Sunday, February 3, 2013

Our Reading and Rating Process

Every once in a while, we get communications from people who don't understand how we can announce the results of a short story contest just two or three days after it closes. They wonder if we're somehow reading 200+ stories in two or three days. No, we read and rate them as they come in. But that raises an important question:

If you send us a story ten days into a contest and we judge it to be the 12th best story of the 20 received up to that point, why don't we send you a rejection slip right then? Why wait until the contest is over?

We're open to changing that practice, if you can come up with a strong enough counter-argument. Here is our reasoning for the current practice.

1) We want each author to enter our contests only once. Since we read all stories blindly, however, we don't have a good way to prevent somebody from sending us a story on Day 1 of the contest, and then submitting something else on Day 75. Our nightmare scenario is dealing with a writer who would submit a different (rejectable) story every day if we rejected stories as soon as we realized they had no chance to get published. 

2) A point from Bethany: We have rejected stories that turned out to be from authors who, in different contests, took first place (with a different story of course). By rejecting an early entry right away, we're giving that entry's author a chance to submit a different story that we might like a lot more. Rejecting stories right away gives those stories' authors a big advantage over other contestants, and we think that would be unfair. 

3) I know from experience it's annoying to wait 2-3 months to find out how your story did, but a 2-3 month wait time is not that far from an industry average. So while I'm not thrilled with it, I don't feel we're treating our writers in a way that the industry would condemn.

4) What would we do with a story we receive on Day 2 of a contest, and is so good, it remains in contention all the way to the end, but on the last day we decide it can't quite crack the top ten? That author's going to wait three months for a reply no matter what.

5) Another point from Bethany: Just about every contest, at least one author withdraws his or her entry for some reason. We've had that happen just before a contest closed! In fact, twice now it's happened with stories we were strongly considering sending to the prize judges. That meant some story we were originally going to reject took the withdrawn story's place, and in at least one case, won a prize

6) Finally, every alternative we've considered sounds worse to us than the current practice. We've even considered a "halfway" notice, in which halfway through a contest, we'd tell all non-contending authors that they didn't make it. But what would we do with the contending authors, if anything? I don't want to get their hopes up because many times, a story that is in the top ten halfway through a contest doesn't make the final round. (Two-thirds of our entries tend to come in the last half of the contest.) Plus there's still the one-entry-per-author problem.

It seems like the only way to give feedback in something closer to real time would be to pick on the authors who sent the stories that did the worst. We don't want to do that. So, we file our notes and decisions away and hold them until the end.

Having said all that, if you can make an argument for faster rejections that's stronger than the argument for our current system, please do, and we'll think about changing. Over the years, we've adjusted a number of our practices because our readers and writers had better ideas than we did. We're willing to do so again.

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