Thursday, 25 March 2010

Competitions - How to make your money work

(Author's note: this article first appeared in issue 79 of NAWG LINK).

In my previous post I made the case in favour of entering writing competitions. Now I want to look at the downside to the competitions arena: the entry fees.

A few writers can happily write cheques to cover entry fees for every competition that comes along. For the majority of us who live in the real world, this isn’t an option. We need to make sure those pesky entry fees provide some sort of return on our investment, even if we’re not fortunate enough to be prize winners every time.

Here are some suggestions to help make those entry fees work for you.

My first tip is research your market before you submit anything. There are a lot of writing competitions, and it’s easy for a competition novice to enter too many – or to enter the wrong ones.

Big competitions like the Bridport Prizes and the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition have a sizeable publicity budget and always command a fair bit of press coverage. Unless you are one of those annoying people who can produce works of genius without breaking a sweat, these are not the best competitions for you to enter at the start of your writing career. Those who win tend to be writers with a CV of previous competition success. They may even have already had collections of poems or short stories published. If you submit to the Bridport Prize, you will be competing against a lot of writers who are this good, or nearly this good!

Competitions run by local writers’ circles or small presses have a lower profile than the major literary prizes. Not only does it cost you less to enter, but you stand a more realistic chance of being placed. By doing a few of these, you’ll be preparing yourself for bigger things as your experience and confidence increases.

Don’t enter every competition that comes along. There are a few scams out there, and it takes a little practice to spot them (a lack of past history and an exorbitant prize pot are usually dead giveaways). The NAWG website ( has listings of established, bona fide competitions, and is peer-reviewed so any dodgy ones are eliminated. For poets, the listings on The Poetry Kit ( and the Poetry Library website ( are invaluable. I also recommend Prizemagic (, run by published author and competition addict Michael Shenton. He provides an entertaining (and at times splendidly sarcastic) commentary with each competition listing.

It is worth pointing out that not all the reputable competitions offer value for money either. The most useful competitions to enter are the ones which tell you as much as possible about the poems (or short stories) you’re up against. Competition statistics (total numbers of poems or stories submitted, numbers long-or shortlisted, etc.) can help you size up your chances of success. Seek these out. Look for competitions where you can buy a winners’ anthology, or read the winning pieces on the competition website. These will give you a clue as to why the winning poems or stories were winners, and what happened to those that weren’t. Competitions which publish not just the prize winners’ names, but the shortlists as well, are really helpful – otherwise you have no way of knowing if you reached that far.

Not all competitions will give you this information. Competitions which don’t are doing the entrants no favours. I suggest you spend your money elsewhere.

The judge’s report from a competition can also be a goldmine of information. Sometimes the difference between a First Prize-winning piece and a Highly Commended work isn’t apparent from simply reading the works on their own. Judge’s reports provide an insight into what special qualities stood out for him or her in the winners. They also reveal which deficiencies a judge may be willing to overlook, and which are a guaranteed route to rejection! But beware of relying too much on judge’s reports. The factors which decide who gets which prizes often lie in the judge’s own likes and dislikes as much as in the originality of the material and the skill with which it was created.

So much for the preparation. Now we come to the manuscript itself. The golden rule is never send in shoddy work. During my judging stint for the Speakeasy competitions I was amazed at how many manuscripts arrived with crumpled paper, glaring spelling mistakes and awful grammar. Some of these were obviously works which had been produced in a rush of creativity – but the writers had never bothered to tidy up their original draft. Material that is scrappy or that the judge will struggle to read is sure to end up in the recycling bin. So is anything which fails the “Alison Chisholm test”. I won’t repeat the excellent advice which she and Ian Pattison offered in their recent article (LINK 74) but I would urge all competition entrants to follow it.

Never, ever, submit the same piece of work at the same time to two or more competitions. This practice is known as simultaneous submission. It will make you unpopular because all sorts of copyright problems can ensue if you happen to win both competitions and both organisers choose to publish your work. Small presses and writers’ groups cannot afford litigation. Nor do they want to be made to look silly. If you’re producing shortlist-quality work but you get a reputation for simultaneous submission, you could find yourself blacklisted.

Finally, before you seal up the envelope, go back and re-read the competition rules. Double-check your entries to make sure they fit all the criteria. Don’t risk being disqualified because you’ve failed to double space your story, or exceeded the line limit with your poem. No matter how good your manuscript may be, if it doesn’t fit the competition requirements it will not win – and you won’t get your money back.

If this is a lot to remember, take heart. After you’ve done a couple of competitions, the process will be second nature. And don’t give up. Just because one of your best pieces might sink without trace in one competition, it could still do well in another. The most prestigious of my First Prizes to date was won with a poem which went to five previous competitions and had never been shortlisted. It can be worth persevering with a piece you know to be good, even if you seem to have no success at the first few attempts.

Competitions: Are they really worth it?

(Author's note: this article was the first of my Poet's Soapbox pieces to appear in NAWG LINK (issue 77). I've given it a teensy bit of editing to make it blog-friendly, but otherwise it appears as originally published).

It doesn’t take very long, hanging around a writers’ circle, to realise that one issue divides the writing world straight down the middle. Writing competitions. Half the writers I know treat the annual competition calendar with deadly seriousness. They spend laborious hours over their poems and short stories, earnestly believing that a win will be the Next Big Thing on the rocky road to literary success. The other half treat competitions with disdain. They see writing competitions as close cousins to the vanity publishers. Competitions swallow your money, promising wealth and recognition but delivering little or nothing in return.

