Writing Competitions? Think Twice.

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??


20th September 2016