Writing competitions are a great way to test skill and receive feedback from authors, agents, editors, and publishing gurus. Below are eight criteria to take into account before deciding which competitions are the best use of your time, money, and creativity.
Cost: There is some iffy advice in the blogosphere about never entering writing competitions that charge an entry fee. Running a writing competition takes time and money. Monetary costs can include submission software to manage boatloads of entries, prize money or other awards, and judging panel wages/honorariums as well as other administrative expenses. Unless the writing competition is being run with grant money, an organization or individual may choose and need to recoup some of the costs. A lot of reputable writing competitions charge an entry fee, so it’s important to make your decision based on your budget and in concert with the other criteria in this list.
Credibility of Panel: This past year, I entered a writing competition in which the onus was on feedback. I didn’t have the ability to choose my judges, and I found out that as the competition progressed, new judges were still being brought on board. Two of my four judges were announced after I entered. I discovered one of the recruitment procedures used was to solicit people who posted profiles on an editing services website. The point is that there seemed to be a low standard as far as choosing judges, and in my opinion, this was reflected in the feedback I received.
Politics of Panel: We live in a polarized society, and the publishing business reflects this polarization. Just as you would research agents and publishers before submitting your work to them to make sure there is an ideological match, you should read the profiles of judges, perhaps even Google them. You can also take a look at past winners and the competition administrators. Is the competition funded or sponsored by any religious or ideological organizations? If your piece isn’t politically charged, then this may not be an issue, but if it is, then check to make sure it fits with the panel’s leanings.
Fairness of Judging Process: I was invited to a short story writing competition recently, and the judging was by peers in a closed social media community. When I investigated further, I found that in the past, the entries were listed without any kind of randomization, which meant that all peer judges viewed entries in the same order. Logically, the first entries received the most reads and, therefore, the most votes. I’ve seen several other competition administrators do things this way, and what it comes down to is software. Running randomization software on a website, I don’t even know what the cost of that is. It’s much easier and cheaper to post entries and hope that peer judges don’t tire, and actually read all of them. Sure, some people will start in the middle or at the end, but not enough to make the viewing of fifty-plus entries actually random. The competition I mentioned did end up implementing a randomization-via-email approach. Another factor worth considering is whether administrators have taken steps to make the judging blind, which adds a degree of fairness to the process, though it isn’t always feasible. Also beware the crowd-voting competition, and be aware that there are many ways to cheat these systems, which are more popularity contest than skill-based competition anyway.
Time: Themed and prompted writing competitions are fun, because they challenge you to come up with a creative idea that will beat all others. This said, if you submit to a themed competition and don’t win, you have spent oodles of time on a piece that may be unsubmittable elsewhere. I was reading the submission instructions for a sci-fi magazine recently, and they specifically said DON’T send us themed pieces. The reason? Imagine 500 people enter a sci-fi writing competition with a specific prompt, say ‘sending AI to colonize Mars.’ But only three people place in that competition. Now there are 497 people looking for outlets to publish their themed piece, many who will inevitably try submitting to the same small circle of popular sci-fi mags.
Reasons for the Competition: Call me cynical, but I find it helpful to ascertain what the motivations for running the competition are, and what the motivations are for the judging panel. What does everyone gain? Agent-judges gain the possibility of finding new talent as well as exposure that leads to more people querying them. Indie editors gain exposure that leads to new paying clients. Magazines and publishers gain exposure that leads to new paying customers. Non-publishing-affiliated non-profit organizations (what a mouthful) meet mandates. And here’s the one to be cautious of. People with little relevant education and/or experience gain a resume credit and ongoing, rising credibility for their indie editing business.
Track Record: Simply by Googling the competition, if it’s been around for some time, you’ll find blogs from individuals who have entered in the past. You may also find blogs from past judges who have a beef with the administrators. Read about their experiences with how the competition is run. If the competition is brand new, this isn’t reason enough to discount it. There are always new writing competitions popping up, many of which are worth entering.
Popularity of Competition: Yes, writing competitions often have monetary prizes, but another major reason for entering is bragging rights. Whether for your query letter, your blog, or your back cover blurbs, you’ll be able to say you won or placed in such-and-such writing competition. Yes, it’s a nice ego boost to win a competition, no matter the number of entries, but if the total number of entrants was low, then the bragging rights for winning said competition aren’t persuasive. On the converse side, if you’re entering a global competition with a potential for hundreds of thousands of entries, then I direct you back up to my point about time. When considering competitions, it may not always be easy to determine the number of expected entries, especially if the competition is new, but you can evaluate the potential for a significant number of entries in other ways: quality of website, marketing efforts of administrators, response to marketing efforts on social media (are people talking about it?), and reach of administrators and judges (do they have a large social media following, for example?).
I wrote this post for the monthly Insecure Writers Support Group blog hop. To continue hopping or to join the hop, click here. (There are more than 200 of us, and it’s fun!)
Have I missed any criteria? Have you learned any important lessons from entering writing competitions? Share with me in the comments.