On Reading the Rules

Writing competitions can be both fun and useful for developing a reputation, but the rules must be checked before entering.

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A writing competition is exactly what it sounds like: writers write something and submit it to be judged in a competition. Many writers use them to test themselves or improve their skills, as often the parameters are fairly limiting. That, in itself, makes competitions a good thing.

Being longlisted in a competition means that you, as a writer, have done something right; your story or poem or article has got through the slush pile and is of enough quality—and is on topic and within the rules—to be considered seriously. It is a great affirmation of your own ability. Being shortlisted is even more so, but also is a public statement of the quality of your piece. It is a way to get noticed.

Being placed in—or winning—a competition amplifies your career considerably, as you have a high-quality accolade that shows you have been recognised by your peers. It should immediately be placed in your cover letter and public biography, and waved around at every opportunity.

There are numerous writing competitions running at any given time, ranging from small-scale independent ones that simply offer online publication and the prestige of winning, to much larger ones with cash prizes and publication in well-known magazines or as part of an anthology. What you enter is entirely up to you.

What is very important, however, is reading the rules of the competition before entering.

One rule I see often is an entry fee. If a competition is charging you to enter, it needs an appropriate reason. Perhaps it is to raise funds for a community project, or to give a certain demographic (like young writers) the chance to enter for a higher prize fund for free. If you feel the fee is justified, and you are willing to support the organisation behind the competition, then by all means pay. If, on the other hand, the fee is simply to cover the cost of the prize money—and potentially make a profit—then avoid it.

Another common rule is asking for unrealistic rights as part of the competition. There should be a variation between those shortlisted and those who are not. If shortlisted, signing over print rights is understandable. But, asking for first print and online rights worldwide for every entry is shameful and definitely unfair against the writer. I have seen this on many occasions, plus first broadcast and recording rights, resale rights, rights to make future edits, reprint rights without byline or credit, and all sorts of other horrific options that no writer should ever sign away.

The worst rule I have seen, without doubt, is one that I noticed in a recent flash fiction competition. It was dropped in so casually it was unbelievable, and yet there it was: “No swearing, profanity, explicit sexual scenes, graphic violence, LGBTQ.” The first four are understandable if the winning entries were to be aimed at a family audience, however excluding the fifth is unforgivable. As a result of this rule, hundreds of writers drafted LGBTQ stories and entered them, whilst hundreds of others publicly chastised the competition organiser on social media, and hundreds more shared the competition as an example of what not to do.

It is of paramount importance to read the rules and avoid falling for scams, selling your soul, or having your name forever tarnished by association. Competitions can be a brilliant thing to engage with, as long as you know what you are signing up for.

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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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