(This is not going in the direction you think it is. Oh, sure, it might veer onto some well-trodden roads, but...)
In Atlantia, there is a bunch of information on how to write documentation. There's oodles of advice about what the judges are looking for. There's even checklists you can, well, check to see if you've missed anything when you put the result of your blood sweat and tears into competition. When it comes to dealing with the feedback you get, though, everyone becomes less helpful.
What no-one acknowledges, except in the least useful and most hyperbolic way is that competition always guarantees one winner and a bunch of losers. Because "loser" has taken on negative connotations in current society, no-one wants to risk being a "loser", and we get a KA&SF Pentathlon with only two entries.
isenglassand I had a fun talk about this as she was judging (and I was distracting her - stick with what you're good at, I always say). We both were concerned by the lack of entrants, and were trying to fathom why so few people had entered. I know that the 'flu knocked a lot of people off their feet this year, and there will always be people who dislike competitions, but I also know that discussion on the Kingdom lists often rolls around to why artisans can't seem to get any useful feedback on their work. The discussion outlined above then happens, and more people get nervous about the whole scary "competition" thang.
Being told you rock is lovely, but there are times when it's really useful to get more in-depth commentary, and competition (with its built-in commentary spaces on the judging forms) is an invitation for people to give something above "great work!" or the pre-printed cards that say "thanks for doing what you do" (which are nice, don't get me wrong, but don't offer much in the way of the useful information that people say they want).
The trouble with the judging system is that it's a volunteer thing, and like many volunteer things, your judges will only be as good as your volunteer base. we have had classes and articles on how to be a good judge, but in the end, the commentary on your form is variable.
And now we tangent. The fact that one gets variable levels of useful/pleasant feedback from judges wouldn't matter if we all knew how to handle getting less than glowing commentary on our work, but almost 30 years of "self-esteem" teaching in schools has stripped many of our artisans of the ability to deal with criticism. This is not entirely on the artisan; since it's not a subject we deal with (except "criticism is bad!!!!OMG!!!!!"), no-one can possibly know straight off how to handle it. Like many social skills, it's something you learn over time. One of the greatest disservices we have done to ourselves as a society is to turn excellence into "elitism", rejecting that concept, and claiming that "everyone is special". As Dash from The Incredibles says when his mother tells him everyone's special, "...which is another way of saying no-one is". When everyone (no-one) is special, then no-one can feel bad. When no-one is allowed to feel bad, no-one learns how to direct those emotions in a positive way.
Criticism stings. One of the things we skirt around in the SCA competitive sphere is that losing hurts. In a society that is near-pathological about the concept of "no-one should get their feelings hurt", competition runs us head-on into a brick wall of pain if we are not prepared for it. Because everyone is terrified of hurt feelings, we pretend that it's easy to tell good feedback from bad - if it hurts your feelings then it's bad, bad, bad, and the judge should be smacked. This fails to account for the fact that many, if not most people go through their lives without ever experiencing negative feedback, because our modern society is also pathological about bolstering the self-esteem of everyone, even if they cannot alphabetize and smell like ripe cheese in a sauna. HR departments wring their hands about such things, and workers seem to feel perfectly justified in refusing to do their jobs if they don't want to. Self-esteem is rampant; so rampant, that people are amazed and offended when they're told they're fired, even if they're terrible at their job.
Very few people know how to tell good feedback from bad, because they have learned to associate negative feelings with bad stuff, therefore everything that hurts must be rejected. This doesn't work if you want to get better - self-guided teaching is all very well, but sometimes you need someone else to tell you where your blind spots are. So we judges get a bit frustrated when someone complains that the judges were meeeeeaaaannnn to them, and then in the next sentence castigates us for never leaving any "useful" feedback. When "useful" seems to mean "tell me how to be a Laurel, but don't suggest I'm not perfect, or I'll tell everyone you're a big fat meanie", we get (understandably, I think) skittish, and feel like we can't win.
