A kid's imagination

Challenges of Judging Teen Imagination

I volunteered to judge short stories authored by teens for a local high school anthology. It sounded right up my writing alley, and a good opportunity to turn off the tedious yet roller-coaster ride of TV news and focus on something fun.

Judging, it turns out, can be a tricky, emotionally draining, ultimately self-analyzing endeavor. Unless I was doing it wrong, because I’m totally green at this. And it was definitely a challenge.

I’ve participated in short story writing contests and haven’t usually enjoyed them because of ad nauseum parameters and seemingly inane rules devised by judges. As a side note, I will no longer be participating in that particular publisher’s contest, though at some point I will write about why—when the sickening disgust subsides.

But this time, I’d be a judge rather than a writer.

Hence, it was a surprisingly daunting day when six short stories arrived via email, with a judge’s rubric (I actually learned a new word with that one, or at least learned what rubric meant, having not previously encountered it). This rubric consisted of providing numerical scores for categories including language, plot, characters, and setting.

Basically, the numbers involved rating how the teen compared to adult writers. A high score of 5 meant they did quite well in comparison. A low score of 1 meant the author demonstrated little skill in any given category.

But perhaps the initial angst came from attempting to print the judge’s rubric form itself which, it turns out, wasn’t provided in Microsoft Word format. Maddening. Technology issues send me into orbit because I never know if it’s my ineptness—or, in this case, not my fault, nor my printer’s.

Also, numbers aren’t my thing, and this somehow reminded me of multiple-choice exams—really not my thing. But I persevered, because at the end of the list of numerical tasks reducing a story to a total score of 22.5 (within the recommended average range), 36 (high praise), or 14 (yikes did I feel like a meanie on that one), there was a limited-space opportunity to weigh in on suggested improvements or comment on a story’s strengths using actual words for feedback.

Except, who knew it would be so very difficult to come up with something even minutely positive to say about a couple of stories? At least it was only two of the six, but still. These were high school students. Was I expecting too much?

I tried to remind myself of what they went through during COVID lockdown, how school often comprises the bulk of their social life. Yet it wasn’t merely bad or trite writing in these two stories. Unfortunately, one of them was riddled with alarming red flags. Or so it seemed to me.

But what do I know about being a teen in 2023?

Actually, in the two well-written stories, I learned something about what it might be like. One of them took me straight back to junior high and the excruciating angst of BFFs who turn into mean girls. As if I was experiencing being 14 all over again.

I know many folks claim they only want to be entertained when reading, but isn’t this what writing should be about? Evoking emotion, providing a powerful message, readers able to relate to the story on some visceral level.

I’d say that young writer has promise.

The second excellent story (in my humble judging opinion) surprised me. To begin with, it was merely a page and a half long. Though this was actually a relief after dealing with a few tedious, repetitive, unnecessarily long stories with seemingly no relevant plot or point. But this very short, succinct story involved a suicide attempt.

The message was poignant and powerful. I was impressed by how its author handled the unsettling subject with maturity and wisdom. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that kind of a writer in high school—or for decades beyond.

All of this is to say that as I read, and judged, I had to keep asking myself, is this actually pretty good for someone who is 14 to 18 years old? I tried to remember my writing back then, or even six years ago when I began drafting fiction.

Didn’t I make the same mistakes? Using the unnecessary no-no “suddenly,” which at least four of the stories included (I still cringe at an “at that moment” somehow surviving to the published version of book three in my Other Worldly series). Not to mention excessive narrative telling at the outset rather than showing with tools like dialogue, for instance. I still have to stop myself from the folly of that compulsion.

Yes, we adult writers make all those mistakes and more. It’s a constant learning process of pitfalls to be avoided. Hence, I must commend even the less than stellar stories because at least they tried. They put pen to paper and pulled from the well of their imaginations.

Teen imaginations might just be the most vivid of all.

I’m glad I braved this judging gig. Even if I was exhausted at the end, infinitely grateful I’m no longer a teen despite the challenges of aging—and writing and judging with an aging brain.


4 thoughts on “Challenges of Judging Teen Imagination”

  1. What a wonderful experience for you. Both in seeing what our youth today are capable of and a learning experience you in what judging other’s writing entails. (Not just as a reader giving 1-5 stars at the end of a purchased book someone else judged worth to be published.)

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