February 11, 2011

Writing contests: you be the judge

Ask other writers what they think about writing contests, and you will get responses that vary with each person’s personal experience. The truth is, all writing contests are not the same, so they do not have the same motivations and goals. Some are reputable. Some are not. So unless poets and writers thoroughly investigate the options, the responses to this topic will often be emotionally charged.

To judge for yourself whether a writing competition is right for you, consider:

Is this a “blind” competition? If so, the judges do not know who enters which manuscript until the final decisions have been made and recorded. Therefore, a “blind” reading assures you that no favoritism will be shown.

Who sponsors the contest and why? For example, the sponsor may be looking for a publishable book only from the winning entry or, sometimes, all of the manuscripts that place high. Either way, contestants usually pay an entry fee, which makes each writer apt to send in their best manuscript(s) and not flood an editor’s desk with every page their printer spews out.

Does entering a contest give you access to a publisher who might otherwise shut the proverbial door in your face? Many publishers will not look at a manuscript you send directly to them without the buffering agent of literary representation. If, however, that same company sponsors a writing contest, your entry fee gets you in their door, the same as everyone else.

Did the sponsor dispense with entry fees? Entering a free contest sounds good and may be to your advantage – or not. For example, a reputable e-zine that normally cannot afford to pay poets or writers may offer a no-fee contest in hopes of drawing manuscripts of higher literary quality than they usually get. If so, entering that contest could be a win-win situation. On the other hand, another sponsor who does not charge a fee might not judge any of the entries but, instead, include all of them in an anthology later sold to each “contestant” at an exorbitantly high price. Since the resulting anthology will inevitably contain all sorts of lame poems and stories, the real prize for your pricey copy might be the value you gain in seeing how your work compares with others. Hopefully, that will be much better than you thought!

Are entry fees in line with prize monies? Some sponsors have grants or other sources of financial backing that enable them to charge you a low fee for your low chance at a high prize. If so, expect heavy competition. Also, expect a seasoned poet or writer to be the big winner, not only of the cash but of the ongoing prestige and far-reaching effects of winning a highly prized competition. Conversely, a low fee and low cash prize generally means you have less competition and, therefore, a higher chance of winning, but do not just play the odds! As with any skill-based competition, the better you get at writing, the more likely your work will be to win or place.

Does the sponsor provide poets and writers with professional support year-round? For years, for instance, Writer’s Digest has published a magazine, books about writing, and market guides to publishing in your chosen genre. They have an online community for writers too, so their contests offer another avenue of encouragement to writers and the literary community. Something similar can be said of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Poets & Writers, and other writing-related groups, so check their websites to see what types of help they offer.

For many years, I have been a member of Writers-Editors Network, a professional organization that offers all sorts of member benefits such as helping editors to find writers for a particular project. As a writer, I’ve personally benefited from the job postings for Members Only and have kept up with ever-changing publishing markets, but after a while, I noticed that the annual contest did not include a poetry category. When I wrote the director to ask why, I learned something important: A poetry contest requires a poetry judge. Since I had the qualifications by then, I volunteered.

That was over ten years ago, and I’ve been judging the poetry entries ever since. Later, I began judging the children’s literature division too, but the contest itself is now in its 28th year. As you might expect, I highly recommend it, but not because I am involved. That's backwards! I am involved because I highly recommend it.

Each year the Writers-Editors.com contest ends on its regular postmark deadline of March 15. Throughout the year, however, the website lists other Writers Contests for you to consider. In addition, the site posts Contest Tips such as my articles, “How to Judge Your Manuscripts for Children” and “Notes on Judging a Poetry Contest,” intended to help you discern which manuscript is most “ready” to enter the competition.

Whether you decide to enter this writing competition or another or none at all is up to you, of course, but if you judge in favor of any contest, be sure to judge your own manuscript before entering. For instance, if you write poetry, check out “The Perfectly Imperfect Poem” on The Poetry Editor blog. If you write manuscripts for children, see the relevant articles previously posted on this blog such as “Writing Winner Nonfiction for Children” and “Writing Children’s Stories with No Pink Fairies or Old Fads.”

Hopefully, you have already read those articles, which now act merely as a reminder of potentially useful tips. If, however, I have read an article, poem, story, or other manuscript you have written, please, oh, please, do not enter it in one of the categories I judge since manuscripts I have previously read will automatically be disqualified. No matter how great it is, that manuscript will not stand a chance.

Otherwise, how well you do in a contest is up to you more than the judge! That is, your work has as good a chance as anyone else’s of placing, yet you can improve your odds. How?

Write well.

Revise well.

Read each revision aloud.

And make your work as good as it gets.
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