Friday 17 February 2023

Judging short story competitions

The Bristol short story prize in 2022 attracted 2,545 entries. With a word limit of 4,000 words, that’s getting on for 10 million words to read. How is a winner found? It’s a lot of effort, which is reflected in the entry fee for story competitions – often 50% higher than the fee for poetry. And the reading is usually shared out.

Tracy Fells wrote in 2021 that “the hardest part of any competition is getting past the early readers.” First impressions matter – it’s like speed dating. Many entries are eliminated at this stage because they don’t follow the rules. And a weak beginning might be sufficient excuse to dump a piece, especially after a long day of reading.

In the Bristol competition less than 1% of the stories get through to the short-list, so getting that far is worth mentioning in CVs. Given the range of tastes of the judges, and margins of error, there’s no guarantee that all the “best” stories will get through. I recall one judge of another competition, subsequently seeing a non-shortlisted piece in print, saying that if they’d seen the piece as a judge it would have won a prize.

To impress in the final stage of judging, speed-dating tricks alone won’t work – there needs to be more to the story than meets the eye. If there’s more than one judge at the final stage, the winning entry may be a compromise. Long ago in a Stand magazine poetry competition the 2 judges disagreed so much that in the end they each produced a list of prizewinners. More recently a short Flash piece won a story competition, which upset some entrants. Since then, more competitions have a minimum word limit as well as a maximum one.

To check on the first-stage judges, some stories acknowledged to be good could be added to the entries.

The final-stage judges want to be asked again, and the competition organisers want more entries next time, so there’s pressure towards selecting winners that losers won’t object to. Often the more daring pieces are only commended, however good they are.

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