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Judging writing: why does presentation matter?

I've had a lovely, tricky time as one of the judges for the Historical Novel Society's Award for 2014, and the results are here. There were some great stories, and we had a right old barny between the three of us to decide the winners. And then the other day I bumped into Jacqueline Molloy, whose marvellous story "Wake" won first place at the Frome Festival competition in 2011. I don't know if I or she was more surprised at how much I remembered of it, but it's got me thinking. My friend Susannah Rickards' guest-blogs about being a filter reader are here, but one thing I've noticed in competitions, and among students, is that the best stories are usually among the best presented.

If you knew me in real life - let alone had been to my house - you'd know that perfect presentation is most definitely not my forte, let alone my passion. I and the iron are only faintly acquainted, and my way of dealing with scruffy paintwork or a grubby car is to take off my glasses. I never assume that highly-groomed MS are better stories, any more than I assume that highly-groomed faces and bodies enclose better humans.

Of course, in judging a competition I'm going to be reading and re-reading the shortlist often  and concentratedly: good words will shine through bad presentation. And I have a duty and a desire to give my students' work every chance to show me what it's made of; I hate it when I can't give a piece an Excellent because they haven't read or done what I said last time about punctuating dialogue... Nonetheless when I receive a manuscript of any kind, try as I will, my heart sinks a tad if I find that it

  • is single spaced (no space for edits; eye reading a line too easily gets lost into lines above and below)
  • is in a sans-serif font (eye doesn't follow the line so easily)
  • has tiny margins (no space for comments, lines too long for eye to track reliably back to the beginning of the next)
  • doesn't indent the first line of the paragraph (paragraphs are the basic unit of pace, organisation, dialogue, suspense... Don't reduce their impact)
  • double-line spaces between paragraphs (makes dialogue, particularly, fall apart, visually speaking: again, the reader's eye-mind doesn't follow easily)
  • is printed out of the death-throes of the ink cartridge 
  • has no page numbers: (reading in the garden makes me feel benign and patient, which is a good mood for a teacher or a judge, but what if the wind gets up?)
  • has more than a few tiny slips in a 20-page story, say, when it comes to typos, homophones, capitalisation, punctuation, paragraphing, and non-deliberate mistakes of vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

So if your MS looks like that when I get it, it's starting off on the back foot with me. I'll do my best to read through the slips, but it's a bit like meeting someone who smells bad: it says nothing about their mind, heart or soul, but I can't help but be very conscious of it in those opening minutes. I'm not ill-disposed towards your MS, but I'm not well-disposed towards it. "It's trivial," you might think. "The story's what matters." True, but remember: anything which gets in the way of your carefully-chosen words sliding straight into my brain and working their magic, weakens that magic. So I'd urge you to make Page View or whatever your WP program calls it a habit, at least during those final stages of polishing: that's the form in which your story will read by others, whether on screen or on the page, and that's the only way you'll really know if it's easy to read.

Still, I try very hard not to let presentation affect my result, except where it's part of the mark scheme that it should. And yet, time and again, there are the best stories, looking perfect. So what do yours look like? If you find it hard to see what more you could do to make them look perfect, then fair enough: perfect presentation is genuinely more difficult for some of us. But that's not a permanent condition; I myself don't naturally have a good eye for detail - I'm too easily bored - so I've taught myself to use things like reading aloud and printing out to help me spot errors, inconsistencies and awkward-looking pages. And for at least one, final pass, I concentrate purely on this stuff. Over the years it's become a reflex to put in that slightly-more-than-enough effort.

And that, I think, is the connection between a winning story and a well-presented story. It's not that one causes the other, it's they come from the same origin in the writer. As Susannah says the consistent 2% of stories which stand out are those where the writer has learnt not to be satisfied with the perfectly good words, the interesting ideas, the really sensible way of working it out, and the entirely adequate presentation. That top 2% of writers can and have put in the time, focus, learning, practice, and just bloody hard work, to go beyond the perfectly good to the absolutely right: the story which is so good that I, as a judge or a teacher, will still remember it, three years later.

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