5 Things I learned from short story judging

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Judging Panel clipart

The shortlist came out last week for the Hysteria 2017 Writing Competition – so huge congratulations to all those who feature in either the poetry, flash fiction or short story categories. All of these will be published in the forthcoming Hysteria 6 anthology, so it really is a great competition for showcasing talent in women’s writing. You can see all three category shortlists on the Hysteria blog.

I’ve already blogged with tips for entering short story competitions here but I thought it might be useful to mention a few things I’ve learned from the judging process too. I judged in the short story category, but the anthology will include comments from the judges in all three categories, so will be useful to read if you are intending to enter the competition in the future.

The Hysteria competition uses a panel approach, using several judges in each category. Every judge reads every story, and the overall winners are those which receive the highest combined rating from all judges in that category.

So, here’s a brief summary of five things which struck me about the judging process:

  1. There are an amazing number of good writers out there. The vast majority of  stories submitted were competently written, and professionally presented. There were some great voices, good dialogue, interesting settings, and thought provoking themes. Nonetheless, when judges are reading multiple entries, each story only has a brief opportunity to make an impact, and probably only 10-15% of the entries stood out as being really special. These were the stories which made you momentarily forget you were judging in a competition, and instead simply read for pure pleasure.
  2. I was a little anxious before the process began, wondering if I would be able to make a valid judgement about other people’s work. I worried about how to go about the process – should I read several stories at the outset to give myself an internal ‘benchmark’? Would I be more generous on one day than the next? Would I be out of step with the other members of the panel? In fact, the format of the process meant that it was surprisingly straightforward to come to a conclusion about the various aspects of a story’s merit. And Linda Parkinson-Hardman, who co-ordinates the competition and edits the anthology, says that in her experience, the judges are, for the most part, surprisingly in alignment.
  3. I now completely understand why editors are so adamant that short story submissions should not dwell on depressing subject matter! Reading several gloomy stories in a row is a dispiriting experience, however well-written they might be. There is though a difference between tackling difficult subject matter, and writing a depressing story. There were examples of stories which addressed traumatic domestic situations, bereavements, injustice, mental instability and so forth, and yet managed to do this while still creating an engaging and entertaining story. These were great to read.
  4. This competition required submissions to be made online, and the uploading process caused a few problems for a small number of entrants. Be very careful when you complete an online entry process. You need to ensure you have uploaded the final version of your story with any corrections dealt with. You need to upload to the correct category, and you need to make sure you have uploaded the complete text – especially if cutting and pasting. You don’t want to spoil your story’s chances through a silly formatting error.
  5. Finally, there were a couple of stories which I absolutely loved which didn’t make it to the final shortlist. If you were unsuccessful in this competition, please don’t think that your story was unappreciated. Yours might have been the one which made me wish I could show all my friends! This is why it’s so important to keep writing and keep submitting – your story has to be read to have a chance, and the next editor or the next judge might be the one who thinks your work is amazing.

The final winners in each category will be revealed when the anthology is published. If your story is on the shortlist, I wish you all the very best of luck. And thank you for submitting your story to the competition, and therefore giving me the chance to read it. It was a great experience, and I’ll certainly be looking out for similar opportunities in the future.

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4 responses »

  1. Thanks Jenny, very interesting! I entered but wasn’t shortlisted. I can only cling to the hope that mine was one of the stories that you really liked but that didn’t make the list! The standard of the Hysteria competition winners is always very high, which is why I wanted to enter it. It’s fun and inciteful, being a judge, isn’t it? I think you can learn a lot by analysing what makes a good story (or a bad one!). Interesting, your comment about depressing topics. The Writers Forum competition judge, Lorraine Mace, has actually requested funny/lighthearted stories as she says they receive too many that are downbeat. I sent her one that’s funny/lighthearted and what do you know – I’ve been shortlisted. Just waiting to see if the story makes the top 3 now.

    • Thanks Helen. Funny stories are (I think) much harder to write (perhaps that’s why editors receive so many gloomy ones!). Best of luck with yours for Writers Forum – hope to see it in the magazine! X

  2. What a great review of the judging process Jenny and I just wanted to say thank you for taking part and for your insight into what resonated for you. With any luck this will help lots of other entrants to short story competitions in the coming months and years.

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