Flip side

A little while ago, I was asked to be a judge in a writing competition (or ‘contest’ for our American friends). I’m by no means an expert, but I know what I like. The trouble was, there was an awful lot of what I liked. Some stories challenged me, others amused me (always an easy route into my psyche) and some just nailed a sentiment or an idea.

How do you choose though? The answer, you’ll be pleased to hear, is ‘with great difficulty’. Different things can put you off a piece of writing (and we’re skipping font, size, sticky finger marks and the other usual culprits – lavender oiled paper person, you know who you are). The process is highly subjective and it pays to continually remind yourself that you’re looking for good writing. Not necessarily the way you’d write – I’d go further and say that different is better.

But… time and attention span are finite and inevitably little filters start applying. If a lot of the spelling is bad, it makes you question whether that’s the tip of the iceberg. If the word count is beyond the competition limit, that’s another strikeout. If the competition subject requirement has been ignored or is such an obvious shoe-in for a previously written piece of work which barely mentions the theme that you want to shout FOUL, that’s a strikeout as well.

Then it’s crunch time, when I and my fellow judges weigh up the respective merits of the finalist entries. It’s the time when you offer up your favourites and find out other people rated them too (arguably, a good sign) or hated them (arguably, also a good sign).

And the creeping idea that won’t go away, as you eventually make some person’s day (because, like Highlander, there can only be one) and shatter a few other people’s hopes, is that this must be a lot like being a literary agent. And when some of the other entrants, not unreasonably, ask for feedback so they can improve next time – or try and retrospectively argue their case – you realise you’re treading on other people’s dreams (of being a writer) and everyone’s as vulnerable as WB Yeats.


  1. motheroad says:

    I can't abide spelling errors or grammatical sloppiness. I think it's fair that someone who aspires to be a writer (or win writing competitions) should have a firm grasp of language – to use it skillfully, not haltingly – and to make something that's actually quite difficult seem effortless.

    Although I consider myself a relatively sensitive person – I mean, I like unicorns as much as the next person – I'm not shy about classifying one piece "good" and another "not good." The writing either GETS me, or it doesn't.

    Which means I'd make a good judge, but a poor coach.

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