Judging my first award

This year, I was asked to be one of three judges for the inaugural BBC Young Writers' Award, a new branch of the BBC National Short Story Award set up with reading charity Booktrust. I've never judged an award before, and initially I was going to refuse how does one judge a story, after all? but in the end, I decided to go for it. This was a wonderful opportunity for the country to hear from a new young voice, perhaps a future star of the book world, and I wanted to be part of that. Today, I thought I'd do a post on how an award is judged, and how we came to choose the winner.

My fellow judges were Matt Haig (author of The Humans, Reasons to Stay Alive and many others) and DJ and presenter Alice Levine. Our criteria for the stories:

  • Quality of writing – Originality, imagination and creativity
  • Sentence structure and language
  • Writer's ability to tell a story, capture the reader and hold their attention 

    Solo round

    Booktrust received over a thousand entries for the award. It was impossible for the judges to choose from that many entries, so the initial batch was read by the 'sifters' at the charity, who were faced with the gruelling task of narrowing the number down. 

    I received a list of fifty-one entries. While Booktrust had details on the writers, to us, they were utterly anonymous. We had no information on names, ages, genders nothing. All we had was their words. 

    The easiest way to tackle this, I decided, was to do a single read of each story first. I'm fortunate enough to be a fast reader and each story was a maximum of a thousand words, but I owed it to the entrants to peruse each story carefully, with my undivided attention. I worked in bursts over the course of several days, setting aside a few hours to read in silence on my own. 

    As I worked my way down the list, I would put a strikethrough across the titles that weren't working for me, and note my reasons in case one of the other judges disagreed; bolded those I'd read and liked, but not loved; and finally, highlighter on those I'd found particularly fascinating or experimental. At the end of this first reading round, I was left with eight strikes, twenty-four bolds, and nineteen highlights. 

    A few days later, with refreshed eyes, I gave the strikes and bolds another read, looking carefully for potential I might have missed the first time. Many of the stories were well-written and enjoyable, and many showed sparks of brilliance  most often in beautiful imagery, or a skilful turn of phrase, or their ability to send a chill down my spine but they didn't have the flame I was looking for, or they didn't hold my attention as well as I wanted them to. Sometimes there was too much telling and not enough showing. One or two felt slightly rushed, or like fragments of what should have been a longer story. Sometimes I couldn't put my finger on exactly why I did or didn't find the story compelling, which was frustrating. Most of the time, however, the reason I had to reject stories was simply because others were stronger.

    As I worked through them again, I either downgraded the bolds to strikes, thus ruling them out completely, or highlighted them if I had found something that changed my mind. Next to the titles of removed stories, I would note down what I had and hadn't liked, along with my key reasons for not putting this story forward for consideration. I did this so I had a framework to reassess my views in the event that Matt or Alice was particularly keen on that story. At the end of this round, I had thirty strikes and twenty-one highlights. The strikes, unfortunately, all had to be discarded at this point. Now came the real challenge: narrowing down the highlighted stories from twenty-one to ten. 

    It was difficult. I had eleven stories left. One would have to go. I sat there for a good hour, pondering, re-reading. Finally, I had a shortlist of ten, which I sent to Booktrust.  

    Team round
    After Alice, Matt and I had sent our choices to Booktrust, we found that there were only three stories we had all put on our individual shortlists. For a few, I had voted the same as Matt or Alice, and they had voted for the same as one another, but we each had several stories for which we were the sole advocate. 

    For this round, we met in person at Booktrust's offices in Battersea to discuss the entries. Our aim was to end up with a shortlist of only five. All of the shortlisted writers would be invited to the award ceremony in October and get a tour of the BBC, but only one would be the overall winner, with their story read out on BBC Radio 1. 

    We started off by talking about those stories that we were individually passionate about and discussing them with the whole group. I felt strongly about one story in the way that Alice and Matt originally hadn't; I ended up winning them over, and by the end of the day it had made it onto the shortlist. Then we discussed stories that all of us, or more than one of us, had selected. This was easier in some ways, as there was agreement between at least two of the judges, but also somewhat more difficult, as we had to be tougher on the writers than we had been in our individual rounds. We interrogated each story using Booktrust's criteria, questioning whether or not they were able to hold our attention all the way through, if the quality dipped at any point, if the language mostly avoided cliché, and if there was enough clarity for us to understand what was happening. (Clarity was a point of contention for several stories. It's can be great to have mysteries and uncertainties, but you also don't want to confuse the reader so much that they just don't understand it.) After several hours of debate, with some extremely close calls and last-minute changes of heart under our belts, we had our five stories. 

    Although most involved some sort of rite of passage, I was incredibly pleased with how different they all were. Each had its own style, and an interesting, compelling voice. 

    Final round 

    Our final task was to choose one overall winner out of the shortlist. We were given print-outs of the stories to read again before the meeting. Although it turned out by the end that we all had the same winner in mind, we wanted to do justice to all five, so we sat and picked them apart one more time. All of them were worthy winners. After over an hour of discussion, however, we came to the unanimous decision that Skinning, a story that had been on our radars since the beginning of the process, was our favourite of the bunch. Both the subject matter and the writing felt exceptionally mature; it had an intense, microscopic focus, and the language was confident, poetic, and original, while still being lucid enough for us to understand what was happening. (Some lines we all loved were "The sky is one long gasp" and "The colour feels rude".) We later found out that the story was written by Welsh writer Brennig Davies, the youngest of the shortlisted writers, when he was only fourteen.   

    This was the first ever BBC Young Writers' Award, and I'm so glad that the BBC made it possible for us to discover some truly diverse and exciting new voices in the next generation. I hope it proved to be as much of a fun and valuable experience for the entrants as it was for the judges. We really enjoyed reading the fifty stories we got to see. Long may it continue! 

    If you're reading this and you submitted your story, remember that, even if you didn't win, you should still feel incredibly proud of yourself. You not only had the skill to write a story in a thousand words or less, which is no easy feat even for experienced authors, but you also had the guts to put your writing into the world to be judged by a panel of strangers. I hope you'll all consider entering again next year. 

    You can read the fantastic shortlist here – and listen to the inimitable Sir Ian McKellen read Skinning aloud: