Why entering writing competitions is not such a good idea

Why entering writing competitions is not such a good idea

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There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of writing competitions available to enter today, and the more there are, surely it can only be that the less credible they, and their results, become; the more competitions, the more invalid the medium and, ipso facto, the more invalid the ?winners?.

On another level, I feel, writing competitions are reducing the appreciation of literature to merely ?consensus by committee? and, it seems to me, too often rewarding conformity, the amateurish, the humdrum and the mundane (that?s a story for another day).

So is there any value at all in these competitions? To me, the answer is a definite ?no? ? no matter how prestigious one might seem or whose (apparently) reputable name might be associated with it. Always go for publication instead, including self-publication, whether in print or online: that?s my humble advice.

Why have I written this article? It?s because, as a literary person, I?ve become increasingly exasperated by the exponential growth of writing competitions across the genres since the advent of the internet and the misplaced significance given to them.

Naturally, some think writing competitions are a good idea, in that linking your name to a certain prize, or its longlists or shortlists, could get you noticed, that publication in some form might follow. But such tenuous ?advantages? are outweighed heavily by the disadvantages.

Imagine, for a moment, that there was only one writing competition in the world. Then possibly the winner would be of outstanding interest, even merit ? but still only ?possibly? because the qualifications and credibility of judges would always be an issue, and a contentious one at that.

Essentially, if you happen to win a competition for poetry, fiction or memoir, all it means, really, is that one person, or a very small group of people, like(s) your work. Sure, they like it more than the other entries ? it chimes with their deep subjectivities ? but a different judge, or selection of judges, would almost certainly render a different result.

This might seem cynical but really it?s only being realistic. Needless to say, writing contests are not like sporting contests where the first across the finishing line, or the highest scorer, is obviously the winner. This, of course, is the fundamental flaw in the concept of writing competitions.

Status of judges

Yet what about the status of judges? What are their credentials? What are their proclivities and prejudices? What are their criteria, their standards and values, for judging a work? If you tailor your entry in a way you think will please a certain judge, or set of judges, then doesn?t that defeat your object in writing?

Your entry then would be liked (possibly) only by them, and (most likely) rejected by others. It?s a parallel situation if you tailor your entry to the theme of a particular competition (and the same applies to literary awards, of course).

One also has to say that, frequently, judges have been caught out when, truculently, someone has entered a piece of work by a famous writer of the past and it has gone unnoticed and been passed over for a prize ? a subtle form of culture jamming.

Further, I might ask, who judges the judges? Perhaps, before any competition, there should be a competition for the judges! But, I jest, for who would judge the competition for the judges ? and judge those judges? Of course, this would lead to an infinite regress. But I make my point.

Writing competitions are often poorly formulated and simply out to fleece you of your hard-earned cash. Many of them are not bothered about quality; some are purely of vanity appeal.

If a competition claims that winning will gain you kudos and lead to recognition, don?t believe it. Many such competitions have poor standards, or are simply blatant cons, and reputable editors and publishers would shun them. You could even have your reputation tarnished by associating with them! And why work for free anyway on the shaky basis that you might get noticed and might get paid at some point in the future?

Highly suspect

So the word is: never make a payment to enter a writing competition ? it only lines the pockets of the organisers (notwithstanding prize money offered which, admittedly, might be substantial) and, by making more competitions possible through the funding, it perpetuates a system highly suspect in the first place.

Many contests demand an entry fee. Entry forms might say it?s to cover prize money but they can also fail to give a reason for it. If the fee is about /?50, or even higher, it?s clearly a con. Organisers rake in the money, pay out a small sum to the winner and pocket the rest. Nice work if you can get it! Some competitions, of course, won?t offer prize money at all.

Either way, if there?s an entry fee, the competition is akin to gambling on a horse race or a lottery. Many writers pay money in and only one of them receives a cash prize (plus maybe a couple of runners-up). Statistically, you?re on a hiding to nothing; it?s hardly a worthwhile investment, especially because you?ve laboured away on your writing and now you?re being expected to pay for the ?privilege? of the (remote) possibility of a prize at a later date. Organisers probably will also be using the competition as a marketing ploy, so you?ll be helping to fund that, too!

You should be aware that you could be asked to sign away your rights allowing competition organisers to publish all entries and profit from them financially. Organisers might even seek to publish an (often sub-standard) anthology of entries, actually selling the entries back to the entrants!

Some competitions want exclusive submissions, meaning that you won?t be able to submit your work anywhere else until the competition results are announced. It?s no good having your work shunted into a siding for months on end, particularly if it does not win.

Fishing for customers

And failing to win might cause you to think your entry is lacking in some way when actually it isn?t (this refers back to the judging issue which I?ve discussed above). Competition organisers won?t necessarily offer feedback, assuming they are capable of doing so meaningfully, which many wouldn?t be.

Also, competitions frequently promote services, such as editing and proofreading, which are operated by the organisers themselves, and might not be up to the mark. Sometimes a competition can simply be a means of fishing for customers.

An entity that offers such services might well launch a competition so that entrants can be targeted, the prize being one or more of those very services, with encouragement to purchase more.

To sum up, being published by a reputable undertaking is the only genuine way of helping your writing career, of bringing your name to the attention of a wider sphere. Editors will give more credibility to this than any competitions you might have won. In the end, it comes down to what they think of the writing, even for the competitions held by organisations they might respect.

Always keep in mind the main thing that militates against competitions ? the arbitrariness of judges ? and if, despite this serious deficiency and all of the above, you are sure of your goals and still intend to enter, don?t let the unscrupulous and the predatory take advantage of you.


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