I mentioned earlier that many competitions with numbers of entries verging on the unmanageable will seek to cut numbers down one way or the other, and another way of achieving this is to be discriminating about the standards of presentation they deem to be acceptable. Fashionable as it may be in some circles to regard grammar and spelling as optional extras, this is not, generally speaking, an attitude shared by most of the organisers of UK fiction competitions. Even relatively short pieces which are littered with basic punctuation, grammar and spelling errors are unlikely to make it past the “filterers”. Other aspects of presentation which competition organisers have reported receiving include the use of obscure or exotic fonts, photographs or drawings, and unusual arrangements of print material. There are magazines devoted to the visual arts who accept submissions in this line of work, and visual arts competitions; fiction competitions generally do not ask for the work to be supplemented or visually enhanced in this way and, again, it is likely to be grounds for disqualification as far as many organisers are concerned.
Another point I made earlier refers to the need to read competition rules carefully, and this applies as much in the area of presentation as it does with procedures for sending in entries. For example, most competitions will ask for work to be double spaced, for ease of reading and, presumably, to enable notes to be made. Some will go as far as to specify both the size and type of font, and where this stipulation is made, it is usually for 12 point Times new Roman. People may think, and on balance I would tend to agree with them, that this is carrying prescription a bit too far, but as it is their competition, the entrant must either go along with the rules or not enter the competition in the first place.
There is a strand of thinking among writers which is suspicious of neatness and perfection of presentation with written material, feeling that a degree of spontaneity and “showing the workings” can be endearing and genuine. I can only say, on the basis of my teaching experience and the need to mark large numbers of written pieces of work, that this is an attitude which is a great deal less popular among readers than among writers. The need to work through pieces of writing en masse, often put together by people with very different approaches and perspectives, already makes heavy demands on a reader who is trying to understand ideas, plots and characters. To add to this slapdash presentation and work with errors marked, passages highlighted, footnotes or numbered references is to make excessive and unreasonable demands on competition organisers.
Beginning, Middle, End
Moving on from presentation issues to planning techniques, it is also true that some writers are dubious about spending too much time and trouble on planning what are usually fairly brief pieces of writing, believing that lengths of words between about 1500 and 5000 might be expected to achieve a momentum of their own, without attempts at subdivisions, sections or changes of scene or dialogue. Some writers appear to make a virtue out of not knowing at the start of a story either how it is to develop or to end. This is not to say that there is any hard and fast rule about stories having a beginning, a middle and an end; reflections on real-life indicate clearly enough that there are rarely neat endings, if there are endings at all. But even though the narrative does not necessarily conclude by neatly closing all doors and tying up all loose ends, the limitations of word numbers do mean writing space will run out, and if a writer genuinely does not know where the piece is going to go from the start, the uncertainty and confusion will probably show in the finished article.
Some people will go to the extent of planning paragraph by paragraph, enumerating word totals along the way, though meticulous and extremely conscientious approaches can harbour as many dangers as rushed and hasty methods. I find that the amount of written preparation which is likely to be necessary depends largely on the extent to which the idea is already defined in the mind. If everything has been quite definitively mapped out before the writing even starts, additional notes and preparations will probably be superfluous. However, if it is only the opening circumstances and settings of the story which have a definite shape, there are likely to be difficulties, blockages and occasionally, worst of all, complete halts in the process of writing it, and this is when notes outlining alternative developments, therefore giving the writer choices, can be useful.
One final point is worth making in relation to the planning issue. It has been mentioned earlier that only a small minority of the people who would like to make a living out of writing actually do, and most of them are journalists. The lengths of short stories tend to be comparable to the lengths of journalistic articles – articles rather than brief news items – and, while I cannot claim to have a vast experience of observing journalists, I do have some, and the first pieces of writing I had published were journalistic articles based on educational research. I don’t know any journalist who would start an article with no idea of how long it needs to be or what is going to go in it, and that certainly did not apply to my own pieces, which were usually attempts to include a lot of research findings in ridiculously low numbers of words. Amateurish approaches to short pieces of writing may have charms or types of spontaneity, but more professional ways of organising material are clearly the methods favoured by the professionals themselves, and this is probably as true of fiction as it is of any other form of writing.