The Writer’s Toolbox – Judgment Day

New year, new start, new perspective?and fitting that I’d spend time this month using my past knowledge to help shape the future of literature. Fitting, too, that I’d get back just as much as I gave.

The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are all about recognizing the young people who are the voice of the future, those who will one day take their place at the forefront of the literary world. And That’s no overexaggeration?past alumni include the likes of Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, and Joyce Carol Oates. Kids who get their start through the program receive the push they need to go on to great things.

And I was lucky enough to be a part of all that this past weekend. For the second year in a row I had the privilege of serving as a juror at the regional level, helping choose the works that will go on to compete at the national level later this year. I spent seven hours judging nearly one hundred teen submissions ranging from poetry to flash fiction to science fiction and fantasy short stories. It was one of the most exhausting days I’ve ever had.

Exhausting, but oh, so rewarding, because not only did I have the opportunity to sit there awed by the depth of perception and meaning and understanding these kids bring to their writing, but I also got schooled myself?giving me the chance to re-evaluate my own perspectives for 2016.

Scholastic’s judging rubrics include a strong emphasis on personal voice and on how well the writer manipulates their medium and the words they use to get meaning across. While one of the criteria focuses on technical skill (think grammar and spelling), and a submission rife with errors isn’t going to cut it no matter how passionate the writer behind it, It’s not the sole deciding factor?even more important to the program is supporting the teens who are learning to develop their own voice as a writer, who are showing signs that one day they’ll make an impact in the literary community.

It was interesting taking a break from editing for the purpose of improving a book?whether That’s correcting errors or providing developmental feedback?and judging how effectively an author puts themselves into the story (or message or emotional situation) they’re creating.

This isn’t a side of evaluation I get to take part in very often, or even one that many writers have the opportunity to consider. But It’s essential to every writer’s development. Because without establishing your voice, without figuring out how to use words to convey the mood you want, without learning how to put your own personal stamp on what you do, you risk your words becoming just that?words, separated from the person who put them to the page, separated from the reason they’re there in the first place.

Correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage is important?it creates clarity, adds subtext or layers of meaning, and ensures that what you have to say is taken seriously. But It’s not the whole story. So while I’ll definitely continue to provide guidance on those topics here, I’ll also pop in from time to time with some deeper stuff, ideas and strategies for developing your voice, manipulating words to create mood and atmosphere, and telling your story the very best way you can.

Get it right?but don’t become so wrapped up in the technical aspects that you lose sight of who you are and why You’re doing it. Who are you as a writer? What’s your unique writing voice? Why do you write, and how does your motivation and your story influence the way you write it? Something to think about as we move forward through 2016.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.