How to Choose & Enter a Writing Competition

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So you’ve written a story! It’s been read and re-read and re-read again, you’ve poured your heart into it and had it ripped out again when your writing group critiqued it, but it’s finally ready to go. It’s time to let go of your precious little baby and throw it into the hands of a bunch of eagle-eyed judges.

But which competition should you choose? There are so many out there.

Find a Good List

Fortunately there are some great competition listings to save you trawling though the extensive Google results. Our very own Chris Fielden’s is a good one (I’m not just saying that because I want him to go easy of my next submission to the writing group – I’d used his website as a resource before I’d even met him!), but also the Booktrust website is very helpful.

I don’t think there’s a shortcut in the next bit I’m afraid. It’s usually best to get a feel for each competition to see which your work might be best suited to. It’d be easy to think ‘I’ll just send stuff off to everything! Every single competition in the whole wide world then surely by probability I’ll get something!’ Nope. Not gonna happen my friend. Not only would that take absolutely ages, you’d probably end up completely skint too. Plus, this isn’t the lottery; you don’t get your name pulled out of a hat to win (at least let’s hope not!).

Consider the Fees

Most competitions charge an entry fee, and before you start whinging, this is absolutely needed as it takes the judges a really long time to read hundreds of stories, if not thousands. That’s right folks, that’s how many people you could be up against. Competitions come in all shapes and sizes, from new small ones to huge prestigious ones. Think carefully about where you want to spend your entry fees, otherwise if you blindly send your vampire fan fiction into a high-brow literary magazine competition, you may as well just flush your fiver down the loo.

Don’t Ignore The Rules

The most undeniably important thing when choosing a competition is to READ THE RULES. Sounds silly, I know, but I bet if you asked competition organisers you’d be surprised by the high percentage of entries which are instantly disqualified for simply not following the rules. So, if they ask for Times New Roman and you feel like it’s just a little bit too school-like, then tough. They won’t care if you think that Comic Sans is a little more friendly and quirky. And don’t even think about going near Lucinda Casual. Having a typeface which looks like handwriting does not give a touch-feely personal approach, you’ll just look like a dick, and inevitably you’ll be disqualified. Basically, don’t faff with the fonts; give them EXACTLY what they want ‘cos these guys are looking for any reason to rule you out.

Do Some Research

Read the past winners. Obviously don’t copy or re-enact their style, but just get a gist of the sort of thing they do. If you’ve got a few stories ready then you can pick the one that feels most appropriate to enter.

If you really want to get smart, you could check out the judges to see what they like to read and write. I’d personally suggest entering competitions where there are at least three judges, for balanced opinions and perspective. Often you’ll find their bios, maybe links to their websites too. If not, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of Google stalking every now and then.

Keep Track But Don’t Dwell

If you decide to enter multiple competitions (be careful if you do – often competitions have rules around simultaneous submissions!) then I’d recommend a budget. Remember, this has to be money you’re happy to never see again. Sounds pessimistic, but realistically you could enter ten competitions and never get anywhere until the 11th, and even then the £25 you win may not even cover the money you’ve spent entering. Ultimately, what it comes down to is – competitions are NOT a way to make money. They are useful for writers to get some credits to their name and try to build up experience and a writing CV. Eventually you may learn the ‘enter and forget’ approach. Or, you might generate a huge spreadsheet of all your failures with a special column for obscene names for every one you don’t win. Not that I do that of course.

It’s worth noting what you’ll get if you win or get shortlisted of course, and what rights you’ll retain. Often you won’t be able to get the winning story published elsewhere, possibly for a certain amount of time. This all differs depending on the competition, another good reason to read the rules very carefully and make sure you’re happy with the terms.

Don’t Give Up

Finally, don’t get disheartened if you enter lots of competitions (your spreadsheet growing and growing, obscenities getting worse and worse) and you never get anywhere. I’ve been a judge so I’ve seen it from the other side, and it’s not easy. It is largely just judges’ opinions – writing skills too of course – but if you’ve got ten stories which are all technically really well written, it will come down to opinion in the end, hence why I suggest entering a competition with multiple judges.

Keep writing and entering, and always believe in yourself. One day it will be your time to shine!

Good luck!

Image by Alex Glickman.

Words by Mel Ciavucco.

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