Monday, 17 August 2015

How To Judge Children's Writing? - by Emma Barnes

Earlier this year I was asked to be Judge of the Hope/Findel Writing Competition for children. Schools across the UK submitted stories by their pupils, in three age categories, with the chance to win prizes of books for the school, cinema tickets, and signed copies of my book Wild Thing. My job was to pick the overall winners from the shortlisted entries.

Being a Judge was enormous fun – and also a complete nightmare. Enormous fun because there was so much talent in the shortlisted stories. They were truly a pleasure to read. A complete nightmare because reading and enjoying the stories was one thing, but picking out a winner – and a second and third place – in each category was another thing entirely. I wanted to be like the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland who declares: "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."

The Dodo as Judge by Tenniel (Image: British Library.  Public Domain)

Now the results are out, and here I am reading out the winning entries on film. Well done, you brilliant young writers.

But how do you judge children's writing? (How do you judge any piece of creative writing?)

With great difficulty.  There's the quality of the prose, which could be marvellously rich and poetic (or crisp and concise).  There's also the structure - a story needs a beginning, a middle and an end (or usually it does).  A story needs pace.  And then what if the story is genuinely funny and surprising, but the ending lets it down? What if the story is highly polished and well-structured but somehow predictable? What if there's a brilliant idea, but it's not quite carried through? What if an entry is brilliant but over the word count?

Even trickier, how do you judge realism against humour against a thriller against a piece of dystopian sci-fi against a story with talking animals?

Having drawn up various lists, and devised elaborate points systems, none of which worked, in the end I followed my instincts.  I chose the stories that most surprised and delighted me. But I had terrible pangs about the wonderful stories I couldn't choose. And I now have a huge sympathy for teachers – the people who day in, day out have the job of assessing children's writing.

It did make me think about the way we teach children to write. Writer CJ Busby has spearheaded a campaign (started on this blog) to address some of the ways writing is taught in primary school.  Reading the stories I did find that simplicity could be a breath of fresh air, and there was an occasional story where the phantom of the National Curriculum, standing at the writer's elbow and whispering "squeeze in just one more about another complex sentence?" was not helpful.  A good story is not a checklist, and maybe we need to remind ourselves of that.

Meanwhile I got to be media star for a day. In my writing career, this is the first time I've had a film crew in my house. Many thanks to Findel designer Gary Hadfield (top left), and the guys from the EGL video (left to right) Andrew Birtwell, Simon Ashton and Luke Margetts who cheerfully set up their gear in my livingroom, braved my crazy dog, and didn't worry too much about the building noises from next door.

Getting ready to read

The team from Findel/EGL

Many congratulations, not only to the winners but to all the young writers who took part - I hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did.


Emma's Wild Thing series for 8+ about the naughtiest little sister ever. (Cover - Jamie Littler)
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
(Cover: Emma Chichester Clark)
"Funny, clever and satisfying..." Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite


Julie Sykes said...

The competition sounded a lot of fun.

Joan Lennon said...

Such a good thing to do - tough but satisfying!