I’ve been on both sides of the divide myself. In my very early days as a poet, I picked up a few flyers for competitions, sent off my cheque and the best of my material, and predictably heard nothing back. I felt I’d been conned. An unexpected First Prize in my local writers’ group’s annual poetry competition a few years back encouraged me to try again. Since then, I’ve made the competition circuit into part of my writing discipline. Modest successes, in the form of four more First Prizes in national/international competitions, and several placings and commendations, have followed. I’ve also had the competition experience from the other side, having judged the Speakeasy creative writing competitions for two years running (judging poetry and short stories) as well as a couple of local and regional competitions.

In the next few articles I intend to take a look at the competition experience. Much of what I have to say will be applicable to those interested in both short story and poetry competitions. For writers new to the competition circuit, I will be suggesting ways you can avoid a few of the mistakes I’ve made over the years.

To begin with, I want to address the fundamental question: are competitions worth it? Is it possible to see all that time and effort, the entry fees and the stamped addressed envelopes as an investment, rather than an indulgence or a waste?

My answer is yes.

Writing competitions matter because in many ways they are the lifeblood of the literary scene in the UK. The writers’ circles and small presses who run the competitions are (with very rare exceptions) not profit-making concerns. They exist for love, not money. Competition entry fees don’t provide the chairmen and editors with exotic holidays and champagne. Once the prize money has been paid out, the judge’s honorarium paid, and (usually) the magazine or anthology published, any surplus funds are ploughed back into the organisation. This money gives writers’ circles the chance to run workshops, invite guest speakers or produce their own publications. It keeps the small presses alive – for many, it can mean the difference between financial viability or closure. It keeps many of the literary festivals on a secure financial footing.

So supporting a reputable creative writing competition is one way of supporting the literary arts, locally and nationally.

Writing competitions matter to the winners, and those shortlisted, because they look good on the CV. There are very few competitions that will guarantee a new writer a publishing contract, representation or fame (the Bridport Prize is probably an exception). But every win or shortlisting mentioned on the aspiring writer’s CV can be another bit of ammunition for that all-important future pitch to an agent or editor. It is a demonstration that you are serious about your writing, and that it is good enough to command at least a small degree of critical respect.

A third reason to make the effort of entering writing competitions is that the effort instils discipline. Competitions demand inspiring, original work, it’s true – but they also demand work that is neatly laid-out, legible, well constructed, free of typographical errors, and suited to the requirements of the competition. If you are a new writer, who has never submitted material to an editor or agent before, I heartily recommend entering a small competition. This will give you practice in laying out a manuscript, gathering together the accompanying paperwork, and reading and assimilating the submission requirements. If you can get used to doing this, year on year, for the East Smethwick Short Story Competition (to take an entirely fictitious example), by the time you’re ready to send a manuscript to a publishing house or an agent, the process of manuscript preparation will be second nature.

Competitions also demand forward planning. The deadlines are usually publicised several months in advance. The well prepared writer will use this time to ensure that their work is thoroughly revised, so that the manuscript which eventually goes in the post (or email) is the best you can get it. Hastily plotted stories or first drafts of poems rarely win competitions. Spending the time fine-tuning your competition entries is another part of the writer’s discipline.

Now to the downside of the competition arena. Most writing competitions (NAWG’s own being an honourable exception) require you to part with money to enter them.

Entry fees are inescapable. In an era when state or philanthropic support for the creative arts is meagre, struggling small presses and writers’ groups have no other option to finance the winners’ prizes, or the competition anthology. This may be all very well for the idle rich, but for the impoverished bohemian, scribbling away in a garret and living on baked potatoes and soup, it’s a problem.

It does worry me that entry fees deter many good, but financially restricted, writers from having their work recognised. There are, of course, ways to make a name for oneself without recourse to the competition circuit. But competitions remain one of the surest ways for a hitherto unknown, talented writer to make an impact. Those of you who are beginning to have some confidence in yourselves as writers should not be put off by entry fees alone. Nor should you sit back and let lesser writers get their foot in the door of the literary world ahead of you on the basis of their ability to pay their way in.

In my next article I will be looking at ways for writers on a budget to maximise their investment in the competition arena. For now, though, I’d simply like to issue a plea that if you believe in your writing, and it receives supportive constructive feedback from other writers, do consider putting it into the competition arena. As writers, all of us have to make some investment in our art: printer paper, ink cartridges, notebooks, stamps and envelopes, and the sheer time and effort we put into our creations. Within reason, it is possible to see a modest expenditure on competition fees as part of this investment. Hard work and talent do pay off – and sometimes they even pay out, too.

Andy Humphrey

Welcome to the Poet's Soapbox!

For the last few years, I have been contributing a semi-regular column to the National Association of Writers' Groups' LINK magazine under the heading "The Poet's Soapbox". The Soapbox has given me the opportunity for a good old rant about the things that irk me in the world of poetry in the UK - and for an occasional rave about the things I think are worth celebrating.

It seemed to make sense, in the fulness of time, to move the Soapbox to an online format, and give its readers a chance to have their say. Thus the Poet's Soapbox blog. I will continue to use it to post copies of the articles that appear (and have appeared) in LINK, as well as responses to topical poetry-related issues and some of my own musings on life as a poet, scribe, performer, open mic MC and occasional competition judge. Feedback is welcome though I reserve the right to edit readers' posts as needed.

In the next few posts I'll put up copies of some of the early articles from the Soapbox series in LINK. Comments on these are still welcome!

I hope you enjoy your visit.

Andy Humphrey