With some trepidation, I recently said yes to judging a writing competition. The Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition for short stories and creative non-fiction. Sian Prior is judging the non-fiction and Mark Brandi and I are judging the fiction.
Yes, there are a lot of entries to read. Yes, the stories vary widely. And of course picking a winner is not an easy task.
So what insights can I give you into the judging process?
I read each story with care. I can only presume each was crafted with attention and submitted with hope so I approached every story with respect and an open mind. Stories that I read early on in the process, or when I was tired, or distracted, were read again on a different day. The stories were provided to me unaccompanied by the author’s name, so at least I could avoid any bias based on gender or notional ethnicity.
Beyond a few conditions to ensure the emerging nature of the competing writers, the competition has no formal selection criteria so as a judge I had to formulate my own.
After reading each story I paused to consider it in terms of quality of the prose, narrative pull, the story idea and basic things like spelling grammar and punctuation. The genre of the story didn’t influence me (and most genres were represented including speculative fiction, horror, historical and literary fiction – all fine by me) but the underlying idea of the story certainly did. I was looking for stories that had something to say, and that stayed with me after the reading. I was also looking for stories that were complete in themselves. Some excellent pieces of writing felt like fragments from a larger work, others felt like unresolved character sketches.
As I read my way through the entries, the expected problems emerged: problems with point of view and tense, clichés, stilted prose, an absence of narrative pull. And by narrative pull I don’t mean that I wanted a thriller, only that I wanted the story to engage me enough for me to want to keep reading.
For me, no single story leapt out and was obviously the winner yet the overall quality of the entries was strong – which speaks to a vibrant community of writers working away out there. Mark and I will meet next week to discuss our shortlist and choose a winner. I’m looking forward to the conversation, and dreading having to find reasons to privilege one good story above a group of other equally good but different stories.
What this process has really brought home to me is exactly how hard it is to win these sorts of competitions, to produce the perfect egg of a story – one that is self-contained, beautifully formed and alive with possibility.
To everyone who entered, my grateful thanks for your efforts. Every single one of you has good reason to be very proud of your work.
Based only on my experience judging school writing competitions, I don’t envy you at all. Hours of work, and then you feel guilt-stricken at having to choose!
Very true, I’m afraid. But I think I’ve learned some useful things along the way.
My reading is always through the lens of the author’s gender, ethnicity and general experience. You say you read ‘blind’, were you surprised at all afterwards? I think it would have to be a very good story indeed for me to award a prize to a white man purporting to write from the pov of a black woman.
I’m guessing, but I think the reason for ensuring we judges “read blind” is to avoid bias towards male authors (as demonstrated in study after study, and which led to the establishment of the Stella Prize). As to effectively sustaining ANY character’s point of view, and judging from all the stories I’ve just read, getting it right is dangerously difficult.
My suspicion is that the bias is towards men’s writing rather than men writers, not a bias I would accuse you of, but a difficult one to guard against.
The studies I’ve seen show that if an assessor is shown a CV/art work/story/whatever with a man’s name on it, they will rate it more highly than assessors shown exactly the same thing only with a woman’s name it on it instead. These studies have been replicated over and over. It’s why many orchestras now use blind auditions…