One of the competitions I entered was the newly founded Costa Short Story Competition, run by the Costa Book Awards. This competition was exciting because it was open to all writers, whether they had been previously published or not, had a substantial prize pot and was associated with Costa's very high-profile book awards. Twitter and other social media meant that we hopefuls knew a lot more than usual about what was going on behind the scenes: we knew that several hundred stories had been reduced to a short list of sixty. We knew when the celebrity judges were reading these stories, when they were meeting to decide the shortlist of six, when the decision had been made. We just needed the official announcement. And then the wave of disappointment hit. We didn't (still don't) know who those shortlisted writers were, but we knew it wasn't us.
Reactions varied according to the experience of the writers involved. The comments of some of the competition 'newbies' reminded me of myself when I first started entering writing competitions and made me realise how much I have learned about the process, and about myself as a writer over the years. So I decided take all my experience to date and offer it as a guide to understanding what failing to win a writing competition really means. Here it is.
Why Losing is Not the Same as Failing
So, you’ve written a kick-ass short story and you decide to enter it into a writing competition. It’s your best work ever, and while you don’t exactly expect to win, you feel there’s a good chance of getting on the short list, or the long list at the very least. You watch the competition’s website, follow them on Twitter, start checking your inbox every five minutes as the deadline for the announcement approaches. Finally, finally, the shortlist or winners are announced, and your name’s not there. Not anywhere.
This leads you to one of two conclusions: either your story was rubbish and you are no judge of your own work, or the judges are idiots. Right?
Wrong. Here’s why:
But I wrote such a good story!
Yes, you probably did. But so did many, many of the other entrants. A small-scale competition will attract maybe 150 to 200 entries. Larger competitions will get thousands. Say, for example, in a small-scale competition, half of the entries are just not up to scratch – poorly written, ungrammatical, or disqualified for not adhering to the entry guidelines. If your story is still in the competition after those have been eliminated, you’ll still be up against at least fifty other stories and probably many more. The judges can award prizes to maybe three of those stories. Does that automatically mean the other forty-seven or so stories were no good? Of course not.
The best story always wins, right?
No, the story the judges like best will win. What judges are asked to do is rank stories in order of preference, and ultimately that is a matter of opinion. This became apparent to me when I entered a competition where the entrants posted their stories online while waiting for the judging to take place. We were able to read and critique many of the other entries, so when the results came in, we could compare the peer-reviews to the judges’ rankings. Needless to say, they didn’t always concur.
The competition involved some 500 writers, placed into groups of twenty, competing over several rounds, with competitors progressing according to how many points they accumulated. In the first round, the top ten stories in each group of twenty writers were awarded points. If you didn’t make the top ten, you got no points. Now, many of the writers on the online forum felt that big fat zero against their entry meant the judges had read their story and thought it was worth... well, nothing. Zero. Nada. Zilch. But of course, that’s not what a score of zero meant. It just meant that in that group, there were ten stories that the judges preferred. It’s the same in any writing competition, although not always as transparent as in this example.
The crucial lesson is that while winning a writing competition means you’re doing it right, not winning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it wrong.
It’s a numbers game
So, how do the judges really decide who wins? Understanding how writing competitions are judged can help get both your wins and your losses into perspective.
In smaller competitions, the named judge or judges will probably read all the entries, but in larger competitions, the entries will be read first by ‘slush’ readers. The first job of these readers is to weed out the stories that are ineligible for any reason (word count too long, requested format not adhered to, theme not followed, etc). Don’t underestimate how important these details are. Plenty of stories are not even read the whole way through before being eliminated. An experienced slush reader told me:
‘I reject any that are littered with typos, grammar or spelling mistakes. If the author can't be bothered to polish and perfect their story, why should I spend my time reading it?’
Even if your grammar and punctuation are impeccable and you have adhered to the required font and formatting, your entry might still end up in the reject heap without the slush reader making it to the end of the story:
‘An experienced reader can tell very quickly if the story might be a contender. It needs to grab my attention straight away and that's largely down to whether there's an engaging voice in the opening sentences.’
