King’s and Queens Arts & Science Competition 2012 – photo by Lady Ose Silverhair

The following article was written by Lady Ysemay Sterlyling as part of the Gazette’s ongoing “How to…” series.

Judging a competition can often be as difficult as entering. Yet, at a certain point in our artisan development, many of us choose to take the plunge as a judge.  However, few are ever given any guidance or training about judging.   In addition, often the guidelines and standards for judging a competition are nearly nonexistent.  As a judge, you want to do the right thing: make sure your scoring scale is on par with other judges, provide unbiased and honest critique, encourage the artisan to learn and grow, and finally help decide the winner.  Hopefully, this article will help demystify the process and help make the judging experience more pleasant

Selecting a Winner
First, do not forget that the primary reason you are judging is to help select the winner.  This selection process is based on scores alone.  Your scores need to reflect the scope of the entire competition.  When you receive a judging scale, often either 1-5 or 1-10, be sure to ask if the half way point should be considered “average” work or if the scoring aligns closer to a school grading scale where a 7 equals a “C.”   The difference is significant, both in the minds of the judges and to the artisans. If all parties are on the same page for scoring, there will be fewer disputes, less confusion, and fewer hurt feelings.  Remember, when you are scoring you are not just scoring that one item; you are scoring it against all the other items present.  Therefore, if the item you are judging is FANTASTIC but has tiny, minute errors that only an extreme expert may notice, score it like that.  If the scope of the project is enormous, let that factor into your score. A simple project has less room for error, whereas a larger project opens the door to more flaws. Consider that when judging.

Face to Face Judging
Before any scoring can occur, it is necessary to inspect the item, review the documentation, and often engage in a conversation with the entrant. Greet the entrant; say hello and introduce yourself. Do not just start pawing their item without introduction..  Some judges like to talk with the entrant while reviewing the item, and that is great too.  If time permits, read the documentation thoroughly before talking to the entrant.  Nothing frustrates a competitor more than when the judge criticizes an aspect that was clearly discussed in the write-up.

When you begin discussing the item with the entrant, keep in mind that some entrants are strong with the written documentation, but weak in face to face conversation. Others may be the opposite: strong knowledge base and verbal communication, yet weak written documentation. Unless specifically stated, give both formats equal weight. Your job is to verify that the knowledge and information is present and communicated in some organized manner. If you are uncertain that the documentation level is appropriate, ask for guidance from the competition coordinator.

There are a few questions that help open up a competitor to discussing their item while providing a maximum amount of information to the judge.  Here are four that are particularly useful:

1) Could you please tell me about your item? This lets the competitor lead the discussion. They can focus on what excited them and what they most want to share with you.

2) Can you tell me about the areas in which you had difficulty? This provides a clear path for your written commentary, for it indicates areas in which they want to improve. It is important to note that you are asking about what was difficult not what they did wrong.  Artisans are the most critical of their own work and will fixate on the negative. Keep the conversation positive.

3) What did you learn? This is another opportunity to find out how much the entrant knows and how much they grew within the scope of the project.

4) What would you do differently next time? This helps eliminate criticisms in your written commentary. If they already know the issue, there is no reason to address it again.

Written Commentary
Always, always, always sign your judging sheet. Be positive. No matter how basic the project or how inappropriate (yes, they used hot glue, spangles, and pony beads), they love their work and if we want them to continue and grow we need to be nice.

Regardless of the score you give, you need to give a reason. If it is a perfect “10”, tell them why  If it is a “2”, explain. Do not leave them wondering.  Every score deserves a comment.    With every comment, always begin with a positive: “I really liked that you did….” There is always something good to say about every project.  Point it out.  It is important that people know that they did something right. You can then follow with the negative.  Try to use phrases like “I had to lower your score because of…”, “next time you might want to try….” or even ask: “have you thought about…”  This is much more productive.

Every competition is an opportunity to encourage and teach.  When an entrant is presented with a laundry list of everything they did wrong, they can feel overwhelmed.  Pick the one or two most prominent areas that need improvement. This gives the artisan something on which to focus and improve. If you would like to provide additional help and instruction, leave a brief note at the bottom with your contact information offering assistance.

At some point, every judge faces an item that leaves them uncertain about how to score or comment. Whether it is something significantly out of your scope of knowledge, or something in which you have additional questions, do not let it intimidate you or make you uncertain.  Go to the competition coordinator and ask for help. Either they will directly guide you, or point you to someone else who can help.  It is better to get a second opinion and be certain.

Judging is not easy. It can be as difficult as competing.  Just keep in mind that we are all friends who have gathered together because we love exploring the myriad of arts of the Middle Ages. In addition, we are all part of the community of artisans. Every artisan, no matter how proficient or experienced has struggled, doubted, and failed at some point in their development.

A project is the Artisan’s baby. They are putting it out there for judgment, but no parent wants to hear that their baby is ugly. They want you to love it as much as they do.  Honesty with tact is imperative.  Thank them for their effort and participation. And remember that you deserve thanks also for being willing to be a judge!

Good Luck!