Documentation 101


As a Laurel I often get asked to judge Arts and Sciences competitions.  As a result of that I am often asked, after the fact, why I judged something a particular way and what could a person do to improve their entries.

I wish I could give an answer that is “universal” in nature, but I can not.  Simply put there are about as many ways to “judge” a competition as there are people to judge them.  Nevertheless I have found certain common threads and a sort of “baseline” which suites about 90% of judging situations.

So, let’s start at the beginning…..

What is Documentation?

Generally speaking documentation is simply the record you keep of the project you are working on.  All your references, the books and examples you used to guide you, and really anything that was useful to you in the process of creating any item you produce.

Some people go to great lengths to document every step of their process with photographs and notes.  Others keep it all in their heads and then jot a few things down once they are done, considering their own expanded knowledge to be the documentation.

For the specific purposes of Arts and Sciences competitions, documentation is the paperwork you hand in with your entry which gives all the information that is pertinent to the entry.

Why do A&S competitions want Documentation?

There is a variety of different reasons, but they usually come down to two:

    1. The judging forms have an entry for documentation.
    2. The judges want to know how much you learned in the process of creating your entry.

But they don’t always want it!

That is true, they don’t.  Some competitions don’t require documentation at all and they will usually say so up front.

Nevertheless, it is good practice to create documentation for an entry even if you don’t need to provide it for the competition at hand.  After all, another competition might come along where you could enter the same object and they would want the documentation.  It’s much easier to create the documentation as you are creating the object than it is to go back and reconstruct the documentation after the fact.  Especially months or years later.

What are the judges looking for?

This is where things can get pretty complicated, but the simplest explanation is that judges are looking to see how much you know about what you did.

A quick list of points most judges look far are:

    1. Resources you used in research
      1. Did you just use Wikipedia or did you find actual historical books?
    2. Resources you used in construction
      1. Did you use modern tools or where there historical tools you could use?
      2. Did you use modern materials or where there historical materials you could use?
    3. Reasons why you used the research and construction methods you used
      1. What convinced you that this was trustworthy information?
        1. Wikipedia is notorious for not getting it right when it counts the most!
      2. Why did you use different materials than would normally have been used?
        1. Maybe you used cotton instead of wool because you’re allergic!
    4. An explanation of your process
      1. I started off by raising the silk worms first…..
    5. A couple of photos of your process would be nice
      1. Here’s a picture of this particular step showing how I managed to put that joint together….
    6. A bibliography
      1. This can be as simple as a list of references or as complicated as a traditional bibliography

How much is enough?

Here again, it’s more about the quality of the information than the quantity of it.  The judges want to know what you know.  Often the judges want documentation that actually teaches them something about the entry that they didn’t know!  (Wait, judges don’t know about what they are judging??  Yes, sometimes that’s the case, but we’ll discuss that in a moment.)

Some people will tell you that it needs to be no more than 3 pages long.  Some will tell you that if it’s less than 5 pages the judges will automatically mark you down.

Neither of these things is true, though I will give a certain amount of credence to the 3 page limit.

The truth is that the documentation needs to be as long as it needs to be in order to accomplish the following things:

    1. Answer all the points I listed above
    2. Show sufficient understanding of the nature of the entry

So if that takes a single page, then great.  If that takes 10 pages, well, that might be a bit much but still, great!

So here is why I personally support the idea of “about 3 pages.”

Usually the judges only have a small amount of time to be able to judge entries.  Often, just like you, they have many things that they want to get done that day, but they have given some of their time to judging because they happen to know something about “underwater basket weaving techniques in 12th century Germany” or whatever the topic at hand happens to be.

If a judge is confronted with even a modest 3 entries and each of them turns in a term paper as documentation, that means there is a lot of reading they have to wade through and consider.  They often just don’t have the time.

So I find that 3 pages, especially with a couple of good pictures, if often sufficient to get everything across that needs to be communicated, while refraining from being too wordy.  Especially if you can be concise about

Who are these judges anyway?

Well, generally they are you.  Yup, you could be judge too.

The A&S Officers who run the competitions are often looking for judges.  You don’t have to be a Laurel.  You don’t even have to know anything about the topic at hand.  All you really have to know is how to judge!

Yes, it’s true that sometimes the judges don’t know a single thing about what they are judging.  That’s where the documentation comes in especially handy.  You see if you can create documentation of sufficient quality that a complete newbie to the topic can read it, learn what you did and be able to see how you executed it, then they can judge the entry.

In fact, often this is the same process that I go through when judging!  (Just because I’m a Laurel doesn’t mean I know all things medieval!)

Good documentation takes someone by the metaphorical hand and leads them through the process of learning about and creating the entry in question.

I think I was judged unfairly!

Chances are you weren’t, but it’s often easy to feel that way.

Remember what I said earlier about how sometimes the judges are under a time crunch just to be able to judge all the entries?  Well, usually that is what has happened.

Usually people feel they’ve been judged unfairly because the judges left a comment or two on their judging form which, to them reads perfectly fine, but to you reads as kind of short and maybe even hostile.

Trust me, it isn’t.  It’s the result of the judge not being able to take the kind of time they would like to take in order to give as well thought out a comment as they possibly can.  Truthfully the judges know this happens and so often they will simply scrawl a note saying “come talk to me.”  Even that can look a little scary, like the judge wants to scold you for something you did.

They don’t want to scold you.  They want to talk to you.  They care enough about the effort you put into the entry that they want to discuss it with you.  Remember that whole “giving up some of their time” thing?  Well they are still giving up their time.

They want you to come to them because they don’t know who you are!  Your name isn’t attached to the judging form in order to prevent any potential bias on the part of the judges.  So they want you to find them so they can say “Hey, this was really great but I want to understand a couple of things and maybe offer up some advice that might help!”

Any judge who leaves a comment on your judging sheet that says “come see me” is an opportunity you should never pass up.


Documentation is not as scary as people make it out to be.  In fact it is quite useful and generally very easy to produce if you produce it as you are going along in the project you are creating.  You have all the information at hand and all you need to do is edit it into a concise form that is judge friendly.

If you hit the points above you will do precisely that and have documentation that will serve you well in virtually any competition.

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