The Martin Wills Awards are now in their 18th year and as Chairman of the judges I wanted to thank you for entering and to make some points about your actual writing which I hope that you will take as “Constructive Criticism”. I know that’s a doom-laden phrase, but I promise I mean it in the positive sense.
First, the good news: the overall entry of 169 equalled last year’s record, the Under 26 entry of 82 was a record, and all 22 on the shortlist were well worthy of that category. With fewer than 1 in 7 overall making the cut, to be shortlisted itself was quite an achievement, and a number of other entrants, especially in the Under 26 category, came close to making the list.
In the Under 26 division, the judges were impressed by the quality and diversity of subject matter on the shortlist. In the younger categories, the Under 15s were more impressive overall than the Under 19s. However, both produced a good number or original and entertaining articles.
Now the bad news - or rather what, as judges, we feel we ought to give you as that “Constructive Criticism “ We felt that the overall standard of the 169 entries was a little disappointing compared to recent years. Too many entries were, to be blunt, rather boring. Very few showed any great flights of imagination or the inclination to come at the sport from an unusual angle. We felt this to be a shame as racing, more than any other sport, embraces such a wide variety of possibilities - people and horses, hope and disaster, physical excitement, financial challenge and sometimes despair.
Too many entries relied on clichés about racing , and this year too many seemed to feel that dumping their thoughts in the Racing for Change bran-tub might somehow prove a winning system, whereas the form book for this competition tells us that racing politics usually make for very dull reading. This year there was also a surfeit of articles about Kauto Star – a pretty obvious topic – although I am glad to say the spate of pieces about equine fatalities spawned by Best Mate’s unhappy demise does seem to have dropped off a bit.
In the senior category, and to a lesser extent in the two younger categories, too many of the entries gave purple prose priority over structure and clarity. The judges are not expecting to uncover budding Amises on every page and it is usually best to keep the language simple – Hugh McIlvanney does and he has done OK!
And then there is presentation. Whilst we don’t expect every entry to be 100% perfect (even seasoned hacks need subbing), anyone entering these sorts of competitions should realise that errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar can irritate enough to bias judgement. You should note that sticking on “Spell Check” is no substitute for reading the whole thing through at least twice and, best of all if you can find someone, to read it through to a sympathetic listener. Believe me, I do it almost every time (the assorted listeners are getting pretty fed up), but the reading-out- loud process invariably shows up all sorts of mistakes and infelicities – I am actually doing it now.
Also a single slab of unparagraphed prose is a real turn off to most readers and practically all judges. In my experience the only journalist who got away with this was the late, great Bernard Levin and even he was an acquired taste. My one overriding tip to you all is to have written above your desk, on your laptop, or preferably programmed in your brain, the phrase “Think of the Reader.” If you keep thinking of him or her, all the other things have to fall into place.
Beyond that, we would like, as judges, to suggest that future entrants concentrate on the criteria set out clearly in the fifth paragraph of the Press Release : “Particular importance will be attached by the judges to originality, imagination, conviction, entertainment, construction, and use of language.” That may be quite a mouthful (not to mention a touch of “too many ‘ions’. Ed”) but it should be real food for thought, as should be reading the feedback for the three previous years (especially 2007) which is included in the news section of the Martin Wills Awards Website.
I hope you get some of the points I am trying to make and I would like to sign off by thanking you most sincerely for taking part – I know how tough it is to actually get down to do this and have great admiration for all 169 of you. I hope that you have enjoyed the experience and that, if eligible, you will have another crack next year.
Chairman of the judges
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