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Monday, May 10, 2010

Are Writing Contests Worth Entering?

My recent post about The Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Contest prompted several replies along the lines of, 'What's the point in entering these contests? They all cost money and you've no chance of winning.'

Another person went further to suggest that most writing contests are no more than money-making scams perpetrated by the organizers.

If I can deal with the latter comment first, as someone who has been involved in organizing and/or judging many contests over the years, I can confirm that there is no way running a writing contest is a money-making proposition.

For starters, you have to pay for the prizes out of the entry fees, and there is no guarantee you will get enough even to cover that expense.

And second, running a contest is a labor-intensive operation. Admin and publicity all devour time and money, and professional judges need to be paid. Most contest organizers do it not to make money, but to raise publicity and generate good PR for their organization.

So what about the first question - is there any point entering contests when there is a fee to pay and your entry may be up against hundreds or even thousands of others? Let me tell you a story from my early writing career...

I used to enter contests quite regularly in those days, and was fortunate enough to be a prize-winner in the Woman's Own short story competition. Woman's Own, for anyone who may not know, was (and I believe still is) a top-selling UK women's magazine.

I didn't win the top award - which was 3000 UK pounds, if I remember correctly - but still a very nice prize, a top-of-the-range (at the time) computer word-processor. In a way, though, the side benefits were even more valuable.

I was invited to the Dorchester Hotel in London for a swanky prize-giving lunch (all expenses paid, of course). At the meal I was seated at a table with a TV producer, a literary agent, a publisher and a magazine editor, all keen to find out what else this up-and-coming writer had in his locker. I made some great contacts that day, and though not all ultimately led anywhere, enough did to make it a highly productive day out.

So, based on this experience in particular, my answer to the question is a definite yes (with certain qualifications I'll come to shortly). Entering writing contests, especially the higher profile ones, can offer many benefits apart from the prizes on offer. Success in a contest looks good on your writing CV/resume, raises your writing profile, and can help you make contact with other people who may be able to assist you with your writing career.

As for your chances of winning, these may be better than you think. As a short-story contest judge, my experience has been that entries typically break down as follows. Around 10 per cent can be discounted immediately, as they fail to follow the rules or are full of basic mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on. Some 80 to 90 per cent are competent but unexciting. And - if you're lucky - that leaves a handful of exceptional stories that stand out from all the rest.

As a judge, very often the most difficult part of the job is not picking the winning stories but deciding the order - first place, second, and so on. I'm no expert on poetry, but I would guess it's the same in this field too.

My advice to any aspiring writer would therefore be as follows:

* Enter selected contests, but be sure to submit only your very best work. Aim to ensure you are sending work that is not merely competent but outstanding.

* Try to go beyond the obvious themes and seek out genuinely original ones the judges won't have seen before. Polish your work until it is as good as you can possibly make it.

* Be brave and target the high-profile contests (such as the Writer's Bureau competition). Okay, you won't win every time - luck does play a part as well - but if your work is good enough, sooner or later you WILL succeed. The benefits of this for your writing career are incalculable.

* By contrast, be wary of low-profile contests run by people you've never heard of, especially if they charge substantial entry fees. They may or may not be genuine, but even if you do win, there may be little kudos attached and few other benefits apart from the prize offered (when/if it arrives).

* And, if I can sneak in one more bit of advice, try to avoid putting too much doom and gloom into your competition entries. Judges are human like anyone else and can get a bit depressed by this. The odd humorous note, even (dare I say it?) an upbeat ending, can lighten a judge's day and make him/her look more favorably on your work as a result.

Good luck, and enjoy your writing!

Photo credit: m00by on Flickr.

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Blogger MOLLYC said...

Thanks so muh for the great information. So appreciated. molly

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Tammi Kibler said...

Thanks for this, Nick.

I have wondered myself whether contests are worth entering. I guess I will have to try entering a few if I am to ever learn where I sit on the competent/outstanding spectrum.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, both.

Tammi, I think it's very important to view contests from a judge's perspective. Certainly with short story contests - which I have most experience judging - it's quite surprising how similar many of the entries are. They swiftly fade in the memory as a result.

It's the story that's a bit different that stands out and grabs a judge's attention. That might mean a lighter tone rather than the customary dark, an unusual theme or style, arresting use of imagery, content that really does engage the reader emotionally as well as intellectually, or something else.

I think to win contests you need to be bold and willing to take a chance. OK, some of the time the judges may hate it, but other times they will embrace your work as new and original. If you can envisage a judge reading your story and saying at the end, 'Wow, that was different!' you may be on the right lines!

8:43 AM  
Blogger Fiona said...

Interesting piece.

One thing that has deterred me from entering contests in several magazines is the small clause in the rules that claims all entries become their property, and therefore that they have the right to use any entry as they wish without compensation or attribution. Am I right to be concerned about this clause and the potential for seeing my entry in their magazine under someone else's name?

1:21 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Hi Fiona

I agree with you. Personally, I would think long and hard before entering a contest which has this in its small-print. Fortunately, it's not a clause you will find in the rules of the great majority of reputable writing contests.

The only time I might consider this is if it's a contest with very specific rules where I would be unlikely ever to be able to sell the work in question again. I'm thinking of a flash fiction contest which has to incorporate three specific words, for example. Even then, though, there would have to be some very good prizes on offer to tempt me!

As a matter of interest, I checked the rules of the Writers Bureau Contest, which I referred to in my post. These say: 'Copyright remains with the author but prize winners must agree to publication in a single issue of Freelance Market News, plus permission to include their work on The Writers Bureau website for a period of up to 12 months.' This is much more standard, in my experience, and not at all unreasonable.

Hope that's some reassurance anyway!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Fiona said...

Thanks for the response Nick.

3:16 PM  
Blogger austere said...

I guess I need to look beyond the currency rate, multiplying the fee by 50 puts me off.

But perhaps you have a point.

Thanks for this one.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Dreary Mouse said...

If you want to know which contests are legit and which are scams, please visit:
This web site also provides a great list of free, legit poetry contests, and a much larger list of all kinds of contests that do charge fees, but are highly recommended.

Also, yes, it is worth entering them. I won a $200 first prize for a poem once, and another time I won a $50 honorable mention prize.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Christy said...

Thanks for the advice. I have always been nervous about contests, but I think I might have to go for it now.

4:57 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

No problem, Christy. Good luck!

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Brian Bordenkircher said...

I think writing contests are worth entering and I also think that its a great idea to host writing contests on a blog. I'm always running contests on my blog

7:43 PM  

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