Sunday, August 12, 2012


One of my favorite hobbies is winnowing.  When my sister and I were growing up, we could spend hours deciding what to do that afternoon, working through an elaborate winnowing system.  We would begin by each compiling a list of ten possible activities, then we'd compare lists, then each generate a new list of eight possibilities (where we could draw from our own original list or from ideas generated by the other's list), then we'd compare lists, then each generate a new list of six possibilities. . . . We would spend longer deciding what to do than we would spend doing it, and we had at least as much fun deciding what to do as we had doing it.  Along these same lines, I love going through the fridge and consolidating partly used jars of olives, or eating up the last few olives in a jar so I can get rid of a jar altogether.  Winnowing is a passion for me.

So this is part of why I love judging contests so much.  Of course, I also love POWER - the ability to have my vision of what counts as a wonderful book expressed in the world.  But winnowing is definitely part of the fun.

This summer I'm judging a writing contest for the Utah Arts Council.  I'm judging the juvenile category, reading 42 manuscripts by previously unpublished authors, with the mandate of choosing a first place winner, a second place winner, and (if I want) an honorable mention.  So I need to winnow those 42 manuscripts down to three.  Perhaps a dozen of them are picture books, but the rest are full-length novels, some of them over three hundred pages in length.  Serious winnowing is in order.

I started by reading the first twenty or so pages of each manuscript to decide whether it was going to be a contender.  Here I eliminated manuscripts that had serious problems from the get-go: predictable plots, pedestrian prose, lots of back story crammed into the first chapter, lots of telling rather than showing, and so forth.  These were simply not going to win given that other manuscripts opened brilliantly.  After this first screening, I had reduced the list from 42 to 15.

Now each manuscript got a careful reading, where I made notes to myself on each one, its strengths and weaknesses.  These are not established authors, so I can't expect perfection (heck, I can't expect perfection in any book, even by a literary super-star).  But many of these manuscripts are impressive.  Now I was looking for manuscripts that I thought were not just worthy of a serious read (they were already getting a serious read), but worthy of a prize.  I ended up with four.  42 to 4!

My final task is to read those four once again, after letting a week or so go by, so I can come to them with fresher eyes, and pick my prize winners and also prepare to write the detailed comments each winner will receive.  At this point, it's more agonizing than enjoyable, for I'd like all four to win.  That can't be.  The fun of winnowing is behind me, and the rigors of final judging are upon me.  But oh, the winnowing was satisfying.

Now maybe I'll go eat those last few sweet gherkin pickles in the jar and combine the last two Eggo waffles, one blueberry and one homestyle, into one box, so I can recycle the other one...


  1. I am certainly not a winnower. My mother approaches shopping the same way you're judging these stories; pick up a bunch of things and eliminate as she goes so that by the time she gets to check out she has exactly what she wants and needs, things which stood the test of a shopping trip.

    I go through and look at everything I had in mind, go through again, and go through again, touching nothing as to indicate certainty, and by my sixth time around I know what five items I might get out of the forty-five I looked at. I'm not sure what this says about me as a writer, though I think it's certainly related that everything I've submitted to contests (and won) was a last minute, one draft shot.

    I know it's somehow related to the fact that revisions give me hives, but oh well. You learn knew mental tricks, eh? I feel like winnowing would be a great counter balance to perfectionism.

  2. It's fascinating how different people can be. I'll have to think more about how winnowing might counteract perfectionism. But maybe in the end, we are who we are, and winnowing is just my way...