Like many other writers, from time to time I enter my work in competitions. Unlike the majority, from time to time I’m asked to judge these competitions, mostly for poetry, sometimes for prose as well. What do I look for in competition entries?
I like good writing quality, of course. A well-constructed story, or the use of a specific poetic form, are helpful frameworks, but that’s just the start of it. A story or a poem can break the ‘rules’ if the writer is skilful enough, but it’s always the content which matters most. The competition organisers will have set parameters – a word count for stories, or a maximum number of lines for poems – and that’s something a judge must observe. If I suspect an entry has gone over, I will check it. It’s sometimes surprising how many entrants don’t.
The topic is usually set by the organisers, unless it’s an ‘open’ competition, but there’s always a lot of latitude in how entrants can interpret the subject. It’s often amazing to see how ingenious entrants can be in modifying viewpoints and aspects of a subject. I enjoy that.
Coming to considerations of content, these have to be subjective; they’re dependent, literally, on the judgement of the assessor, and on their experience. I enjoy writing which has the capacity to surprise me – a writer with something new to say, or an original way of saying it. I don’t like the obvious, the banal, the clichéd. I don’t like writing which requires the reader to have a vast amount of background knowledge to understand it. I have to make an emotional connection to the work, even if that’s sometimes uncomfortable. If an entrant chooses to write from the viewpoint of a child killer or a suicide bomber, I will still evaluate the quality of the writing dispassionately.
So how do I go about it? I realise all competition judges are different, but this is my method. First, I read all of the entries straight through, without any attempt at grading or marking, but at this stage I can set aside those entries which don’t meet the competition criteria. Then, depending on the timescale and the number of entries, I might go away and do something else for a couple of days. Coming back to them, fresh, I read them again, and this time, using a table, I’ll start to look for the outstanding ones, the badly written ones, and the larger number in between. I make notes in my table, and I establish, in my head, a short list. Then I look again at the good ones and rank them. Finally, I read all the entries again, just to check that I haven’t overlooked any outstanding ones in the middle pile, or if I’ve misjudged anyone in the reject pile. After that, I decide on a 1, 2, 3, or however the organisers want to rank the winners, and that’s it.
It’s laborious, but, I think, fair, and I take it very seriously. It means a lot to those who have entered, and all judges owe it to them to do it as well as they can.