Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2021 – Judges’ Notes

Three weeks ago, we released the winners of the inaugural Briefly Write Poetry Prize. If you haven’t yet read the winning and commended poems, you can do so here.

Now the dust has settled, we thought it would be a good time to share a few brief observations from the judging process. We hope this will shine a light on our decision making and provide greater insight into our aesthetic.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “to judge” as:

To form, give, or have as an opinion, or to decide about something or someone, especially after thinking carefully…

We can confirm that:

  1. We thought very carefully about our choices
  2. We were deciding about something (a poem) not someone (a poet) – we read all entries anonymously

The following points aim to reveal some of the factors that helped us form our opinion of the poems we read.

Judges’ Notes

As with any competition, a dozen different judges might pick a dozen different winners. Nothing we say below is supposed to be a “rule”: these are just our thoughts and reflections on reading 1,412 poems and picking our favourites.

  1. Think carefully about your idea. No matter how beautifully you craft your poem, if you’re not inspired by what you’re writing it will probably show. Give us something authentic, something you care about, something that only you could write. When we’re reading so many poems, those quirky snapshots which illuminate the poet’s own unique experience are usually the ones that shine through.
  2. Avoid the obvious. This follows on from the previous point: make your writing unique. We had hundreds of poems about heartbreak, love, dogs or poetry. These can all be interesting topics – if that’s what speaks to you, knock our socks off with a brilliant heartbreak ballad. But remember you will be competing to stand out among hundreds of very similar poems.
  3. Make every word count. This may sound like a cliché, but it’s not: when it came down to the final decisions, some brilliant poems missed out on the longlist or shortlist due to a single word that seemed hastily chosen or badly placed. You should know why you’ve chosen every word. This doesn’t need to be a ‘poetic’ justification: “it just feels right” can be a perfectly valid reason. But when a rose is described as “beautiful” or a night’s sky as “dark” in three consecutive entries, we can’t help feeling like the poets missed a chance to sparkle.
  4. Don’t over-write. This might seem contradictory to number 3, but it’s not: we want well-worked not over-worked. Often, when people try to write in a ‘poetic’ style, the result is an overly embellished poem that lacks authenticity. If you want to write like Shakespeare, that’s fine… but we still want to hear your voice. Use rhyme or don’t use rhyme – both techniques can be used creatively and to great effect – but please don’t feel like you need to use rhyme just because that’s what your Year 9 English teacher said a poem has to do.
  5. Let it breathe. We read a lot of poems that didn’t quite feel ready, work that could have been improved with a little more time and care. The Poetry Prize was open for three months and we recommend you wait a few days (or weeks or months) after writing your poem before you send it. We read generously but a sloppy, typo-laden entry will not make a good impression. Check line breaks, word choice, rhythm. Speak your poem out loud to make sure it sounds how it does in your head.
  6. Don’t forget the title. A surprising number of poems were called ‘Untitled’. It’s fine if that’s your thing, but when you only have ten lines to impress, the title can do a lot of work.
  7. Choose a good title! Several promising poems were let down by slap-dash, irrelevant or uninteresting titles. A strong title can be tantalising, tingling, informative and intriguing. Use it to tease our poetry senses: a title gives you the opportunity to set the stage, to tweak and play with the reader’s emotional state. Don’t give it all away before we’ve read the poem and don’t try to be too ‘out there’ for the sake of being ‘out there’. But do make the most of the opportunity to excite us in the first few words.
  8. Think big. As well as individual word choice, think about the larger structure. Can you use line breaks creatively or disruptively? Is the layout important to the message? If a poet does not think enough about the overall effect, a beautiful poem can become dense with too many unrelated images.
  9. Get the ending right. Poets often stress over the opening lines, but very few poems were turned down based on a poor opening alone. More often it’s the final lines that let a piece down. It’s very tempting to hammer home the key points at the end – but doing so usually results in a sense of over-writing. Trust your reader: if you’ve constructed a beautiful metaphor about a juniper bush and your first love, leave it to blossom in the reader’s imagination – don’t destroy the image by explaining that the juniper now reminds you of those idyllic days and you’re feeling sad you’ll never get to re-live them.