Judge, lest ye not be judged

Last year, I volunteered to serve as a judge for two Writer’s Digest competitions — self-published novels and self-published non-fiction books.

Some might say I am a glutton for punishment, but I wanted to do it because I enjoy reading, and also because I wanted to check out other self-published writers. Here are a few observations from the experience.

The quality of writing in the non-fiction books was much higher than in the fiction novels. Almost every one of the 23 non-fiction books I judged was well-written with minimal typos.

Maybe it’s a product of the authors writing about topics they know about, but their passion and experience came through in almost every instance. I was constantly surprised by the quality of the writing and the variety of topics, from tomes dedicated to garlic or how to be a personal shopper to serious life topics like the death of a spouse or parent or overcoming cancer.

In terms of overall quality, the fiction books were a major disappointment. Of the 25 I judged, I would only recommend a handful to friends or family. The prevailing weaknesses were a lack of professional editing help, over-writing and an abundance of telling.

While I had a hard time choosing three to recommend for the next round in the non-fiction realm, coming up with a fiction book to recommend for advancement to the next round was difficult.

Writer’s Digest’s 2020 self-published books competition is open now. The deadline to enter is April 1. If you’re thinking about entering and you want to increase your chances of winning, I would suggest the following tips:

Invest in an editor. Not your sibling or spouse or next-door-neighbor who happens to be a middle school English teacher, but a real editor. Your prose is going to ultimately determine the success of your novel, both in terms of sales and in terms of standing out in competitions. Don’t skimp.

For non-fiction books, make sure your passion and experience in whatever you are writing about shines through. Just because it’s non-fiction doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Use creative writing techniques to bring the text to life.

If you don’t have a great cover, don’t t fret too much. A good cover is important, particularly for sales, but it’s only one of several criteria used to judge your book. The book I rated highest in the non-fiction category had a pretty basic cover the author had done on Amazon. That didn’t stop me from rating it No. 1.

If you decide to enter any competitions in 2020, good luck. Maybe I’ll get to read your book, and I can’t wait for you to blow me away.

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