Students on Creative Writing courses and entrants to writing competitions naturally have concerns about bias and subjectivity. How can creative writing be judged fairly? Isn’t it all just a matter of personal opinion?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because, ultimately, when evaluating a number of quality mss, a judge will choose what s/he likes best. No because there is a range of specific criteria against which quality writing can be assessed. Being aware of this process may help you increase your chances of achieving, at least, a higher placement when entering competitions. Wins cannot be guaranteed since while judges generally agree on the top five or ten percent of entries showing special ability, the final choice will be a matter of personal taste.
Six-Point Plan for Assessment of Quality in Writing
In college coursework, students’ portfolios must be assessed to a percentage. There are firm guidelines in reaching an overall score and there is nothing about this process that could be described as ‘arbitrary’. Here are the six main areas markers consider in assessing quality writing, with suggestions about how you can approach them.
- Originality: Explore ideas and make them fresh and interesting, and if you can, try to inject your own insights into your work.
- Style: Your writing may be competent but style needs something extra. This is about finding your own voice, individual, fluent and striking. It’s about using language effectively and making your approach distinctive.
- Structure: The structure of your story should suit its genre, its style and its content. Some stories require a distinct beginning, middle and end. Others may examine a state of affairs or a slice of life, possibly unravelled, layer-by-layer. Know what you’re trying to achieve and adapt your structure to suit the form.
- Crafting: This is the process of working through, revising, editing, thinking about what you are doing. Ask yourself: ‘What is the purpose and intent of the story?’
- Interest: The story should maintain pace and interest throughout, should be fully developed and show a sense of reader-awareness. Work on the parts where interest flags. For example, will the characters evoke a reaction? Will the reader engage with them? Is the language used effective? Are there superfluous paragraphs or characters that do nothing for the plot? Don’t be afraid to remove anything (however well-written) if it doesn’t actually do its proper job in the story. You may be able to save it to use in something else.
- Overall effect: This is not only about you, but also about your reader. Have you shown perception, emotional IQ and real engagement with your ideas? Will your reader be likely to identify, respond or even feel differently about your subject matter after reading the story?
On many creative writing courses, assessing a piece of work involves applying a percentage to each of the above requirements, which are then averaged-out to give a single, overall percentage mark. A further safeguard is that the work is then ‘second-marked’ and a difference of five percent for subjectivity is deemed, if not acceptable, at least impossible to eradicate. If there is more than a five percent difference and the markers cannot agree, the work is referred to a third marker. Fortunately, there is seldom more than a five percent difference and usually it settles around two or three percent. That’s just about as accurate a judgement as can be expected, and it is untrue to say that quality cannot be assessed to a reasonable degree of accuracy.
Subjectivity Among Competition Judges
A competition, however, needs a winner so a further judgment has to be made. Once the judges have their top-quality stories picked out, personal likes and dislikes come to play in influencing their final choices. Some writers feel it is worthwhile to research the judges’ preferences and own writing styles, but that is a matter of personal choice and may not work as well as finding your own voice.
Complex metaphors that wouldn’t be acceptable in mass market magazine stories can work for you in competitions. In a sense, competitions set you free to be yourself and choose what you want to write, although sometimes within the framework of a genre, theme or word-limit. Increase your chances by thinking about the six points detailed above, and even if you don’t win this time, you might get a commendation. This commendation will confirm that you can produce quality writing, which might well lead to a ‘win’ when you submit to the next competition.
Contrary to what some new writers believe, editing does not stifle spontaneity. Write spontaneously, then edit objectively. Result: writing with impact.
Watch this video with some exsamples: