Thursday, 25 March 2010

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

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