So you fancy yourself as a writer eh? You’re another one of the ‘I have a book inside me dying to get out’ brigade? Not only that but you’ve just finished your ten week creative writing course at the Academy of Wherever, that cost you twenty thousand pounds! You know all there is to know about paragraphs, quotation marks and abbreviated sentences. So naturally the next step is to show off your skills to an unsuspecting panel of writing experts. Yes, you’ve decided to enter a writing competition. Oh dear.

But before you send your amazing short story off to the panel of world renowned judges, one thing you have to appreciate about most panels is that ninety-nine per cent of any panel is populated by the clueless. Unfortunately such panels get things wrong ninety-nine percent of the time. There are too many examples to mention here, but let’s just take one. The Oscars. Oh yes, the panel of all panels where talent has little to do with the eventual winner. Did you know that the following acting giants have NEVER received a gong for some of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid: Edward G Robinson, Cincinatti Kid, Steve McQueen, Papillion, Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke, Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now, and Gary Oldman, Syd & Nancy. The list is endless. By the way. Sylvester Stallone has an Oscar which basically says it all.

Anyway, similar to creative writing courses, see my blog, savvy educational establishments have long been aware that far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter.  Once I told people that I had just completed my first novel some of them would come up to me at the bar or wherever and tell me that they’ve been thinking of writing a book for years, and ‘tell me what you think of this idea’ etc. But as soon as I asked them what they liked to read I was invariably met with the following reply. ‘I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.’

Personally I have never had the inclination to enter a writing competition ever since I managed to prove to myself and a few friends how pointless they were. To prove my point I actually submitted a short story entitled ’The Swimmer’ by Pulitzer Prize winner John Cheevers. This short story is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.  I changed the name of the characters and the title to the ‘The Long Swim Home.’ Laughably, my entry, or should I say John’s, didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t receive any feedback but wrote a very pleasant letter to the panel requesting same. Two weeks later I received a feedback note stating that while the story had its merits the premise of the narrative wasn’t believable and not relevant to what readers were looking for today. It remains a sad regret that I didn’t keep that note, but then again the lady who signed it is sadly no longer with us.  The eventual winner of this particular competition was won by a very nice lady who penned a short story about a day in the life of an anorexic! Needless to say I have heard neither sight nor sound of her since.

The point of all of this of course is that to try and scrutinize the actions of any member of a panel of a writing contest is impossible. All writing is subjective. A judge attempts to say, “This story is good,” or, “This story is bad,” but really, they are just choosing based on their own idiosyncratic taste. Winning comes down to luck. Or God. Or whatever the judge ate for lunch that day, rather like the Oscars. In addition to the legitimacy of a literary contest, there’s another question you may want to consider, namely is it actually worth your while to enter? Many writers think that entering and winning contests is a way to build a writing CV, and in some very limited cases this may be true, particularly if the contest is prestigious which, I have to tell you, 99% of them are not.  And this is before we get to the plethora of fake competitions that charge you for the privilege of entering. Winning a writing contest run by an obscure magazine or a local writers’ group or an Internet contest mill won’t cut much ice with agents, editors, or readers. Not just because they probably won’t have heard of the contest, but because they may will be aware that such contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.  And if you do win you’ll get a cheque for a few hundred quid and a grainy photograph in the local , but little else. Many judges on these panels hardly ever request to see more work from the winner. If there was a real prize, then entering just might be worthwhile. Next time you’re scanning the internet’s twelve thousand pages of literary contests, count how many of them come with a publishing contract for the winner. I’ll tell you now that you’ll probably need only one finger.

And not winning could cause you to assume that there’s something wrong with your writing, which may be untrue. Not much wrong with the writing of John Cheevers? Anyway, you wouldn’t be any the wiser because these contests rarely, if ever, offer the writer any feedback. You may have come close to winning or being long/shortlisted or thrown into the waste-paper basket and never know. On top this there is the fact that some of these competitions are little more than popularity contests, as the entrants get their friends and family and work colleagues etc to vote for them. So even if you are still committed to entering a writing contest at the very least you should pay attention to the scoring system, or ask about it if it’s not published. And if you’re entering contests for unpublished work, consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually submitting for publication. After all if you’re a serious writer then isn’t getting your work published the real prize??

Laters

20th September 2016

48 Comments

  1. I don’t think they’re a waste of money if they’re chosen wisely. All your are amusing as well as pertinent but there’s a couple of contests I’m thinking of entering this year.

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  2. I have to agree with Derek. Contests can have some benefits but essentially their money making ventures. I’ve considered entering my MS in one, but I worry that I’m too early in my career??

