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.

1 comment:

  1. That's a good and useful summary, Andy. I often suggest to people that they work their way up from cheap and local (the writers' group internal comps in my town get a few dozen entries and are a great way of winning your writers' group subs back!) On the larger stage, I know several more experienced writers who have an on-going 'competitions account', spending the prize money from one on the entry fees for the next half-dozen. They have a sort of second, private competition with themselves to keep the account in the black.

    (And I'm glowing with pride as our Earlyworks Press comps pass all your tests - extracts of prize-winners' work, judges' reports and cut-price, nearly new anthologies of previous winners' work available on the website. :))