Another tangent of sorts: I took my (unfinished) degree in Fine Arts. You haven't really experienced negative criticism until you've had someone rip your work off the easel, throw it on the floor, and scream at you about what utter crap it is. Consequently, while I haven't always liked what I've been told in judged competitions, I've never had a problem dealing with it. Sure, it bites to be told I did something wrong (or it's eye-rollingly annoying to be judged by someone who clearly has many of their facts wrong, and is scoring you low because they are idiots), but it's nothing I can't handle. Part of the learning process is admitting that while the professor may be a complete asshole, he's sometimes right, damn it, and I take what I've been told and use it to improve my work.
But how do we judge people without ripping their work to shreds? How can we educate people honestly about the experience? Partly, it's a question of educating ourselves, and teaching people what to expect and how to handle the curveballs the process can throw at them.
For instance, I have identified four basic types of judge: Bad/Mean, Bad/Kind, Good/Mean, and Good/Kind. Think Simon, Randy, and Paula (and I don't know, Ryan Seacrest to round it out).
Simon often gets confused for Good/Mean, because he tells people straight up whether they did well or not, and doesn't waste anyone's time by blowing sunshine up their nether regions. When a person is really fragile, Simon can be very gentle, but he can't stand the types that are full of how wonderful they are and won't listen to advice (those are the ones that invariably say he's mean, doesn't know what he's talking about, and cause us all great amusement during AI's open auditions segment). Simon's judgement can pretty much be relied on; he is, in fact, Good/Kind.
Randy is thought of as Good/Kind, but he's much more likely to make mean comments and mock people who don't deserve it - he stoops to personal attacks and mockery instead of giving good advice; he is Bad/Mean. Paula is Bad/Kind; she's out of her gourd on whatever substance she ingested before the show, but if she can't say anything nice about your work, she'll compliment your looks. Nothing she has to say is ever actually good advice, but is simply sunshine applied liberally; she is what she appears - Bad/Kind.
Ryan is our Neutral Good, but he does occasionally have a talent for distilling the ramblings of the judges into something useful. I just stuck him in there because there are only three judges for American Idol, and none of them are Good/Mean (though Simon has been cast into that role, and has learned to enjoy it without actually being it).
In the SCA, Kind judges predominate, but they're often fairly evenly split between Bad and Good - not neccessarily because they are idiots (or on mind-altering substances - that's just me), but because we have a limited number of people willing to judge, and the expertise of the judges may not overlap with the subject of the artisan in competition.
(Side note: This is why it's a really good idea to punch up your documentation - you can let the judges know that you know about your subject, maybe educate them a little, and clean up on documentation points, which might balance out any flaws in the finished object. Too many people ignore or skimp on documentation because they think it's "work", but take the time to look at decent documentation, and you'll see it's usually just like explaining your work in person, but with more pictures.)
Bad mean judges are just to be ignored; if they are rude with their bad advice, demonstrating that they not only don't know their research, but that they don't know how to communicate properly, let the person running the competition know (give them your judging sheet, if you want), and go on your merry way. Stupid people aren't worth any angst; while it may sting that they got a brief moment of power over you, it means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Your work will speak for itself. Plus, if their aim was to eliminate you from competition with them, and you give up and never show your stuff again, they win.
(Important Note: Don't let them win.)
Despite the rumours, really mean judges are few and far between. However, the lack of experience most people have with any kind of criticism tends to magnify even gentle negative feedback, and anything that the judge points out as needing improvement can be read as "mean". If you do run into what reads as a personal attack from a judge that seems to know their stuff (Good/Mean), take it to someone objective (i.e., not your best friend) and ask them if they find it overly critical. If the consensus is yes, the judge overstepped their boundaries (and didn't just point out that you have a long way to go before you master your subject), then you can do a couple of things - contact the person who ran the competition and tell them what happened, and contact the judge personally and tell them politely and nicely that you were hurt by their remarks (have an objective third party read the e-mail/letter before you send it).
