Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Making the Cut in Writing Competitions

I've recently had the delightful task of coming up with a shortlist of 8 stories from over 80 entries in a short story competition.

It was fun as well as hard work. Some absolutely enthralling stories.

Two things surprised me. The standard of many of the entries was very high indeed. I guess that shouldn't cause eyebrows to hit hairlines, but when I've been judging this competition in previous years there's never been more than a quarter of the total entries that gave my colleagues and me serious pause when it came to shortlisting. This time, the initial longlist was around half. The second longlist was about 30 and the final one pre-shortlist, 15. All those 15 stories deserve competition success or publication, and I shall be writing and telling their authors so even while I commiserate on their not quite making the final cut. It was fantastic to know there are so many excellent writers out there, and reassuring when we keep being told that, because more people are taking up writing, standards are dropping. Not my recent experience.

The second thing that surprised me was the lack of care when it came to typos, poor punctuation, misspelling, dodgy grammar and unprofessional layout. And that wasn't limited to the stories that didn't make a longlist, it was right up until that final 15. Even some of them had mistakes - which in a story of around 2,000 words is reprehensible, at least in my book. Self-editing is key to making a good impression these days whether it's on agents, publishers, readers or professional reviewers like Fiction Feedback. Do whatever's necessary: print it out, read it aloud, view it in a different typeface and size, give it to a friend who's a whiz at English - but do something. Read, read and read again. And if you're unsure about the best layout, or punctuation around dialogue, or a grammar question, look on the web. Lots of good advice out there and in a huge choice of books too.

Some beginner writers genuinely believe that their prose doesn't matter and that if the story shines an agent or publisher will pick it up anyway. Wrong. The quality of the prose is the first thing they can judge about a piece of writing and it takes professionals seconds to come to that judgement: if the prose is poor the manuscript is rejected; if it's good they'll stick with it.

The same is true of the reader of self-published work. OK, they might have already bought the novel, but they won't buy another by the same author and they might well leave a negative review.

Another piece of advice about writing competitions; if you're submitting an entry by email and paying by cheque in the post, do enclose your contact details with that cheque. That way, if the email entry goes astray, the organisers can contact you to ask you to re-submit the story.

Good luck entering your next competition.