When we are all judges

When we are all judges

When Jane McMorrow, director of Creative Future, asked me to sit on the judging panel for their Writers Award, I’ll admit to being a little (a lot) bit nervous. I am notoriously bad at judging competitions because I can see so much potential in most pieces of writing that I very often want all of them to win. But, when you look at what Creative Future stands for and what they do, I knew that I had to become involved.

As it says on their website: "The Creative Future Writers’ Award is a national writing development programme which celebrates talented, underrepresented writers, who lack opportunities due to mental health issues, disability, health or social circumstance." It’s an award that is for those people we don’t often hear from. And there are so many voices out there that deserve to be heard. So many stories we don’t get to read or experience because the creators are not given the equal opportunity to put their work in front of the ‘right’ people in the industry.

Reading through the submissions, I was struck by how different the entries were. They all had to produce a piece of work around the theme of 'essential' – and they all came at it from completely different angles. Which is what I tell people all the time about storytelling – everyone has a unique way of telling a tale, so don’t worry if something sounds similar to what you want to write about because it will be completely different to what anyone else produces.

I wasn’t able to physically attend the final judging sessions at the Poetry School in London, so I joined virutally. And although most of us came to the room having read the submissions – more than once – and had clear ideas about the merits and otherwise of the various pieces, it wasn’t the pitched battle I would have expected. We discussed each submission and, just like the writing in front of us, the judges had many, many different takes on how the words were put together. This was a stark reminder that judging and indeed acquisition as an end goal for agents and publishers is subjective. A team may well be looking at books submitted to agents or editors, but each of them comes to it with their own backstory, their own biases, their own agenda, really. Which is why it’s vital, I think, to actively put those things aside when reading work for the first time, especially work by unknown writers or from writers with different backgrounds to yours.

It sounds obvious, but giving every piece submitted an equal chance is the minimum an agent, editor or indeed competition judge should expect of themselves entering in the process. As we worked down the list of submissions, everything was considered, was talked about – and yes, sometimes argued about – until we came to an agreement that we were all happy with. Some of my highly scored pieces made the final list, others didn’t, but that was because I believe all of us in the room did our due diligence: we listened to other people’s opinions, we admitted when we didn’t understand something because it was so far from our experience, and we accepted when a piece was well-written that we didn’t necessary like deserved to be on the list.

I hope that is what is going on in the publishing world at the moment: more open-mindedness. More conversations that result in marginalised voices that weren’t previously given a fair chance, now being considered. Quite simply, an equality of opportunity to everyone who puts in the hard graft of submitting work for consideration.

There are so many voices out there that should be heard and it’s always an honour and privilege to read people’s work at this stage of their career. I hope it does go on to become a career for everyone who has taken the time to enter the competition. And, okay, I’ll admit it, I did at one point say ‘Can’t we have a few more people on the shortlist?’ because you know, I really did find the judging process really hard.

Dorothy Koomson is an award-winning, global bestselling author whose books have been translated into more than 30 languages with sales that exceed 2 million copies in the UK alone. She was featured on the 2021 Powerlist as one of the most influential Black people in Britain and appeared in "GQ Style" as a Black British trailblazer. Dorothy uses her platform to support new writers and recently launched "The Happy Author" podcast. Her latest book, I Know What You’ve Done, is published by Headline.