Reginald and his struggle against the eunuchs

Lots of writing competitions have certain restrictions on who and what you should be if you want to go in for them - the Asham wants you to be female; Welsh ones tend to want you to be Welsh; most say you must be over eighteen, unless it’s one for young people, in which case you must be under; some specify what area you must come from or live in, and some have great screeds of rules which you must sign in blood. These strictures may be irritating, but you can appreciate the reasoning behind them.

However, I have come across a competition - the H.G.Wells Short Story Competition (see rules and FAQs) - which has the most peculiar condition I have ever heard of. Entrants must submit a typescript of their story accompanied by a hand-written copy which will account for 10% of their resulting marks.

I started to think about this. Why handwritten? What was the agenda here? Obviously, we were going to be judged by the quality of our handwriting, but why? I wondered at first if the organisers wanted to use graphology to see if we were fit to go in for their competition, which was worrying, as graphology is known for being unreliable and is not much used to judge character any more.

Mercifully, this isn’t the case, although it’s not a lot better. Further investigation revealed that the competition is run by one Reg Turnill, aged 94, who is so appalled by the current standard of literacy that he is taking it upon himself to improve matters. He has run the competition before, stipulating that entries could only be handwritten (and furthermore with a ‘no science fiction’ rule, which seems a bit odd in an H.G.Wells competition). Unsurprisingly, it got no entries at all.

Did he learn from his mistake? Not really. He has unbent sufficiently to allow typescript, and says handwriting is not compulsory, but you lose ‘marks’ for bad handwriting. In other words, write it nicely or else. When I was teaching, I would take Handwriting once a week, and I can tell you that some people naturally write neatly and some just don’t, despite endless practice in letter formation, etc. The brainiest writer I know has handwriting that even I, after twenty four years, still can’t read, and everyone knows about doctors.

There is another very large and obvious problem with this. What if we are dyslexic or have a manual disability - arthritis, injury, Parkinsonism? Or are Stephen Hawking? I could cite Dennis Potter, who would strap a pen to his hand in order to write. Doesn’t this come under the heading of discrimination on grounds of disability, which I believe is illegal? And we have to ask, could Mr Turnill at the age of 94 do it himself?

You could always get a friend to write it out for you, I suppose, but they’d have to be a very good friend to copy out several thousand words, and what if the judges found out? Oh, the shame.

You could say that the medium is the message, and certainly any judges would be unimpressed by a story written in green ink on the back of a Sugar Puffs packet, but handwriting is surely a separate issue. Perhaps he should have a handwriting competition and get his message across that way.

He is also rather missing the point of writing competitions in being too arbitrary about what he wants to see. He said of the ‘no science fiction’ rule:
"Last year’s competition brought in too many stories depicting ghastly invasions of our everyday lives by all sorts of nameless horrors"
So what? Every competition will have its dross and gluts of a particular kind of story, and that’s why there are judges – to pick out the diamonds. Maybe a writer will have a new and original take on a much-used idea. Or why not simply say, ‘Don’t go for the obvious?’ If you’re judging a writing competition, you have to take what comes, and a good story is a good story, whatever its genre.

This, from the 2010 brochure, is what he’s looking for:
"Stories should give readers in 2110 an idea of what life is like for ordinary people, working or retired, in the second decade of the 21st century - its complications and perplexities, and above all its humorous aspects. HG’s characters described the misery and humour of apprenticeship in a draper’s emporium. There must be both fun and drudgery working in a supermarket or MacDonald’s. Is this or back-packing a better way to fill in the time between college and university? And what is it like if you don’t go to university? Plumbing is said to be a well-paid alternative - and always good for a laugh. And how does it feel to be made redundant - all too familiar in 2010, but hopefully less well-known in 2110? There are plenty of non-sci-fi stories waiting to be written."
Cor. I really feel that if this is what he wants, he should be running a different kind of competition. You can’t dictate to the competitors or they will avoid your competition, as they have. There are plenty more they can choose from.

In 1994, and probably since too, for all I know, the mighty Bridport competition gave a list in its anthology of the kinds of stories they received all too often. It was daunting, yet helpful because it gave you a good idea of what was becoming clich├ęd. Bridport is a long-standing and well-respected competition and can do this. Mr Turnill is merely giving his personal views and making it all too clear where he stands and what he will approve of, and I fear he is fighting a losing battle.

The obvious come-back to any complaint would be, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t go in for it’, but isn’t that just what people have been doing?

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