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Competition corner

We often get asked by creative writing students how they can get their work seen, published, made or accepted. This is particularly in the mind of Level 2 and 3 students who are thinking of life after their studies. Competitions are a valuable part of any writer’s career strategy – but especially so for new writers. They can help to cement your reputation, create a portfolio and get you noticed by agents and commissioners.

People who run competitions are often commissioners, publishers and production companies genuinely looking for new talent or for new projects. They are the kind of people who also have a reputation to keep. They need to choose the best entry because each year they need to convince professional writers, editors or agents to judge or sponsor. 

In other words: competitions are just as professional an arena as is the commercial market. So don’t think competitions are lesser quality.

I have experience of competitions both as an entrant and as a judge so here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years.

1.Follow the Rules
  • Stick to word counts. If there’s a page limit, don’t be tempted to reduce margins, smaller font, less line spacing – it just makes you look unprofessional
  • If you’ve got any questions about what is required, email the organisers for an answer – don’t guess
  • Really read the rules e.g. some say that there should only be a title page with your story’s title plus a separate page with your details on it. Give them what they want. Do not give them an excuse for disqualification.
  • When you submit, it’s not a bad idea to include a covering checklist of what you are including – that way if they lose something, you can prove it’s their fault, not yours.
2.Submit your best work
  • As a writer you should constantly be producing new work to build your portfolio. Have stuff ready. Don’t wait for a competition to come along and rush something together. 
  • Don’t submit a project if it is still ‘work in progress’. Competitions endlessly have stories come in that obviously were written the day before –  there’s no quality to them, some have not even been proofread!
  • Remember, submitting to a competition is no different from submitting to a commissioner or agent. The judges are professionals and they might remember you!
3.Get your entry in early (my top tip)
  • Here’s the inside scoop on competition judging: early entries get a better read. Competition readers can wade their way through 100s of entries, some good, many bad. They have a right to be jaded! In the early stages they are relaxed, excited and receptive. As the final deadline races up, the pressure to read and judge everything is on, stress sets in, coupled with the despair that comes from reading 100s of awful entries. Give them the best chance to respond well to your writing.
  • Sometimes in the early stage of reading, a reader finds this one entry that is great, really excites them, and they pretty much decide “this is the one”. Any entry after that is judged poorly. So be first in.
  • Early deadlines are there so they can spread the load. So get in for the early deadline and set the benchmark.
4.Don’t try to predict the outcome
  • A lot of writers try to second guess what will win a competition – maybe try to write something “appropriate”. Appropriate in writing simply means a story that is well-conceived and well-written. 
  • Winning concepts tend to either have universal issues that speak to a wide audience; or those that present provocative issues in an effecting way
  • That said, it is a fact that most competitions are won by character-led stories. So make sure you have a really intriguing, interesting central character that captures the reader’s imagination.

And some final words. Winning a competition should never be your main game plan to kickstart your writing career; but it can be part of your career development strategy. Make sure you also build up a body of work (so if you do win, you can have other things to present to agents/commissioners).

If you do win (or get on the final shortlist), be your own publicist. Write a press release, send it to the trade press. Get it on the internet. Contact anyone who passed on your project before.

It is also important to have an iron skin. You might be placed in one contest and not even get past round one in another. So what? Don’t take it personally. If you consistently get nowhere though, take it as a sign that your writing is not good enough yet. 

And a last pearl of wisdom to leave you with: it doesn’t matter what you don’t win, it’s the ones you do win that count. You can enter 25 contests, lose them all but win in one. It still makes you a “competition winner”.

I try to keep an active list of writing competitions on my OCA blog. You can check it out here: https://douglasdouganoca.wordpress.com/a-list-of-writing-competitions/ 

Another great site is Literistic where you can sign up for a list of upcoming competition details https://www.literistic.com/ 

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Posted by author: Douglas Dougan
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One thought on “Competition corner

  • This reply is for those who think competitons are rigged. Many years ago I was joint judge of a short story competition. We had seventy-odd stories to read independently, all anonymous, with no contact between us until we sent each other our initial long list of twenty. Eighteen of them were exactly the same. When we whittled it down to the final three once again we were in agreement, without any consultation. We were very different writers, with totally different styles, but my point is that quality shines through, whatever the personal preferences of the judges. And in another anonymous competiton I selected a story by a previously unpublished writer. Frances Hardinge, who years later won the Costa in 2015.

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