Adapted from an article first published in Vision (VAGTC), Volume 9, Number 3, September 1999, this is an attempt to explain what this judge of writing competitions looks for. I hope it will be useful for both students and teachers. Caution: It contains no easy formulas.
Being a judge of students’ writing competitions is a privilege and a responsibility. It has elements of both difficulty and pleasure. It gives rise to disappointment but also to hope. The continuing challenge is to retain a balance between subjective opinion and objective evaluation.
My objective criteria are based on many years experience of editing, publishing and consultancy:
The criterion of Expectation includes, among other factors, “The immediate appeal of the story” or “gut reaction”. This is the most subjective aspect of the judging process. But who can say whether a piece of writing is “a good story”? Part of the answer lies in accepting that a story which does not appeal to me might captivate other readers. This becomes increasingly important when reading pieces written by older students who have developed an understanding of the concept of “audience”.
Two past experiences helped to establish this approach. The first was in the 1950s, when the manager of the bookshop where I worked gave me the responsibility of buying greetings cards. His advice on how to make choices was a bit of home-spun wisdom which has stayed with me: “Buy some you think are beautiful, and some you think are terrible, because somebody else will think they’re beautiful”.
The second experience was in the 1980s, during my publishing career. In the manuscript evaluation process, I sought the comments of hundreds of students in State, Catholic and Independent schools. Yes, I also took into account the comments made by teachers and librarians, but children’s feedback was vital. It helped to confirm whether or not a manuscript was “a good story” in the eyes of its intended readers. It also added a measure of objectivity when making difficult publishing decisions, which can sometimes be subjective. Competition judging also involves making difficult decisions.
Other factors influencing Expectations are:
· The writer’s chronological age.
· The writer’s developmental stage.
· The presentation of the story (written expression and visual presentation).
· The writer’s intent or message.
· The choice of theme.
The last of these is often the most difficult to apply. Themes are often set by teachers, not chosen by students. This factor has to be adapted to “The writer’s creative choice or interpretation of the theme”. To some extent, this reflects Paul Brandwein’s view that creativity occurs best within a framework and his observation that education is:
...where a child uses his own individual powers in the ardent pursuit of his various excellences ... The teacher prompts and motivates the individual child to express what he feels and responds to most ardently.
When attempting to quantify response and creativity, an immediate question is: Are our expectations too high? Ideas and questions tend to cross-fertilise — this question was answered during my seven years as Problem Editor for Tournament of Minds. We worked hard, and late into the night, with the many variables involved in each problem, trying to “get it right”. If I remained doubtful about the outcome, wiser folk assured me that we should never under-estimate students’ ability. Students’ ardent responses to some of those problems were reported in two articles published in Vision] The competition judge likewise looks forward to high levels of response and creativity, and is sometimes surprised by joy.
“The writer’s intent and message” influence evaluation at all stages of the judging process. In general, a piece of writing aims:
(a) to satisfy the writer or (b) to satisfy the reader
(a) to entertain or (b) to inform.
A judge realises that self-satisfaction and perhaps the sheer pleasure of writing motivate many younger students. An awareness of the interests, needs and abilities of the intended reader should develop in older students, and be manifest by about Year 10 (age 15).
A gifted writer of fiction or fantasy entertains naturally. A talented factual writer informs clearly. Pieces of writing submitted to competitions, as well as the work of adult writing students, occasionally show a lack of understanding of the difference between fiction and fact, between entertaining and informing.
When one of my Asian VCE students was having problems with this concept, I asked, “Two beings are omniscient. Who are they?” With a grin, he replied, “God ...and you”. (He was not fawning — he had a sense of humour.) The being, apart from God, who is omniscient but should be invisible, is the writer of fiction. A story entered in a competition must stand on its own merits. The judge is wary of fictional stories in which the writer is visible or even moralising.
A social, personal, ecological, philosophical or religious message can certainly be inherent in a fictional story, but should not turn that story into a tract. Whatever my personal values, when I am judging fiction I do not wish to be told overtly by a writer that I should, for instance, work to save the planet, protect an endangered species, eschew alcohol, or praise God. On the other hand, if I am assessing expository or persuasive writing, I am happy to evaluate an informed argument regardless of my personal values.
The second major criterion, Structure, related to the craft of writing:
· Title: Is it appealing, intriguing, original?
· Opening: Is it captivating?
· Story (plot): Is it engaging?
· Descriptions: Do they enrich the text?
· Characters: Are they well sketched?
· Conclusion: Does it satisfy the reader?
At first, these were factors arising from my experience as an editor and publisher. Teachers will recognise within them the old “beginning, middle, end” formula. However, because it is old-fashioned, and cannot be applied to “literature” (whatever we mean by that), it is not irrelevant. Here again, ideas have cross-fertilised.
Facilitating about 50 creative writing courses for adult students, I have developed a way of showing how “beginning, middle, end” work in a short story, rather like the icing, ingredients and after-taste of a cake. Another three-part element is “description, action, dialogue”. Neither of these triple elements is a rigid formula, but they represent important and identifiable components of “a good story”, whatever the age of the writer.
In this context, here are a few of the points a judge bears in mind:
· “Untitled” is not a satisfactory title. A story must be very convincing if it is to overcome this lapse.
· Scene changes and time shifts must be clear to the reader.
· A story should not conclude with, “...and then I woke up and it had all been a dream”.
· A story should not end with “...and then I died/was killed” (unless there is an explanation of how the story-teller is managing to recount his/her tale from beyond the grave).
The third major criterion dealt with the use of language and the conventions of written English. The components were:
· Are sentences well structured?
· Are paragraphs well organised?
· Language and vocabulary.
