story.

So see if there is anything you can use.  Is there some truth in those comments?  Something that's been nagging at the back of your mind, but you haven't quite acknowledged to yourself yet?

If there really is nothing useful, or the feedback is so generic you feel like the same thing was said to every contestant, then you might want to write to the contest and let them know how unsatisfactory the feedback was this time around.  Not all judges are going to give the same kind or level of feedback, but if that's something the contest offers, it's a problem if some of the judges are offering something very unhelpful.

Hope that helps.  Don't give up.  There are other contests and other places you can send your story if this one doesn't work out.

X O'Abby.


  1. I've had this happen to me. I think I know which contest this is and I've found the judges' feedback to be very erratic. I think the above advice is good. Take what you can use and forget the rest!

  2. I think it's important to remember you're never obligated to take feedback you disagree with. But I'm sure you already know that. I usually sit on the feedback for a few days before deciding if it's useful.


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