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  3. I’m was only thinking about entering a contest this year until I read this!. The feedback for me would be a huge reward but I wasn’t aware that it’s rarely given. I might have saved my self £20.

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    • Saved yourself £20?? You’ve just made Derek’s point for him?

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  4. I’ve written a post about my experience with entering contests, but I’m not publishing it until next year…when the results of my latest try come out. I want to encourage those who don’t enter because I know how discouraging it can feel to get nowhere. And just because you don’t get anywhere in a contest doesn’t mean you won’t go places.

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  5. OMG! ‘The Swimmer’ is my fav short story and I would have definitely recognised it Derek. obviously the panel wasn’t very well read?

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  6. I’m not in total agreement with this blog. But I still think they are worth entering…as long as you know how to measure the feedback. Not all judges are created equal

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  7. I don’t enter too many. There aren’t as many contests for writers for children that offer feedback. They just announce winners 10 months later. But I have yet to find one with feedback as part of it. That would be worth it

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  8. . I do think it’s worth it to enter. As an unpublished writer you can learn a lot about taking feedback and applying valuable critique to your work. But I agree with you Derek, find a competition that offers feedback.

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  9. I love contests and enter, but not as many as I should.
    Great points and advice, and funny!

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  10. Thank you for this post, it has some great points. When I very first started writing I tried to crank out some work for a local writing contest. It was a good experience even though I cringe now at how raw and immature my writing was. It was nice to have some feedback to work with

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  11. I’ve also known some authors who are now on the best seller list who laugh at the fact they NEVER won any contest they entered.
    I guess the moral here is take away from it what you can, but don’t think if you never win you can’t make it as a writer

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  12. Sorry Derek but I entered two contests this year. Though I am still waiting on the feedback from the second one, I felt the first one was very beneficial.

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    • The best advice someone gave me about contest was “take what you can use and ignore the rest.”

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  13. The judges from my very first entry provided very specific suggestions. They were honest and firm. I will admit it stung at first, but I took some time to cry then read it again and included the suggestions for my next entry.

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  14. Just because a writer doesn’t win a writing comp doesn’t mean that particular story isn’t workable. The same way a rejection by an agent shouldn’t define us and our work either. Of course it should be put together with all of the various feedback that we’re getting.

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  15. I entered my first novel in a contest – having a deadline made me get down to it and actually write a complete novel. Also, it was free to enter. My reasoning was that, worst case scenario, at the end of it I would have a completed book which would be physical proof that I am capable of completing a manuscript. Even if nothing comes of it I’ll give it another couple of months while I write my next novel and then go back to it, edit if necessary, see if I can submit it anywhere

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  16. I’m a firm believer in the value of contests. In the early stages of my writing journey, I gained valuable feedback from the preliminary round judges, which helped me identify the areas where my writing was weak and needed work.

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  17. I’m in total agreement with this blog. the vast majority of competitions come with a small cheque and nothing else. Usually the judges are totally unheard of.

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  18. While there are many, many unscrupulous writing contest scams there are many legitimate ones that even ask for a fee. Those run by Romance Writers of America and their local chapters quickly come to mind. Then, of course, Writer’s Digest. You must do your homework. One red flag for me is the mention of going into their anthology for a fee. So it all comes down to doing your homework, as it does with most things.

    This is an excellent reminder on hat to be on the alert for

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  19. After spending a fair chunk of change on these contests – all held by small literary magazines – I realized a few things. The ‘entry fee’ – which always ‘included a subscription to the magazine’ – was simply a way to get people to subscribe. And if you weren’t a literary writer at heartyou’d never win. So I was buying all these subscriptions to magazines I didn’t enjoy reading.

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  20. I have to agree with Derek because I recentlylearned that, even if I had won a contest, it wouldn’t help me in the real world. These tiny magazines with their quarterly contests are unheard of by most in the publishing business.

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  21. Really informative blog!! As others have stated, I too was almost duped by such a poetry website. So sad that these seemingly legitimate associations/clubs, try to capitalize off others talents. I guess we simply have to remain alert at all times for such schemes and do a thorough research when entering competitions. Cheers D

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  22. It seems greed is everywhere,and writers are always being taken advantage of…thanks for the blog.

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  23. What I personally get from entering a writing competition is the stimulus of writing to a fixed theme and length and deadline. I also keep copies of my entries and revise and recycle them but essentially I agree with the blog.

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  24. I wouldn’t waste my time. Sometimes all that is on offer is the chance to see your work on some website – OK if that’s what you want, but it does mean a story can’t then be counted as “unpublished” for any future comps.

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  25. Derek I’ve been echoing your sentiments for ages. Do these competitions that you pay for give you anything else back? Like a good revue of your entry? Anything educational? What do you get out of the money you spend? ZERO!

