Contests – Love ‘em or Ignore them?

Ever entered a writing contest? I entered a number of them when I was younger but only one since I’ve gotten back into writing. That contest entry was an afterthought for a conference I was attending. I wasn’t successful.

Now when I receive contest announcements, I normally ignore them. Lots of rationalizations but mostly I don’t have time or think I’s worth my time. In August, I attended the Virginia Writer’s Club, Inc.’s Navigating Your Writing Life conference. In the afternoon, one session stood out about Contests and Getting Your Work Out. Based on the panel discussion, I’m again entering a contest. However, this time, I’m approaching the process in a new way.

The panelists suggested some practical, common sense items such as looking at prior year’s winners to determine what the judges are looking for (something I hadn’t done for the conference contest I entered). Other bits like researching the judges (if they are announced in advance) to read what they write was sound advice. In addition, I knew a contest win/placing could be helpful for a resume or in a query letter.

What I hadn’t considered are small, local and regional contests, with smaller fees and a smaller pool of writers. A local issue used in the story can resonate with local judges. For smaller contests, generally all the entries get read so a strong ending can help a less strong middle. This might propel your story further than it otherwise would in a larger contest.

Choosing the story is important but what I hadn’t thought about was that using an experimental story isn’t the best idea. Or using a cliché. And like most writing, Voice is the factor that wins a contest. For some contests, important factors can also be using unusual settings, foreign countries or high stress situations.

I tend to write short but for a short story contest, a story will be more complete if you use the full word length. I struggle with this concept but realize is true. Hooks and titles are important. Each story should have a beginning, middle and end. In editing, remove “stuff” that doesn’t contribute to the main thread of the story. All common sense items but as writers who likes to play around with the way we put our stories together, it can be a hard choice of whether to submit a story you think is unique. I’m still debating this idea but the panel felt experimental writing is better left to a different venue.

Finally, follow the rules. I don’t like rules but to be successful in a contest, it’s necessary. Where does that leave me at this point? I picked a more local contest and one I think I have a quality story to submit. I’ve researched the author but reading something she’s written is still on the list. This particular contest only allows one submission but I’m considering two. Both have been sent to my critique group and I’ve gotten some good feedback. It’s interesting because each story’s qualities stood out for different people. I’m working on revisions and will re-send them both for critiques before I choose which story to submit.

The contest submission is in November and this time I’ve done the homework. I’ll follow all the rules and see what happens.
What about you? Have you entered any contests? Have any tips or tried and true methods that work for you?

2 thoughts on “Contests – Love ‘em or Ignore them?

  1. Very interesting post, Carolyn. I’ve been involved in 4 contests, two successful (finalist) and two not. I also was asked to judge a contest where I had been a finalist the year before.

    A suggestion: make sure to select contests that give you critiques. They’re incredibly valuable if the judges have been thorough and taken the time to write detailed comments. The contest I was asked to judge was the Daphne and we were given specific guidance in developing our evaluations. The contest coordinator sent instructional documents we had to read in advance of receiving the manuscripts. There were also articles that had been written by writers who had served as judges for one contest or another. We were strongly encouraged to mark up the manuscript as well as fill out a questionnaire. Good judges make an effort to do both.

    From the writer’s perspective, the judges’ critiques can both hurt and help. I was very disappointed when one contest returned 2 very good and complete critiques but the 3rd had scanty comments and her/his marks brought me down below the finalist threshold. It was obvious that judge had spent little time reviewing my manuscript (actually, in this case it was a published book) but I consoled myself with the other 2 critiques and plotted my strategy for next year.

    Two other notes: Preditors & Editors has a list of contests they have evaluated. While I don’t subscribe to all their concerns — having an entry fee is a no-no for them but I think as long as the contest is reputable in all other respects an entry fee is quite reasonable — it’s still helpful to check contests against their data base.

    Finally, if you’re going to enter a contest, understand what will be accepted. I’m thinking specifically of the Daphne again because of its definition of published vs. unpublished. Most contests I’ve looked at consider self-publishing to be different from regular publishing. That is, if you published a book yourself, you would still be eligible for certain contests restricted to unpublished authors.

    The Daphne is not that way. If you self-publish, you lose your status as an unpublished author and can no longer enter any manuscript in the unpubbed category. You can only enter in pubbed from then on.

    I mention that because it’s always good to check the fine print and the Daphne is an important contest in our field of writing. You may want to juggle your printing schedule if you’re trying to enter in the unpub division.

    Good luck with your November submission. Hope you’ll let us know how it turns out.


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