“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” ― Willa Cather

A few months ago I had the wonderful task of being a judge on the Written Portraits writing competition for thirteen to eighteen year olds.

This week I’m going to the launch of the book of the winners. I can’t wait to see who has been chosen. I have my favourite. Fingers crossed for her.

I was stunned by the quality of the stories. Some were so good I had to keep checking the age, better than many ‘grown up’ attempts. Others, though created by those at the beginning of their writing journeys, were bright blasts of energy and effort.

As I read and scored and judged, I pondered, what works, what doesn’t and why?

Here is the result of my pondering – especially for those who didn’t get short-listed.

Well young scribes, try not to be too disappointed. Rejection is unfortunately part of a writer’s life. And fortunately too – that is how you grow and improve.

The ones that worked for me,

  • had a strong genuine voice
  • used simple direct sentences, phrases and words
  • hooked me in emotionally
  • left me to work some things out for myself
  • used specific language (‘a magpie’ rather than just ‘a bird’)
  • used all senses
  • leapt into action

I think the hardest of these to achieve is the first. How do you develop a strong voice? The answer is practise. Write, write and write some more. The good thing is this helps with all the others too. When you are not writing, read, read and read some more.

In a short story every word matters. (Actually in a long story too). Like pixels on a screen they seamlessly blend together to create images in the reader’s mind. One wrong word jars the reader and interrupts the flow of images. The more you write and read, the better your pixel selection and placement will be.

The ones that didn’t work so well often had,

  • overly formal words and language
  • long long sentences
  • lots of description or internal thoughts and not enough dialogue and action
  • misused words or phrases
  • an over-abundance of adjectives

One last message to all the entrants. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us. It takes hard work to think up a story and get it down on paper. Then it takes guts to submit it to a competition — so well done.

I hope you enter again next year and in the meantime remember,

“Writers fish for the right words like fishermen fish for, um, whatever those aquatic creatures with fins and gills are called. 
”  Jarod Kintz

One comment

  1. Rachel Wight · ·

    I think this is a very thoughtful piece, you manage to give very good, practical advice and yet protect the feelings of those writers that didn’t succeed. You obviously had well worked out criteria for your judging. This would make a great lesson if you ever get to teach a class.

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