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March 5th, 2014 donnahoke



If fall is submission season, then spring inevitably becomes rejection season, as conferences and festivals fill their slots, and theaters choose their upcoming lineups.  It can be a discouraging time, as any playwright who plays the submission game knows, and the hardest thing about it can be remaining positive about the merits of your work. To that end, I offer up two judge’s scoring sheets that I received–snail mail!–today from a recent contest.


The full-length play I sent to this contest is one that I rarely send out.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but some early criticism from a respected source  made me wary about it even though I got plenty of positive reaction as well. Either way, you know how it goes–the criticism made me gunshy and, as a result, this play has gotten little to no development. But, after looking at this theater’s offerings and past winners, I felt as though it might be a good fit so off it went on January 1. And then, as I do with all submissions, I forgot about it.


Until today,  when I received a letter announcing the three winners, along with two scoring sheets from judges. Judge #1 gave me 10/20 for Plot, 7/15 for Character, 4/10 for Theme, and 3/5 for Style, for a total of 24/50 points. Comment: “Characters need greater development.  Core theme is a bit unclear. ”


Ouch. Maybe this play is as bad as my friend told me it was. The surprising information to me here was that the theme–despite being heavily alluded to in the title–was unclear.  I was reminded of what a good friend and fellow playwright always says: “If your only defense is they don’t get it, then you don’t get it.” Was that the case? Do I not get it?


Let’s see what Judge #2 had to say: 18/20 for Plot, 13/15 for Character, 9/10 for Theme (9!), and 5/5 for Style, for a total of 45/50 points! Comments: “This was an interesting collection of characters to explore the idea of trusting and forgiving others [aside, I thought it was about loss, but this works]. Did I miss Cal’s connection to the group? I appreciated his wisdom when interacting with others but wondered at their acceptance of his presence.”


Now, I don’t know which of these is the more careful and thoughtful reader, but I do know that these two people read the exact same play.  And of course we know this is how it goes, because we go to plays with our friends and leave with diametrically opposed opinions.  And when we read multiple reviews of the same play, very often one critic loathes that which delighted another.  We know this, and yet when rejection starts pouring in, it can be easy to start interpreting that as so many negative reviews.


Is this the best play I’ve ever written? Probably not. But given the positive feedback given by Judge #2, I think even I may have judged it too harshly. Maybe I should be sending it out to development opportunities. Or maybe I should take the judge’s feedback and address those issues. I certainly should investigate the winning plays and see what might be a better fit to send next year. The bottom line is that this is all a process, one that we work so hard at. We’ll never please everybody, but it’s important to remember that most of the time, we are probably pleasing somebody.  It’s important–especially during rejection season–to be kind and remind ourselves of that. Because then we are pleasing the most important person of all.


(P.S. If you haven’t yet seen Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project (RIPP), check out some of the blog posts by clicking on that category to the right. It’s all about submitting smarter.)




  1. 1 Claudia said at 4:53 pm on March 5th, 2014:

    Whenever I have had a piece rejected that gives critiques, I always am stunned to find two opposing views! Makes me take it all in with a grain of salt.

  2. 2 Donna Hoke said at 4:57 pm on March 5th, 2014:

    I think it’s just that so often we don’t get to SEE that, so it’s tempting to assume “They all hated it!” (even with a letter that declares emphatically how much they all enjoyed reading it 😉

  3. 3 Ian Thal said at 6:13 pm on March 5th, 2014:

    The feedback is also interesting not just because it is so divided but because in those rare instances where I have received such specific feedback, it was never ranked quantitatively, and even if multiple readers were involved, that feedback is summarized by a literary manager or artistic director who speaks in terms of “we thought…” or “Our readers felt…” — but never have I seen the opinions of separate readers.

  4. 4 donnahoke said at 6:36 pm on March 5th, 2014:

    This is the second time I’ve received these kinds of score sheets from a contest, and the other time, there was also a real divide, although in that case, the play was already a finalist by the time it got that kind of scrutiny from judges. It’s telling. And not.

  5. 5 CJ Ehrlich said at 9:27 am on March 6th, 2014:

    It’s so subjective isn’t it? One of my plays has been a great success – it’s played in festivals around the country, won a regional competition and has been produced internationally, as far as Australia. It’s the one play I consider written in stone at this point. But I sent it to a company in the UK and they rejected it, with a long list of critiques about the plot, the characters, the dialogue – it might be a good play if I rewrote it. As you say, Donna, accept the opinion and keep plugging.

  6. 6 lojosimon said at 10:27 am on March 6th, 2014:

    I appreciate your tackling this subject especially in light of Facebook braggarts who consistently post about their successes and never reveal their rejections. In the interest of fairness and kindness to others, how about we all consider better ways to support one another through this ego-shattering career than to boast about every “yes” we receive? How about sharing the news of every rejection, too? A little more modesty and compassion is in order.

  7. 7 donnahoke said at 10:41 am on March 6th, 2014:

    On the PlaywrightBinge, we do share a lot of the rejections (though some like to call them “passes”; it’s all semantics to me). And I agree that transparency is heartening, and quite a few of us did share our year in submissions. Here’s mine.

  8. 8 Ian Thal said at 10:31 am on March 6th, 2014:

    The one time I do recall any such division in a rejection was when I submitted to a festival, where the committee gave a consensus opinion, but a director who was on the committee contacted me separately expressing interest in taking the play to another company in his area.

  9. 9 donnahoke said at 10:41 am on March 6th, 2014:

    Ian, I love it when that kind of magic happens…

  10. 10 Kristina Bauske said at 10:59 am on March 6th, 2014:

    You’re right on the money, Donna! Not everyone who reads our submissions will love them. I’m judging a contest right now, and in a few brief conversations with the Artistic Director, I can tell she’s attached to a few plays I hate, and I’m liking ones that aren’t even on her radar. Fortunately, there’s a good-sized group judging this contest, so hopefully the number of judges will make up for disparities in taste.
    We cannot second-guess ourselves when it comes to writing. We write what moves us. If it moves others too, Bravo! If not, we cannot change who we are and write that which has no feeling for us.
    Discouragement can be two edges of the same sword. For a writer, compelled to write by some intrinsic part of him which makes him who he is, it gives encouragement to write again and find a story, character, theme which is even better than the last. For a writer dabbling at the edges just for fun, discouragement may help him quit save his sanity.

  11. 11 Wayne Paul Mattingly said at 11:55 am on March 6th, 2014:

    I’ve gotten a few of these & have been a Lit Mngr, Art. Dir. & reader for a number of companies, some judging competitions. Dividing a play up into the “6 elements” for judging expediency gnaws at my playwright’s gut. As it would anyone undergoing live dissection. Unless I receive direct dialogue (email,phone) from a literary director or artistic director, I disregard the “notes.” They’re uniformly too general–“theme seemed weak” to do anything but consume my time trying to figure out what the hell was meant. If they can’t state the theme (or whatever) and then tell me what actions and dialogue fed into/supported or didn’t that theme they’ve discovered, they’re probably just trying to get onto the next play they have to read.

    @JoJo Simon: “In the interest and kindness of others…how about we all consider better ways to support one another through this ego-shattering career than to boast…” By claiming some are “Facebook braggarts”? JoJo, this doesn’t jibe. I don’t know what your experience is, or how you justify these opposing expressions, but posting our successes IS the way we deal and support each other. I’m rejected about 20 to 1 all over the country & world–Most playwrights KNOW how often we’re rejected & I/we really don’t care to promote those rejections, (who does?)I did post one recently from the UK because I thought other US playwrights & theatre folk would find the langage amusing: “Unfortuntely, on this occasion you were unsuccessful.”

  12. 12 Wayne Paul Mattingly said at 12:01 pm on March 6th, 2014:

    Forgot to mention–Thanks, Donna! This is always a good reminder,not just for playwrights but our actors as well.

  13. 13 Donna Hoke said at 12:03 pm on March 6th, 2014:

    Thank YOU.

  14. 14 Jean Klein said at 12:17 am on March 8th, 2014:

    Donna, I encourage my students, and myself, to think of writing as a task that they do, and that its acceptance or rejection is not a measure of their ability, their value, their self-worth. Writers have a job: to create something in whatever genre moves them at the moment; to hone and polish that work to the best of their ability; to know the professional standards of submission in that genre; to find sources looking for work; and to transfer that work to a publisher/producer/agent/contest seeking work (or to any other source they find). At that point, their job is DONE. They have no control over the moods or personal biases or the readers. But, they have done their job. In the words of Norman Mailer, they have showed up for work.

    I’m old enough to still place value on having a work ethic for its own sake. If you do a job, you do it well. And how do you know you’ve done your job? Other than the notes you keep on cards, an Excel program, or a tracking program on the ‘Net? You get rejection letters or emails. The more you get, the harder you’ve worked. These are a sign of your diligence–and diligence plays off. There will be the occasional acceptance to fuel the fire. Sometimes it takes a long time. CARNIVAL OF DUNCES (right name?) was rejected by 30-some publishers before the writer killed himself over his “failure.” His mother, as a remembrance, continued to send the novel out. It was published and won a Pulitzer. And, please, value those “rejection” letters that have a handwritten note on them. Readers/Editors are busy. If they take the time to write ANYTHING, it’s a sign that something you submitted touched a chord and they find you worth their time. The key to success is persistence. I’ve seen students with talent disappear because they couldn’t keep at it. And, I’m ashamed to admit, have even had plays produced that I realized were not as good as they could be. Ouch. Anyway, that’s my secret. It was Jack London’s, too. He wallpapered the room where he wrote with rejection letters.

    That’s my sermon for today,

  15. 15 Chas Belov said at 4:10 am on September 16th, 2015:

    I regularly get opposing reactions to my plays. Particularly Rice Kugel and My Visit to America, where Act I and Act II are very different from one another. Some people like Act I much better than Act II. Some people like Act II much better than Act I (or think I should get rid of Act I in the case of MVTA).

    I realize I’m setting myself up for a challenging time getting a production on these, since the readers, Literary Manager, and Artistic Director all have to like the whole thing. But your right, it’s all about finding the theatre or play with the right fit.

  16. 16 Chas Belov said at 4:10 am on September 16th, 2015:


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