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Writing for competitions

Short story competitions have filled some of the gaps left by magazines going out of business, and poetry competitions are invaluable for people who are notching up rejection slips in three figures. There are lots of small competitions, as well as the big ones, and over the last few years flash fiction has made an appearance. You don’t have to win to benefit from entering – just being mentioned in dispatches can give your self-confidence a tremendous boost. To decide whether something is worth entering you should look at the entry fee, and compare it to the prize money. Some competitions are just scams to raise money for something – or someone! Some big competitions, such as Bridport, publish anthologies of past winners, and it’s worth taking a look to see what sort of thing has won before.
It’s as well to be aware that results don’t always appear when promised. This can be a real problem – most competitions want something that has never been published, and you may well want to submit it elsewhere once you think you’re out of the running. Withdrawing something that is about to be published won’t make you very popular with the magazine’s editor, so allow some extra time or make enquiries before you re-submit. I speak from experience…
There are a few bits of general advice I’d like to pass on.
Firstly, READ THE RULES. Even then, they may not say what they mean. Read the small print.
Most competitions want anonymous entries – they’re identified by the entry form. Make sure you really have erased your name from the title page as well as any headers or footers.
Number your pages.
Don’t use a fancy font or purple ink.
Don’t exceed the word-count, or line length for poetry, as it’s so easy to check these days. Instant disqualification.
Be careful about your use of humour. It’s a pity, but funny stories or poems rarely win competitions because humour is such personal thing.
Remember the old editors’ adage: the first paragraph makes you want to read it, the last paragraph makes you want to buy it.
Try and have several entries out at once, as you’re not devastated when one doesn’t make it.
And lastly, don’t surrender your copyright unless you really don’t want it.
I suspect I cried “personal bias!” with the best of them until I was asked to be a judge myself. It was a salutary experience. When I co-judged a short story competition with another writer we each independently received the same seventy-odd anonymous entries to read, from which we were to select a shortlist of twenty. We only disagreed on four. When it came to choosing the winners, we didn’t disagree at all. We were writers from very different genres, too. Hopefully, this shows that ability does shine through, and personal prejudices take a back seat. Although I have to admit there have been occasions when I’ve read winning entries for some competition or other, and thought – why?
The first one I ever entered was Bridport, in 1987, and to my surprise I came third. I’ve won quite a few others since such as the Cardiff International Poetry Competition in 1999, and I was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Award in 2013. What are your competition experiences? Did you get any feedback? And if you’ve never tried – have a go!
Image: crafty_dame, Flickr

Posted by author: Liz Newman
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3 thoughts on “Writing for competitions

  • Very useful post, Liz, thank you. I got my first publishing break via a competition and I know some of our students have had great success too. If you have never entered a competition before, why not make it one of your goals this year?

  • I agree. After I won the Wells Lit Festival prize,my confidence went up and I didn’t look back. I would recommend that all writing students, right up to level three resist the temptation to try for publication, and instead place their best work in competitions. It’s a little more costly, but even being short-listed is a boost. Witness the success of student Deborah Riccio, who was placed second in the Yeovil Lit Prize: https://weareoca.com/student-work/winning-second-place-2016-yeovil-literary-prize-2/

  • Interesting comments but as Liz Newman points out you need to make sure the competition is set up by a recognised organisation. Also, you need to have broad shoulders to take the strain of disappointment when your name is not in the list of winners.

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