Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Out-of-the-Ordinary Contest

May Sarton with painting and live photo
Our theme this month is "out-of-the-ordinary" and I have a list as long as my arm of people and organizations in the publishing world that fit the theme. Today I'll share the new May Sarton Memoir Award, a project of the Story Circle Network, a memoir-writing group for women.

We've talked about SCN before, and founder, Susan Wittig Albert, is an occasional guest at the Blood-Red Pencil. The award is her brain child, and is yet another tool the organization uses to foster "lifewriting" for women. We all have stories to tell, and there are many reasons to tell them. The Sarton award is meant for women who have taken their stories to the ultimate goal - publication.

I don't think we've discussed writing awards here, but they are an important part of the publishing world and book promotion. The process of choosing award winners is also an important, sometimes complicated, and often time-consuming process. Ask any writer or editor who has ever served on a jury.

I asked if I could share the judging criteria for the May Sarton Award because the scoring system is so enlightening and useful. It's one of the best I've seen. This guideline is specific to memoirs, but can easily be modified for any genre of writing, and indeed, offers a marvelous scoring system for an author to apply to a piece of personal writing.

It goes without saying the writing must first meet all entrance requirements, and must be free of noticeable and distracting grammatical errors. Then the judging occurs with the following rubric:


0-3 Points

Characters not well developed, without complexity, stereotyped
Characters' actions not well motivated, not very believable
Characters' speech and/or dialogue stilted, awkward, not very interesting

4-7 Points

Characters fairly well developed; fair complexity, minimal stereotyping
Characters' actions fairly well motivated, generally believable
Characters' speech and/or dialogue fairly natural, interesting

8-10 Points

Characters richly developed; striking complexity; no stereotyping
Characters' actions well motivated and believable
Characters' speech and/or dialogue natural, engaging


0-3 Points

Beginning slow, doesn't pull the reader in; unsatisfactory conclusion
Storyline poorly developed or confusing (unmotivated jumps in time, unclear sequence of events)
Story unfolds slowly, inadequately, or with too many distracting side-stories, making it difficult for the reader to stay engaged

4-7 Points

Beginning adequate; conclusion fairly satisfying
Storyline fairly easy to follow, even if complex (flashbacks, etc)
Story is developed in a way that moderately engages and holds the reader's attention most of the way through the book

8-10 Points

Beginning engages the reader; conclusion very satisfying
Storyline clear, even if complex or otherwise challenging
Story is developed in a clear, compelling way that fully engages the reader's attention from beginning to end ("I couldn't put it down!")

Settings, Sense of Place

0-3 Points

Settings are uninteresting
Settings described inaccurately, insufficiently, or in clichés
Story establishes little sense of place

4-7 Points

Settings are fairly interesting
Settings described with some clichés, with fair accuracy
Story establishes an adequate sense of place

8-10 Points

Settings fully and vividly described, accurately and without clichés
Story establishes a strong, compelling sense of place

Please click here for the rest of the scoring list. There's lots more!

You get the idea of how this award judging works, don't you? It's a very fair, insightful, and accurate way to judge a good book. Thanks to SCN for letting us share this information, and by all means, if you have a memoir that fits the criteria, put it into the running for the award. Click here for submission information. Everyone else can adapt the rubric to judge writing of their own.

How many of you have submitted work and won awards for your writing? Have you ever been on a jury judging other writing? What did you like or dislike about the experience(s)? Please leave us a comment!
Dani Greer is founding member of the Blood-Red Pencil, a free-lance writer and editor, special projects coordinator for Little Pickle Press (a small publisher who has won lots of awards for their children's literature!), and teaches authors how to plan and execute their own blog book tours. Her last class of the year is coming up in September and is free to published authors who haven't taken the course yet. Click here to sign-up.

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  1. What a great rubric, Dani, thanks for sharing it. I love contests that provide such great feedback--makes the entrance fee well worth it. Since I write memoir I'll definitely check this out.

    One question: who is pictured here?

  2. I just like books with a good beat that I can dance to.

  3. Kathryn, that's May Sarton. She is famous enough, I didn't add her name under the photo, but I suppose a few folks might not Google or know who she is. I'll go add her name. The painting behind the woman is also May Sarton. I found that image to be rather intriguing, the young painting with the aged photo beneath.

  4. Thanks for posting the terrific rubrics, Dani. I will save this post, as I'm sure it will come in handy for planning a workshop.

    To answer the questions, I have won a number of awards for my writing, and have really appreciated the feedback that I got with some of them. I have also judged numerous times. When the Greater Dallas Writers' Association ran the contest portion of The Craft of Writing Conferences, we used a similar rubric, and contestants appreciated the specific feedback.

  5. Maryann, Little Pickle Press has an awards submission policy that is part of its annual marketing plan. Those nice stickers on book covers sell more books, and it surprises me that more authors and publishers don't avidly budget contest and award fees. It is so worth it for the added publicity. Maybe we should have a monthly themes about contests, medals, awards, bestseller lists, etc. What do you think? And Maryann, have you submitted Open Season for a Willa Award from Women Writing the West? Right up your alley, girl. ;)

  6. This kind of judging rubric is not just helpful for the one doing the judging, it's great for those who want to enter the contest. They know what the judges will be looking for when they read. Writers can keep these criteria in mind when entering any contest.

  7. Dani, I love this post because, by extension, it applies to both writing and editing. We writers would all love the validation of winning an award. Ditto for us editors, who are thrilled when a book we have worked on gets that positive recognition. The rubric provides a definitive guideline we can use to help our clients take their manuscripts from mediocre or even good to excellence.

    Great post! Very, very helpful.

  8. Dani,

    I like these well-thought out criteria. I wish they were more broadly applied before material was published on Kindle or elsewhere. I would say that fully two-thirds of the Kindle indie books I have ready in the last six months would fail on qualification number 2.

    As a word wonk, I smiled to find a "rubric" on Blood-Red Pencil. How appropriate.

    I am old enough to remember when the pencils were blue and the expression "to blue-pencil" something meant to edit it, particularly to delete it. Somehow I failed to take note of the transition somewhere along my nearly half century as a writer.

    --Larry Constantine (writing as Lior Samson)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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