Short Story Judging (What Makes A Good Story)


Recently, I had the honour of being asked to judge a writing competition. It was an interesting process. I was given the shortlisted (“highly commended”) stories – ie. was not involved in selecting them from the hundred+ entries in each category (thank goodness, that would have been a monumental task). So, what I was really being paid to do was to rank the stories. There were three categories to judge: a 12-14 year old, 15-17 and an adult category. I was given the top ten from each.

The stories were interesting. They certainly reflected 2020 and tended towards themes from the darker half of the spectrum. This led to me borrowing a phrase from The Offspring and exclaiming “the kids aren’t alright” when judging the 12-14 year-old category. Their stories revealed just how much lockdowns and doom and gloom media coverage has affected the youth over the last year. Nevertheless, it is good that they were able to process this through writing and express their thoughts so well in their stories. Not all were darkly themed, some were quite positive and unrelated to 2020.

As part of my judging I had to provide a written paragraph on each story justifying my ranking of the shortlist into the place-getters and highly commended. I’d like to emphasise that these were all good stories. None were unworthy of their shortlisting. However, reading through my notes revealed some common themes about what separated the winners.

The stories which didn’t make the place-getters often had a note (among others) along the lines of “the story ended too abruptly”. This wasn’t just a shock or twist ending problem, but rather stories which had emphasised world-building over action and wound up having less of a proper conclusion. It did seem like this was possibly due to the restrictive word count in their category (it was more common among the non-adult writer categories). Some stories read like the first chapter of a book, so didn’t work as well when read as a short story. Some had conclusions which didn’t match rest of the tale, either by someone acting inconsistently, a switch of focus or contradictions to earlier events (not in an unreliable narrator kind of way, but a plot hole problem).

The better stories were complete tales, even if they left open the possibility of further events in that world. They tended to be more economical with their use of words, had different to usual take on something and produced an emotional response.

The task of judging the stories took longer than I expected as I kept re-reading them. There was a lot of ‘um and ahhing’ over whether a story was ranked first, second, or third. Most of the time the third spot had three stories which were hard to separate competing for the spot. That is a testament to the quality of the stories submitted for the competition, but also to how there is a level of personal opinion in the ranking. For this competition, if you weren’t a place-getter, but highly commended, you gave me a headache in deciding that.

After the awards had been announced I was talking to a writer friend said she had entered the competition. She had previously shared her story with the writers group we belong to. It was a personal, heartfelt, utterly authentic, and dramatic story which, when I read it, stirred up many emotions. I would have had a hard time keeping it out of the place-getters. However, it hadn’t been shortlisted by the selection panel. Which reinforces how subjective such a process is. So, if you entered the competition (or any competition) and weren’t shortlisted, it’s not a comment on your story or you as a writer, but a reflection of the panel/judges tastes.

It takes a lot of courage to enter a writing competition, so kudos to everyone who entered this year, whether shortlisted or not.

2 thoughts on “Short Story Judging (What Makes A Good Story)

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  1. This was a interesting and well-written post. Thanks for sharing the process, I hope I will get to judge a writing contest someday! (Maybe when my blog has enough willing people) 🙂

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