- In rapier, when someone hits way too hard and painfully, we say "that was good, but a bit hard; I will take lighter". Some judges may come across as mean when all they really wanted was to impress on you the importance of the point they were making, and hit a bit too hard because they are afraid that if they sugar-coat it too much, you will miss what they are trying to tell you. In those cases, while they may be embarrassed that they goofed, they will appreciate the feedback on their writing style, and may be able to tell you in person what they perhaps did not have the time and space to communicate properly in person. It could simply be that they used the wrong words, and what they have to say will be really useful to you, so don't reject them out of hand without asking other people what they think. Show other people the commentary; what may read as mean to you because it's your precious project that you've sweated over may seem perfectly reasonable and helpful to someone who isn't as emotionally involved.
And if they were just being an asshole, then a polite e-mail will let them know that they've been called on it, and they will be more discreet in future (and if people regularly mention the ass to the people running things, they won't get to judge any more). Running around behind their back telling everyone how meeeeeaaaaannnnn they were may make you feel better, but you're not doing anything to improve the situation.
More often, you will run into well-meaning judges who get things wrong. They'll tell you they like your stuff, but shouldn't the widget be half an inch smaller, or the hole wider, or blue/green/whatever they saw once in a book? Again, there's not much you can do about this kind of judge - consider them a hazard of a volunteer society. Someday, you might be in their position, so be kind, and just don't worry about them. If you desperately feel the need to correct their mistaken knowledge, go ahead, but be nice. ...Even if they cost you the prize in the competition because they didn't know what they were talking about.
Honestly, no-one really remembers who wins what competition from year to year - it's certainly not a prerequisite to any award. In fact, I forgot that Bob won Tempore Atlantia once with his beautiful men's gown (he reminded me last night, when we were talking about this subject). So even if the nice but clueless judge costs you the grand prize, don't let it get you down. It's the body of work that you've put out for people to see that matters, not whether you win or not.
(And all your friends will be clustering around you saying "you wuz ROBBED!", anyway.)
The Good judge who knows their stuff, is Kind about it, but won't pull their punches because they respect you too much is the one you have to be on the lookout for. Inexperience with criticism can lead some people to mistake this kind of judge for a Mean judge, but if you remember that negative criticism hurts, but the hurt in itself is not a bad thing, you can take what they give you and use it for its intended purpose - to make you better as an artisan. This judge wants you to get better, or else they wouldn't bother to point out areas for improvement. Keep that in mind, and if you can't tell whether this judge is Kind or Mean, take the commentary to an objective third party for assessment.
It is never comfortable to be told that you have not achieved perfection (no matter how many times I hear it), but since we rarely do, being told we're perfect when we're not is not helpful. Sure, those twinges are uncomfortable, but they're neccessary - the minute you get complacent about your work is the minute you fossilize into place and stop needing to learn.
In fact, if the good judge has left their contact info (I am in the habit of always leaving my e-mail, so that I remember to do it the day I actually achieve the lofty status of this kind of judge), hunt them down - ask them for more feedback. Most people willing to judge are willing to elaborate on their commentary, and will think better of you for contacting them for more advice. They get to pass on what they know to willing listeners, you get to improve your work - everybody wins!
In the end, I think the most important thing to remember is that criticism will always hurt; to say it shouldn't, or that "good" judges never hurt anyone's feelings is untrue and counterproductive to the aims of judging commentary. The trick to dealing with it is to realize that not everything that hurts to read is meant to be "mean", and that admitting the possibility of improvement opens the door to becoming a better artisan. Self-esteem is gained through the mastery (or as far as you want to go) of a subject, not by demanding that everyone always tell you you're wonderful. The journey is full of ups and downs, but the downs teach us as much, if not more, as the ups.
Competition isn't about winners and losers in the SCA; it's more useful as a yardstick of accomplishment, and a means of putting your work out for everyone to see. At least, that's what I take from it as a judge; I remember the individuals I judged at KASF, and it didn't matter to me whether they got a prize at the end of the day or not - it mattered that they had taken the time to make kick-ass entries that blew me away. And I love that.