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    • I agree Chris. Is it a chance of winning it? Or not winning it? There’s a much more useful bet on the lottery – there is at least some chance of getting a useful return??

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  26. As Derek points out, look for those competitions that charge little or nothing but offer either hard copy publishing and/or money. Then there are those that are simply designed to help you refine your craft. You must decide what you want out of any competition. Then go with your gut. If you are looking to make money at it, I haven’t seen many that can.

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  27. This is scary. I never liked entering contests but this only verifies my ill feelings in doing so. Thanks for the blog Derek.

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  28. I am looking to publish my first book, and my intuition has been ringing out loud and clear against many options I’ve been coming across. You have helped me immeasurably toward making a quality decision, and probably have saved me from many restless nights in my future! THANK YOU.

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  29. If a contest is a no fee contest, and the award is a legitimate publishing contract, even if from a partnership publisher, what is their to bad mouth? So what if the publisher hopes to publish some of the better entries. Aren’t we all adults that can determine for ourselves whether or not it’s right for us.

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  30. Yes, there are legit contests, but even if you are a great writer, the chances of win/place/show are not good. And yes a few of them are rigged!

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  31. In the case of “Readers Favorite”, the contest is so obviously a money maker, it is hard to believe one could fall for it. Yet it continues to happen and I applaud you for bringing this, and other’s to our attention Mr Ross.

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  32. Yet another good piece, Derek. Taking the contests to task has been a long time coming

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  33. A girlfriend of mine won a competition last year In perpetuity they were claiming ALL rights, and demanding that she ask their permission before doing anything with the work. If they grant it, then she had to credit THEM and give THEM royalties. Excuuuuuuuse me!!!!

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  34. I also find this contest thing questionable and find the partnership with Smashwords unfortunate. I use Smashwords and worry any contest will give it a veneer of prestige which isn’t actually there. It may be above board business-wise, but entrants have to know that the contests goal is to sell them stuff.

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  35. These gigs prey on gullibility of those newbies who do respond, a relentless upsell process begins — if you’re willing to pay to enter a contest, maybe you’ll pay to enter in two more categories. If you’re willing to pay for a book contest, then maybe you’ll pay to have your book displayed at a series of exhibits/shows. It’s all a con

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  36. Sure, there’s no problem entering contests. But be wary that there are sharks in the water. Seriously consider what you’re doing if someone wants money to read or publish your work. If you get published and have to buy the book or product that was produced, something is wrong.
    Great post, thank you for putting this out there.

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    • I was unfortunate enough to fall prey to one of these “contests” early on. I also got suckered into having one of my poems “converted to song.” Both experiences produced horribly edited work that mangled my original pieces. It made me very sad, disheartened even. It was a blow that took years to recover from.

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  37. I’ve always thought that £50 or so was a fair Reader’s Fee when submitting to a contest – one that looks good and brings some prestige. ?? I honestly don’t know where anyone would be able to find professional readers willing to pick up extra material for free. They’ll only do it if they get paid. So I have to wonder who it is that might be reading my entry if there’s no reading fee whatsoever??

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  38. I have yet to actually speak to/ read a story of someone who *verifiably* can say that they had a good experience with a contest. Sorry– I don’t mean to accuse anyone of making false statements about how they found some contests to be worthwhile– but let’s get real. Anyone can post anything on the web. It really seems that there are better ways to spend both time and energy than “contest-chasing”, as someone else wrote. As Derek says, the real prize is a book deal???

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  39. It’s also important to ask yourself, for contests where publication is the prize, whether this is a publisher you’d truly want to be published by?

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  40. This is an interesting post on many levels. I came to it trying to make sense of the massive website, Readers’ Favorites. Had a feeling it was something that should be passed by. Now, I’m certain.

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  41. Thank you so much for this interesting post Derek. I’ve made up my mind not to enter the competitions I was looking into.

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  42. Thanks so much for this. I was trying to find out how Readers’ Favorite award is judged. There was no way I could find this information on their site and I suspected the judging was done by whoever could get the most votes for their book. I’m not into this sort of thing. If the judging isn’t done by proper judges (particularly when the fee is fairly hefty) I don’t want to know.

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  43. I entered this contest last month, mailed in my book, did not send an ebook. Then I learned after getting officially entered, that I was ‘waiting for a reviewer to pick my book for a free review’.Well at this time it is August 30, and my book is not yet ‘picked up’ for a free review, yet I can plunk down more money than the £40 entry fee if I just can’t wait, and get a rush review. The interesting thing is there is only one month left before finalists are announced. The con isn’t even subtle!!!

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  44. Awards are like haemorrhoids Derek. Sooner or later every a**hole gets one!!!!

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