Saturday, 10 May 2014

From the judge's mouth - an insight into writing competitions

Writers and judges should be brought together more often!

This week I took part in an excellent event put on by Myriad Editions to celebrate the fifth year of their writing competition. They run this with West Dean College, and the prize is a week’s writing retreat in that wonderful place. While I and thousands of other writers continually submit work to magazines and competitions, it is extremely rare to get any feedback, or to gain any kind of understanding of how and why certain pieces are chosen to be published or shortlisted. Myriad’s event was brilliant because it aimed to fill that gap. Their panel of publishers, writers, writing tutors and agents discussed writing competitions themselves, took audience questions about these, and revealed why they had chosen the shortlist they had from 180 entries. This was followed by very brief ‘taster’ readings from all the shortlisted work.

I took part in the event because my entry had been shortlisted, but also because I could see how valuable this kind of information would have been to me back when I was just starting to send out my own work. The workings of writing competitions can be utterly mysterious – do decisions come down to taste, whim, critical judgements of originality or commercial potential? What is the point of them, as part of developing as a writer?

These and other questions were answered in an all round illuminating evening. The shortlisted entries were all wildly different in style and conceit, which was pleasing as it showed the judges had not been swayed by tastes for particular kinds of writing (in the way that some magazine editorial boards clearly are). The most fascinating and useful part came when each member of the judging panel explained what had made them pick out, and argue for, particular pieces of writing. The main factors they highlighted were:

  • The work stayed with me after reading 
  • It made me want to re-read it several times
  • It had lots of ‘yes’ moments – beautiful and interesting phrases, original and new ways of expressing things; those sentences you wish you’d written
  • The work was truly original
  • It made me feel certain that, once published, this was a book I would want to own 
  • Being excited by the sense of potential in the work (this was a competition for work in progress)

I did not win the competition, but what I did win was some new champions for my writing, which are invaluable to any writer trying to make a wave in a sea of words. To know that serious writers and publishers have spent hours reading, analysing and arguing for and against your writing is a boon and a privilege. All six of us on the shortlist are now firmly on the radar of those on the judging panel and also several audience members who were moved by particular pieces, all of which helps with motivation and the ability to take yourself seriously as a writer. This, I would say, is reason number one to enter writing competitions and send work out to magazines. Even if it does not win or get published, people who are deep in the world of literature and spend hours every day thinking about it are reading your work, and if it is good they will notice, and remember you.

One clear message that came from the publishers and agents on the panel was that, despite horror stories of ceiling-high slush piles and the endless wade through dire material, the gatekeepers of the publishing world are always dying to read good writing. That is why they do the jobs they do. When it is not possible to get feedback, or insight into decisions of the kind that Myriad Editions provided in this instance, all you can do is keep your faith that somewhere out there is an agent or publisher who will be a match for your writing, and will love it.

And to those running writing competitions or calling for submissions, I would say, find ways (like this event) to talk more about what you choose and why. It is so useful to writers, both those chosen and those rejected, and even indirect feedback is such a great motivator, it can only improve the work that gets submitted in the future.

Huge thanks to Myriad, and congratulations to my fellow shortlisters!

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