March 12, 2015

How to know which writing contest to enter

If you ask other poets and writers what they think about writing contests, the responses will vary according to each person’s experience. The truth is, all writing contests are not the same, nor do they have the same goals. Some are reputable. Some are not.

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

Is this a “blind” competition? If so, the judges do not know who enters what until the final decision has 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 from the winning entry. If so, contestants will typically pay an entry fee, which makes them more apt to send in their best poems or manuscript.

Does entering a contest give you access to a publisher whose work you like? Many publishers will not look at a manuscript without literary representation, but if that same company sponsors a contest, your entry fee assures you of a reading.

What about a contest with no entry fee? 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 actually judge 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.

Are entry fees in line with prize monies? Some sponsors have grants or other sources of financial backing that enable them to charge a low fee for a high prize with heavy competition. In such cases, you can expect a seasoned poet or writer to be the big winner, not only of the cash but of the prestige and far-reaching effects of winning a highly prized competition. Conversely, a low fee with a low cash prize generally means you have less competition and, therefore, a higher chance of winning.

Does the sponsor offer poets and writers professional assistance 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, so their contests offer another avenue of encouragement to 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 visit their websites to see what help they offer.

For many years, I have belonged to the Writers-Editors Network, a professional organization with member benefits such as helping editors find writers for a particular project and vice versa. As a writer, I’ve benefited from job postings for Members Only and have kept up with publishing markets and writing tips. I’ve also found the founder and director to be highly conscientious and helpful.

Over a decade ago, however, I noticed their annual contest did not include a poetry category, so I wrote to ask why and discovered something important: A poetry contest requires a poetry judge. Since I had the qualifications by then, I volunteered and have chaired the poetry division ever since. So, I don’t recommend the contest because I’m involved. I’m involved because I recommend the organization.

That particular contest requires an annual postmark deadline of March 15 (or March 16, if that’s a Sunday), but throughout the year, the website lists other writing contests to consider. In addition, the site posts Contest Tips to give your entries as good a chance as anyone's of placing. In general:

• Write well.
• Revise well.
• Read each revision aloud.
• Make your work as good as it gets.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved. Article originally posted in 2011 as “Writing contests: you be the judge.”


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