Recently, I co-judged a short story writing competition and had it been my decision alone, I would not have awarded a prize to any, because this gives the wrong message about their writing. Winning an award infers the work is of award winning standard and this was not the case with any of the entries I read. All except one lacked the accepted Australian style of single quotation mark for dialogue, formatting in most was abysmal, and the majority failed to meet the expected elements of short story writing. I found it difficult to move beyond the first page on most of the entries as I was bombarded with telling the story and a marked absence of descriptive showing.
As there was no set theme for this competition, I can only conclude many entrants belonged to the same community writing groups as there appeared to be themes emerging in the entries; alcohol and other substance abuse, pregnancy, and writing, so I assumed the stories began their life from a writing prompt. I have no problem with this, but it does create an assumption on my part about the value of writing groups where there is no honest and planned critique of work. I can imagine these stories being read aloud to a group and the accompanying oohs and aahs of the ego strokers, while the writer bypasses all reasonable story ‘writing’ in favour of their ‘spoken’ version of their work. I have found that writers reading their own work to a group, read it quite differently than the punctuation would have it - knowing a story well enough the writer often reads what they know rather than what is on the page in front of them.
With errors dotted throughout the entries, there appeared to be an obvious lack of proofreading and editing, leaving most looking like first drafts. What disappointed me the most was seeing the potential in some of these stories and knowing that, without honest comment, there would be minimum creative development for the writer. I appreciate the competition organiser did not offer style guidelines for the entrants, and that is another issue entirely, however, any would-be-writer is capable of researching the internet or local library for advice on presentation and formatting. There is more to being a writer than throwing words at the computer screen and printing it off.
I have seen some ordinary competition entries over the years. I have also experienced those where the shortlisting process has been a difficult task by virtue of the high quality of the entries, but this lot was the worst I have ever seen.
In the next few days I will create and post a generic style guide for short story competition entries.