The winning entries for the 22nd Martin Wills Awards were a renewal of faith in the competition’s mission to encourage talented young people to write imaginatively and informatively within a racing context.
Laura’s McKibben’s piece “After I’m Gone” that took the Under 26 and overall prize was both vivid and almost unbearably poignant. Philip Weldon’s “The Double”, the Under 19 winner, was clever, witty and fast moving, and Fureya Nelson Rigott’s “Beach Race” had an easy charm about it that won the judges over in the Under 15 category.
But as Chairman of the panel I have to report that these top pieces won us over from what had begun as an unpromising final judging session. For while a still healthy number of 140 had the courage, energy and inspiration to send in their entries, too many of them had not prepared themselves nearly well enough to have any chance in the contest.
The size of the opportunity that these awards offer demand a greater degree of thought and care than was evident in many entries. That sounds like a scolding statement but it is meant to be a helpful one because I know just how much effort it takes to get round to writing anything, let alone a competition piece. But when you are sitting down to do it, and even more when you have finished, you owe it to yourself and your writing ability to go through some very basic thoughts.
The first is to take on board the premise of the awards which is to encourage good writing around a horse racing context. We have long stressed that this does not mean a dull and detailed critique of the racing industry or even demand in-depth knowledge of the sport. But, as should be the rule in all good writing, there should have been enough research to avoid silly mistakes which ruin credibility at a stroke.
For the record no race is ever begun by a “starting gun” and starting stalls are confined to flat racing and absolutely not used in the Grand National although that would not be a bad idea if you could ever widen the course enough to allow 40 starters! To be serious there were plenty of other similar examples which immediately show us that the writer has not taken the trouble to inform themselves of some absolute basics.
Our observation as judges is that other basics are also ignored to the detriment not just of our own appreciation of the piece but of the writers’ delivery of their own talent. So, at the risk of repeating concerns from previous years, here are some key things that anyone entering should bear in mind. Come to think of it so should anyone who ever sits down to write anything – even an email and most especially a tweet.
The first thing is don’t be pompous. It may seem good when you put it through the key board but portentous statements hang very heavy on the reader and even more so when they come from a young person trying to puff themselves up.
Second, don’t indulge in the long paragraph. The reader, who in this instance is also the judge, does not want to be put off before he or she starts. Sloppy presentation is bad enough but, however smartly set up, the sight of a huge 300 word paragraph sinks the heart. Never forget the famous adage “I am sorry to write you such a long letter, I did not have the time to write a short one.” You may be able to get away with a long, long paragraph but doubt yourself first. This one is now 100 words and that’s long enough.
Thirdly and finally, however short or long the paragraph, don’t rely on spell checker but read what you have written through and then read it through again. A personal tip is to make yourself read it out loud. All too often something that seemed all right when you wrote it collapses when you try and read it out. That means it will collapse in the mind of the reader.
Of all the faults, not reading entries through is the most often committed but the easiest to overcome. It is caused by the understandable elation of actually finishing the piece and the wish to bundle it off and await the congratulatory letter which must surely come. Instead take a deep breathe, read it through as critically as you can. Give it an hour or two and return and do the whole process quite brutally again checking every fact – no starting guns – before you send it off.
This is a great competition with terrific opportunity. You owe it to yourself to give it your best. You and we should expect nothing less. Very best of luck for 2015.
Chairman of the judges
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