Notes from Joan Dempsey, Prize Organizer & Judge

Each year, when I announce prize winners for the Page One Prize and the Chapter One Prize, I get questions via email and on social media about how I decide on the winners. Many of those emails make assumptions about what I do and don't do, and I always take the time to respond in detail to writers who have concerns; in general, I welcome questions about my approach. I believe in transparency.

The questions I get are asked frequently enough that I decided to create this page for those who are interested in or have concerns about the judging process.

An Overview of the Process

Submissions come in via Submittable on a rolling basis over the course of a full month, and I read every day during that time in order to stay on top of the volume of entries. Each submission is given an entry number by the Submittable system, and I do not know the identity of the entry's author until after I have completed the judging process and made my decisions about the winners, honorable mentions and finalists.

After the month-long submission period closes, I have roughly another month to review the flurry of entries that come in just before deadline (it's not uncommon to get 200ish submissions within the final hour before deadline) and make my decision about the winners. During that month I am 100% focused on reading and judging—I commonly work long days, including weekends, in order to keenly attend to each piece. People ask me if I truly have time to do all that work—the answer is yes, I do.

The Reading and Sorting Process

While I'm reading entries, I tag them in Submittable, as follows:

  • Top Tier: The entry stands out as exceptional: the writing is clean (properly formatted, free of typos, grammatically correct, not cluttered with unnecessary words); the meanings of all sentences and paragraphs are crystal clear; the writing is skillful (smart syntax, words are carefully chosen, metaphors/similes are apt for the context, point-of-view is solid, descriptions are vivid, etc); the story is compelling; settings are fully-realized and easy to envision, etc. In short, when I come across exceptional entries, I instantly know I'm in the hands of a skilled, capable writer, one who reads a lot and has studied and practiced the craft of writing fiction.
  • Possible: The entry is very good and deserves a second and likely third read-through. There might be a relatively minor issue with the writing—like a small typo or something else that gave me pause and momentarily took me out of the story—but overall the writing is clean, clear, and compelling, and worth further scrutiny.
  • No: Either the entry needs a lot more work before it shines or it does not match the stated submission formatting guidelines. If the submission doesn't adhere to the stated submission formatting guidelines, I don't consider it. If, for example, I receive a single-spaced entry in 10-point Ariel font instead of the required double-spaced 12-point font, I don't consider the entry. If the entry is properly formatted but the writing isn't yet skillful enough to compete with the Top Tier or Possible categories, I tag it with a No; if I'm on the fence about where the piece belongs, I mark it as Possible in order to read it a second and possibly third time.

The Winnowing Process

After the sorting process, the entries with the Possible tag (usually between 50 and 60 entries) get scrutinized a second and often third time and sorted into either the Top Tier or No categories. After that, the Top Tier entries (usually between 20-25 entries) get printed out, re-read several times, and the winners are chosen from this group. A slate of honorable mentions and finalists are also chosen from this final batch.

This is the most demanding part of an overall challenging process; I often spend two full days reviewing the Top Tier entries before making a final decision.

On Objectivity

Some have suggested I should bring on a group of initial readers and final judges, since no one person can be 100% objective. Because I strongly believe in paying writers for their time and expertise, I am not yet in a position to offer suitable compensation to readers and judges to undertake this challenging, time-consuming work—I will not ask anyone to do this work for free, or for "exposure." *

As for whether or not I can be 100% objective, the answer is no; no judge can be 100% objective, since every writer comes through life with their own history and their own reading and writing and educational experience. That said, I have been working as a writer, writing teacher and developmental editor for more than twenty years. I have an MFA (fiction) from Antioch University and a post-grad certificate in the pedagogy of creative writing. I have done developmental editing on hundreds upon hundreds of manuscripts in every genre of fiction written for adults and young adults (I do not have enough expertise in fiction for Middle Grade or younger to include those genres in the competitions), and I personally and voraciously read and listen to novels from across the wide spectrum of genres. In short, I know what makes fiction work, no matter the genre, and I know when more work is needed to fully bring fiction to life. I strive to be as objective as is humanly possible.

Finally, I often get asked about the type or genre of entries that win. Why not more humor, for instance, or romance or mystery or women's fiction? Why not light content versus heavy, family drama versus political drama, cozy versus thriller, etc? The answer is that I work with whatever submissions come in for any particular competition—I don't have any control over what writers submit, so I necessarily have to work with what's submitted. I strive to advertise via social media to writers in a wide variety of genres, and ideally I'd get a healthy mix of genres evenly spread across all entries. In reality, though, there's usually a trend . . . one year I'll get a ton of political fiction and very few mysteries. Another year I'll get heaps of sci-fi and almost no romantic comedies. Another will bring scores of historical fiction and next to nothing in contemporary women's. Submissions vary from contest to contest, and I do my best to choose writing of the best caliber, no matter the genre.

* If you're tempted to do simple math based on the entry fees and number of submissions to see how much money you think I'm making, please understand that entry fees cover more than just prize money: Submittable fees per entry; advertising; website expenses; customer relationship, marketing and app-connecting online applications; administrative support; and my own time and expertise, which goes into all aspects of marketing, administering, and judging the prize.