After judging the first two or three competitions, in the 1980s, I became concerned that my expectations might be too high. I consulted several primary and secondary teachers, who confirmed that by the end of Year 6 (age 11/12) most students should demonstrate an understanding of paragraphing, sentence structure and punctuation. I continue to expect this in competition entries. However, if a story shows originality and a high level of creativity, subjective judgement might take precedence.
Other activities have contributed to a context in which to assess these factors. Acting as a mentor to gifted students, for periods of up to 12 years, has revealed standards of excellence in 8- to 18-year-olds. Tutoring NESB private students has provided an awareness of the problems involved in coming to grips with written English expression. Both, in their own ways, have cross-fertilised with judging and provided terms of reference for objectivity. Here are a few more points familiar to teachers, which a judge notices:
· Consistent/inconsistent point of view.
· Dangling participles.
· Noun-verb agreement.
· “Gaps” between paragraphs, where something has happened which the reader should know about but which has not been explained.
· Contextually appropriate vocabulary.
· Use of adjectives and adverbs.
· Use of conjunctions and prepositions.
· Use of figures of speech.
My criteria in both teaching and judging can be summarised as:
Creativity can apply either to the originality of a theme or to the way a young writer handles a prescribed theme. Clarity is assessed in terms of written expression and overall readability. Consistency refers to various aspects, e.g., descriptions of characters, plot development, interlacing of visible plot and underlying theme, spelling of names. Conventions are the ways we use the parts of speech and grammatical structure. Communication refers to success in the aim of entertaining or informing the reader.
A teacher has the task of reading far more stories than a judge, who can take more time even if there is a deadline. My own process of evaluating (judging) entries now incorporates the following steps, though they do not always occur in such an apparently ordered manner as they appear in this list:
1. First reading of all entries.
2. Selection of short-list based on first impressions.
3. Re-reading of all entries.
4. Change of short-list if deemed necessary.
5. Critical reading of short-listed entries.
6. Selection of second short-list.
7. Review of the whole process, to check that I have not shown subjective preference to entries which have impressed me over those which have merit even though I might not have “liked” the theme or content.
8. Where placings are required, analytical reading of the final short list and allocation of awards.
9. Preparing and writing of report to the organisers, which is also a final check of objectivity, obliging me to justify my decisions.
10. Throughout this process, collection of information and statistics relevant to my own research.
In the first step, I identify and double-check entries which break the rules of the competition. The three most regular infringements are:
· Exceeding the number of words permitted.
· Submitting more than one entry per student, if this is one of the rules.
· Not having the signature of a parent or teacher, if this is one of the rules.
In the former, I allow an excess of up to about 10%. Entries occasionally exceed the stipulated word-count by anything between 30% and 300%. They are disqualified. Infringement of the second condition also implies disqualification. I always regret having to do this, particularly as it is usually the fault of the adults who submit entries on behalf of the students. In one competition 27 stories were disqualified, after discussion with the organisers, because parents and teachers had ignored several rules clearly and simply printed on the entry form.
A further initial factor might influence how I judge the story: I expect to be able to read what I am looking at and not have to decipher:
· illegible handwriting
· text produced by printer ribbons or cartridges which have reached the end of their working life
· ornate, decorative or title fonts used for text.
In the search for creativity and originality, various themes and clichés have become all too familiar. Here are a few of them in general terms, not in any specific order. Teachers will no doubt recognise them!
· Dying grandmothers.
· My best friend ...
· This gorgeous girl named Sky.
· This really spunky guy.
· He zapped them all with his ray-gun.
· The old house was really spooky.
· I hate...
· We won!
I hasten to add that clichés and stereotyped characters do not automatically consign a story to the rejection heap. As with the use of street language and “four-letter words”, the paramount considerations are the context in which they are presented and the overall quality of the story.
There are some themes and clichés, however, which need special attention. They are dealt with in the next section.
In an informal research project in 1984, I interviewed 116 upper primary school children, with the editorial aim of finding out more about their interests and concerns. Their choices of “favourite TV program” and their occasional comments about violence, actual or implied, and also about death, gave rise to a greater interest in the roles of violence and death in children’s lives. This interest was revived when I became a competition judge.
Friends and colleagues have expressed a concern about the rising level of violence in children’s writing. Although my records of the intervening years are incomplete, I kept a note of themes in “death and violence” categories in 1989 and 1990 and recommenced in 1998. Here are a few general observations:
· “The A Team” and “The Goodies” were overwhelmingly popular TV programs among the boys I interviewed in 1984.
· “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Happy Days” were overwhelmingly popular TV programs among the girls I interviewed in 1984.
· Boys are prone to write “blood and guts” type stories but this does not necessarily reflect their attitudes. One of my gifted protégés, a gentle and sensitive boy, went through a blood-drenched, four-letter word, cypberpunk story-writing stage.
· Girls are prone to write stories about romantic and domestic conflicts.
· A few stories by primary students are indicative of showing off and aiming to shock.
· A few stories by secondary students handle issues such as rape, pregnancy, suicide and being gay, in a wider context. Although they might include violent and bloody elements, the writers have a clear intent in dealing with social problems without sensationalism or moralising. Though I reject gratuitous violence, I have nominated awards for writers who have dealt with themes such as suicide and rape thoughtfully in the context of a worthwhile story.
· Some students are influenced by what they see on television, with or without the permission and supervision of parents, and by what they read.
· Some students from overseas have seen the violence of war in their own lives, and write from personal experience.
· From about 2000 to 2002, there has been a steady fall in stories with gratuitous violence, and a noticeable rise in imaginative, fantasy and lyrical writing.
There is no formula for “good” writing but there are certain criteria upon which evaluation can be based. A judge checks her/his own subjectivity and personal preferences by constant referral to objective criteria. I hope this outline has provided food for thought and some practical points for both teachers and students. Whatever the outcome, keep on writing!
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