On helping to judge a writing competition

I suppose I should start this off by saying that this is one experience of one writing competition, one time. I don’t intend for this to look like the ultimate answer to the question “how are writing competitions judged?” because I’m absolutely sure it is not that. I just happened to get involved with judging one competition. I found it interesting, I learned some stuff, and I thought I’d share it with the internet, because I didn’t have the first clue how these things worked before.

How did it come about?

It all started one day when I’d just returned to work from furlough. I was feeling blue because my life had ceased to be the wonderful writing retreat it had briefly felt like. Instead, it began to fill up with small talk and spreadsheets again. I saw a desperate plea through, like, a friend of a friend of a friend. A national writing competition I had previously entered (and, needless to say, come nowhere in) had been inundated with an unprecedented number of entries and they needed extra readers. It seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do, so I emailed, not really expecting to hear anything back. I got a reply the very next day basically saying ‘OMG thank you so much, we’ll send you some writing very soon’.

What did you have to do?

Read the writing, basically. I was sent a folder with ten entries in. I had something like ten weeks to get them all read. From the ten entries, I had to pick one to recommend, and that would advance to the actual judges. This was the first thing that put writing competitions into perspective for me. There was only a 10% chance of an entry making it through the first stage. I choose to see that as a positive thing. That 10% chance is tiny. And that tiny chance means that it is not a comment on my work if it doesn’t happen to make it through. It’s certainly not a comment on any of the pieces of work in the ten I had to read. It was really hard to choose.

But readers are determined to find a reason not to pick things.

I mean, personally I was not. In fact, I was so excited to be doing it that I made a rule that I would only ever sit down to read one piece a day, and only on a weekend morning after a coffee. That way, my mind would not be on anything else and, crucially, it would have some caffeine in it. I also read everything aloud because that’s what I do with my own work and I firmly believe it’s the best way to take time over something and hear how it sounds. I wanted to give every entry I read exactly the same chance, and at no point did I deliberately look for negatives. After I’d read each one I wrote some notes while it was fresh in my mind. I definitely looked for reasons to recommend something, rather than reasons not to.

How does a reader pick the best entry?

For this competition at least, we were given very clear instructions. The idea was not to pick the one that was necessarily a personal favourite in terms of themes, characters we liked, politics, funny jokes, or whatever else might appeal to our own tastes. we had to look for things that were objectively well-written, that you could imagine being successful ‘out in the wild’. This sounds like it could still come down to a matter of personal taste, but I would disagree. As an example, I hate Moby Dick with a passion. It’s just so tedious. But I can still objectively see that it’s A Good Book. If I came across that in my pile of entries, I daresay I’d recommend it for the longlist, just as soon as I’d dried my tears of boredom. It’s all about objectivity, which I don’t think we’re always very good at as writers, and therefore we assume that anybody who reads our work is looking for reasons to ‘mark us down’, as it were.

What did you learn?

Honestly there were a couple of things I noticed over and over again in the entries I read, that will make me much more conscious of my own competition entries in future.

Number one: A synopsis should tell you the story. I saw a few synopses which were either one sentence long, or just hundreds of words of “XXX entry is inspired by the author’s personal experience of this, that, and the other, and the political landscape of something else, and personal interviews with some really cool people”. The former is quite unhelpful. The latter is all very impressive. But, in both cases, WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY?

Number two: This one scares me because I’m paranoid that I might be guilty of it, but… people are sometimes really convinced that their work is one thing, when it’s actually something completely different.

In one example I saw, a writer described their entry as ‘dark’. And then nothing ‘dark’ happened. Another synopsis talked at length about how the characters were grappling with some Very Big Issues, and at no point in the entry did those characters mention, or seem to think about, any of those Very Big Issues.

The thing with this one is, I don’t think it technically causes a problem as far as competition entries go. The synopsis isn’t really part of the entry, after all, it’s just helpful to have. But it does suggest that the writer didn’t have a very clear idea of what they were writing. Which is fine. It’s always better to write without a clear idea than not to write at all. But once you’ve written you have to go back, be really, really objective, and tighten everything up accordingly. Did you want it to be chilling? And is it? If not, how could it be more so? Did you want to make a statement? Cool. But if you were reading your entry with no idea of what that statement was, would you honestly know the point you were trying to get across?

I made notes about each entry after I’d finished, and the other thing I learned is that I’m actually quite good at knowing how to fix or improve a piece of writing that I am not emotionally involved with. It was a reminder of the importance of having distance from a piece of work (Ye Olde ‘Put It In a Drawer’ trick, for example). It was also a reminder to really consider feedback from others about my own work – because other people do have valid ideas and our best interests at heart, even if we don’t want to admit it.

I hope this is helpful. If you feel so inclined you can always buy me a coffee using the link in the sidebar, and also feel free to comment with any questions that I can answer while avoiding identifiable details of the competition I worked with!

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