Head, Hands, Heart, Health

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I had a week to judge the local 4H Creative Writing projects, and got it in just under the wire. Don't let anyone tell you judging is easy, especially in an area that can be so subjective. If I was a sports judge, I suppose I'd rather be in track and field rather than figure skating, for instance. Plus, I get cold easily.

What makes it harder is that there are three categories: beginner, intermediate, and why the heck wasn't I that good in high school? You can't judge them by the same standards; it would be like failing a fourth grader because he couldn't do advanced trigonometry, which is maybe a bad example because I never could do advanced trigonometry. I don't even know what it is. I'm still trying to figure out what x equals.

My problem is that I tend to go too easy, out of empathy for how I might have reacted to a harsh comment at that age. (Hint: not well.) Being too easy on young writers can be just as bad as being too hard. They need to know if they have weak areas to be worked on, but they don't need me turning into that jerk chef on those cooking shows. So I try to be--I don't know--gentle, but guiding. All this stressing myself out is also why I struggle to do book reviews.

In any case, I've never seen a 4H entry that didn't show potential for great works to come. That's some of what the world needs more of: imagination, industry, interest, and literacy. Which comes awfully close to the 4H motto of head, hands, heart, and health.

Comments

Autumn Cote Added Jul 8, 2017 - 7:41am
I wonder if there is anything more subjective than judging someone's writing ability.  It's probably not possible, but I'd love to read the submission that won and one of the worst submissions.  
Michael B. Added Jul 8, 2017 - 12:13pm
A line from the classic Billy Wilder movie and granddaddy of all movies that barb Hollywood - Sunset Boulevard:
 
Joe Gillis (as narrator): [Joe is reading Norma's script] Sometimes it's interesting to see just how bad - bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit.
 
I thought much the same thing when I had English 101 and read several other students' first assignments. One dude in particular got more steamed with every correction and/or suggestion I made, but it was essentially at a fourth-grade level and I was trying to help the muthafucka. We almost came to blows. Others were more open to suggestions
Mark Hunter Added Jul 8, 2017 - 4:53pm
It's the same problem with all art and entertainment, Autumn: what some people love others hate. I can't stand reality TV, but it gets great ratings.
 
Technical ability is part of the judging system, so that helps, but I tried to look at each entry for quality in general. The grand champion wrote a non-fiction piece (all the others were fiction) that was very politicized--she'd fit right in here! I didn't completely agree with her views, but her writing was flawless.
Mark Hunter Added Jul 8, 2017 - 4:57pm
Joe Gillis makes a great point about bad writing--we all crane our necks to see that train wreck!
 
Some writers absolutely refuse constructive criticism, no matter how gently given. Most of those will never get better or have any real success at the craft.
Michael B. Added Jul 8, 2017 - 6:33pm
"Some writers absolutely refuse constructive criticism, no matter how gently given. Most of those will never get better or have any real success at the craft."
 
Substitute the word "writers" with "people" in that statement, and you have one of the most profound truisms!
 
Mark Hunter Added Jul 8, 2017 - 7:31pm
Good point!
Leroy Added Jul 9, 2017 - 7:52am
I don't envy you.  I've been a mentor to a couple of dozen engineers and technicians.  I enjoy giving them the benefit of my experiences, but I detest the judging part.  Many times they have advanced degrees.  Heck, even the office assistant had a Masters degree in Chemistry at one place.  Who I am to tell them they are doing something the wrong way?  There's more than one way to skin a cat.  I don't tolerate laziness, but if someone is making a genuine effort, I am not going to shoot them down.  I had one technician who begged me to criticize him.  He was the spitting image of Andy Griffith and was liable to break out the guitar at any moment.  He was good-natured and hardworking.  He did everything to perfection.  Finally, I said that he spent too much time ensuring everything was done properly.  It wasn't a fault in my book, but I couldn't think of anything else.  It was a critique but also a backhand compliment.  Helping someone who wants your help can be a pleasure.
 
My wife tells me to correct her if her English is bad.  Some people just can't take criticism.  I still have scars.
Dino Manalis Added Jul 9, 2017 - 8:11am
Reading and writing should be practiced at home and improved in school.  We can all improve and sustain the quality of our writing with constant practice.  That's why, thank you Writerbeat for giving us the opportunity!
opher goodwin Added Jul 9, 2017 - 8:11am
Mark - judging is hard - appreciating is preferable - though we all need constructive criticism in order to progress. A writer cannot edit or improve beyond a certain point on their own - it takes an objective eye.
Leroy Added Jul 9, 2017 - 8:19am
The only issue, Opher, is that criticism leads to conformity.
Ric Wells Added Jul 9, 2017 - 8:49am
Other the only audience I write for is myself. This is not ego speaking. If someone else likes my work all the better. If I as the writer don't like it then I haven't fulfilled my intention. The purpose of writing takes many forms and is almost impossible to judge intent. Technical writing is another matter. Creative writing is an animal all unto itself. The work is what it is. To judge is dangerous. I do not envy your task. GO GENTLE INTO THAT. GOODNIGHT. 
wsucram15 Added Jul 9, 2017 - 6:35pm
MArk..nothing to do with this article..but WOnder Woman was very good..thanks
Mark Hunter Added Jul 9, 2017 - 9:32pm
I disagree, MJ. In my experience authors aren't boring: They're dull. There's plenty of exciting stuff, but it's all going on inside their heads! 
In all serious they tend to be introverts, plus when holding a conversation they're often thinking about some story problem, meaning they're not really "there".
Then again, a lot of writers love to talk about writing (me, for instance), which I can only assume would be boring to a non-writer.
Mark Hunter Added Jul 9, 2017 - 9:41pm
There are all sorts of danger when it comes to judging, Leroy, although in my case my wife is more likely to correct my English. One danger is thin skin, and another is messing up the individuality of the student; it's why some authors seem to do better without a formal education. 
So, I try to stay away from issues of individual style. Just the same, I have the advantage of experience, and can often help make their writing stronger.
Mark Hunter Added Jul 9, 2017 - 9:41pm
Agreed, Dino!
Mark Hunter Added Jul 9, 2017 - 9:52pm
Constructive criticism is what we aim for, opher. These are kids, after all, and often make basic mistakes that they don't know are mistakes. I'm talking about things like the "empty room syndrome", where a scene is all dialogue with no description, or weak openings, or sagging middles, or poor character voice. There are all sorts of ways to improve basic writing skills, and by sending entries to be judged these kids are showing they want to improve.
Roger is absolutely right that judging writing is subjective, which I actually said in my first paragraph. That's why I try to stick to the basics, rather then broader questions that have more than one right answer.
Mark Hunter Added Jul 9, 2017 - 9:57pm
Ric, by sending these entries in, the 4H writers are quite literally asking to be judged. The presumption is that thay want to improve, and put their writing out for others to see. That's a world of difference from writing for yourself, which I also sometimes do, and my job is to try and help them get better. It's the least I can do to help young authors--I remember the days when I could have used such help.
Mark Hunter Added Jul 9, 2017 - 10:05pm
Glad you liked it, wsucram!
opher goodwin Added Jul 10, 2017 - 6:34am
Mark - I think that Arthur C Clarke summed up how to do positive criticism for me. He was writing 2001 A Space Odyssey while they were filming. Every day he'd write a section and show it to Kubrick. Kubrick would read and start by saying 'Arthur - this is brilliant - just one thing' by the time he's gone through the tiny adjustments the whole thing was completely rewritten.
Mark Hunter Added Jul 10, 2017 - 4:55pm
Now, that's positive criticism! And it's pretty similar to how I was dealing with the 4H entries.

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