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A Thirteen-Step Guide to Judging a Short Story Prize

The Story Judge’s Manual by Romesh Gunesekera

  1. In the months before the entries arrive, read as many stories, contemporary and classical, as you can to remind yourself what works for you and why.
  2. After that, put all your ideas about what makes a good story in a box and close it up. Be ready to read with an open mind. Be ready to be surprised.
  3. Devise a system for recording your reactions and opinion of each story. The three obvious categories are: yes, no and maybe. You may want many more categories, or a prize-meter with percentages, or stars or pluses to add to your notes of what you like and why. You may want your notes on separate cards which can be attached, or detached, from the story, in case lockdown has eased and you are on the road. If you are writing by hand, make sure the notes are legible and you don’t have to spend ages trying to decipher your handwriting at the discussion meeting.
  4. Allow plenty of time for reading the entries. Binge reading is not recommended. Five or six a day is about as much as anyone can do and still be fair.
  5. Read without prejudice. If you recognise the writer, assume you are wrong.
  6. Keep to the same standards for the last stories you read as the first ones.
  7. Try not to be swayed by typos, we all make them. Do be swayed by the incoherent and the atrocious. It should not be rewarded.
  8. Be ready to change your view after a discussion, or once you have articulated what you thought you felt and realised it isn’t at all what you feel now.
  9. As the digital age is here to stay, most jury meetings will continue to be on-line, so be prepared: develop a strong constitution for long sessions, and don’t plan on biscuits, sandwiches and the like. Nobody wants that on their screen.
  10. On the day of the meeting, follow the rules of courtroom evidence, i.e. make sure you are discussing the same story as everyone else, and that the notes you are using are referring to the right one.
  11. Say what you think in the spirit of achieving an understanding.
  12. Be prepared to learn from the writing and to discover the story you had such a clear opinion of is not at all what you thought it was. Changing your mind is okay.
  13. Remember you have been given a chance to discover the wonderful, not a chore to deliver a verdict.

This year's longlist will be announced on Sunday 2 May; find out more on @shortstoryaward

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