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Short story writing: judging a short story

I was once approached by an organisation which was running a short story competition and asked whether I could suggest a 'points system' whereby a short story could be graded - points for plot, style, characterisation etc. I replied that I did not think such an approach was viable. I certainly didn't use any such system when assessing the work of my students, and I hope this article might reassure anyone who feels that in the other articles I have tended to suggest that a story could be judged in this way. Fiction writing is an art, and cannot be judged in the same way that we could judge answers to questions on mathematics or general knowledge, which can be 'right' or 'wrong'.

Aspects of a story, such as plot, characterisation, point of view, style, and so-on are important, but to try to judge a story first and foremost by those criteria is to come at it from the wrong end. A story must be judged on its own merits, and as a whole. Individual stories differ so much from one another that it is impossible to adopt a fixed set of criteria.

The way I assessed my students' stories was to ask myself whether a story worked, and if it worked I could then add that it worked because the plot, or characterisation, or style, and so on were well-handled, and if it didn't work I could say that one or other area, such as plot or characterisation or style had let it down. The story as a whole came first, and I only applied those secondary criteria if they were important features of that particular story and I could use them to explain why a story had worked or not worked.

Whether or not a story works can depend on factors such as whether it is convincing, whether it draws you into its world, whether you find it exciting or moving, whether you feel the characters come alive as real people, whether you feel you have learned something, or gained some insight, or been amused, at the end of it, or quite simply whether you enjoyed reading it. These are subjective judgements, but reading and writing are subjective matters, there is no getting away from that.

I felt the organisation which was trying to judge short stories by applying a set of objective standards was going about things in an inappropriate way. The subjective experience of the reader should be the main guide as to whether or not a story works, and then, for such purposes as writing a review, commenting on a student’s story, or judging a competition we can talk in terms of aspects such as plot and characterisation when it is appropriate to the particular story.

Provided that the judges of a competition are experienced readers who can articulate what it is they like or dislike about a story, and provided that there is a panel of judges and not just one person, there is no reason why they shouldn't let themselves be guided first and foremost by their subjective experience of a story.

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