So the first cull can be brutal, and you really need to be at the top of your game to survive it. Even so, each slush reader will still have a big stack of stories to read in full and winnow down.
How do slush readers decide which stories to put forward to the ‘named’ judges? Most commonly, they will use a score sheet. The slush readers will score the stories, and put forward the top scoring ones for the next stage of judging. The score sheet will list a variety of qualities that the story should be judged on, and a maximum score available for each criterion. Points can be awarded for voice, tone, characterisation, engagement of the reader, plot development, how satisfied the story leaves the reader, and many other qualities. The balance of these scores is often reflected in judges feedback, where it is available: stories that fail to make the grade may be praised for a ‘lovely voice’ but lose out on character or plot development. Or a story may have a great story arc, but the main characters feel wooden or lacking. Or the writing might be just sublime, but the story underdeveloped. In other words, if any crucial element leaves the slush reader feeling ‘meh’, no matter how strong other elements may be, the story is unlikely to make it to the next round.
These readers will be well qualified for the job – they are often writers and editors in their own right. They will know ‘good’ writing when they see it, and will have the experience to analyse and score the stories fairly and knowledgably. But, even bringing all that experience to bear, there is no empirical way of measuring which story is ‘the best’. Judges are readers with opinions and personal taste, just like anyone else.
The same applies all the way through the judging process. In a larger competition, there will often be a panel of ‘high profile’ judges and the final selection will be made by these judges coming together and discussing their favourite entries until they arrive a consensus. And consensus can sometimes mean compromise. It is safe to say that all the stories being considered at this point will be ‘good’ stories. Yours might well be one of them.
So what do I do with that ‘failed’ story now?
It’s always disappointing when you send your beloved story out into the world and the result is a resounding silence. Just bear in mind everything I’ve said above, and remember, it’s not that your story was no good, it’s just that there were three, or five or whatever number of stories that the judges liked better. That’s all you can really infer from ‘losing’ a writing competition.
So what now? Enter your story in another competition, if you know in your heart it’s a good story. I won a competition recently with a story that had been entered into at least half a dozen other competitions over several years and had never so much as been long listed before. Another story that had been doing the rounds for a while finally got shortlisted in a competition where the winning and shortlisted stories (including mine) were subsequently published in an anthology. In that case, the judge was looking for stories that would work well together as a collection. Many an excellent story may have not made the cut because it didn’t fit that theme.
If you are suddenly doubting whether the story is any good, get other writers to read it and get their opinion. Don’t ask your mother or your best friend. Join a writing group or online writers’ forum and get honest feedback. It’s hard to maintain faith in your writing if you are working in a vacuum, and failure to win competitions is no way to accurately judge the value of your work. Some competitions will provide feedback on your story for an extra fee, and this might be worth considering.
Finally, bear this in mind (and this applies to all sorts of submissions, be they to competitions, magazines or publishers): your work is not judged in isolation, but in relation to all the other entries. The judges may want the winning and short listed entries to contrast with or compliment each other, to work together in an anthology or to reflect the style of the sponsoring body. It’s as if they are putting together an outfit and what they really need to complete it is a nice pair of black boots. But you’ve sent them a red dress. They already have some red dresses, and one in particular suits them better than yours. So they politely decline your offer of a red dress. Does that mean your red dress is any less lovely?
Since I first posted this, I've found or been directed to some other great posts on the subject. I'll add them here as I go along.
- A great post here by Tracey Upchurch on why you are never too small for the 'big' competitions.
- Two fabulous accounts of what it is really like to be a slush reader: Susannah Rickards on Emma Darwin's blog here and Dexter Petley recounting his experience here on Lesley McDowell's blog.
- Feel like giving up after five rejections? Ten? You'll never give up again on a story you believe in after reading this article on submitting to magazines. Success is like getting all the numbers right in a combination lock. Rejection might mean only one number was wrong.