Should You Enter a Writing Competition?
Entering competitions is a great discipline, whether short stories, poetry, non-fiction, even novels. If you do it right, then you’ll be refining your craft and growing as a writer. Everything you do in proper preparation for a competition is also good practice for submission to agents and publishers which are, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar processes.
Before you enter a competition, however, you need to ask yourself a simple question: Why should I enter? This may seem a strange question to ask yourself, but consider what motivations drive people to enter competitions.
Right at the top of the list is usually the chance of winning or being shortlisted. The most important things I believe you can get from being shortlisted are recognition and validation that you can actually write; the struggle has not been all for naught. Seeing your name writ large on the contents page is a massive boost to your self-confidence, it’s great on your CV, and you get to use it to start conversations with agents and publishers. With larger competitions, the prize might include the opportunity to work with an agent or publisher, and that could get your career off to an amazing start, but even if not—and depending on your long-term motivations—being longlisted or shortlisted could give you an edge in a query letter.
For others, entering is motivation enough. A lot of people do it to enjoy the challenge, and any entry fee, if there is one, is a small price to pay for the joy of focused writing.
However, as writers, the key resource we have to spend is our time. We need to carefully allocate where we spend it, and how. Entering a competition is a substantial investment of time. Would it be better elsewhere? Only you can decide if any particular competition is worth your effort. I’d like to think I have a pretty good idea of what judges look for and what really irks them—my advice comes from four years’ experience judging and helping organise the HG Wells Short Story Competition. Here are two things I’d like to suggest are worth considering before deciding whether to enter a competition.
1. What might you get?
What’s the payoff? What do you get if you are successful in being longlisted, shortlisted, or placed as a winner? Is there a nice anthology to be published in? Will your entry by published online? Is the competition prestigious, or likely to become so? Is there a substantial cash prize? These questions are important. For example, if you are longlisted in Thanet Writers Short Story Competition then your entry will be published online, shortlisted entries will be published in a print anthology, and the winner will get a £1,000 grand prize.
You won’t get a critique on your entry, though, so don’t enter competitions if you expect feedback from the judges. If the competition does offer feedback on your entry, beware those that charge a fee or use it as a thinly veiled attempt to market you a writing course—the competition is most likely just the bait in the trap to illicit money from you. Most reputable competitions specifically exclude discussion of entries in their rules. Even if your entry is shortlisted, the most you can expect is minor edits which will likely be carried out for stylistic continuity. Occasionally, if there is a problem which needs a slightly more substantial edit, you might find someone contacts you to discuss it and to gain permission for the change.
2. What might you give?
Not all competitions charge for entries, but a lot do. In general, you will be looking at between £5 and £10 per entry, with occasional higher entry fees and the odd lower one, as well as free ones like the Thanet Writers Short Story Competition. If you are looking at paying an entry fee, then consider where that money is going, as some competitions use the fees ethically, whereas others are simply businesses capitalising on entries. An example of the former, the HG Wells Short Story Competition charges over-21s for entry and although there is a cash prize, is it a quarter of the size of that for under-21s, who also benefit from free entry. The competition is run on a non-profit basis by volunteers, and the objective is to encourage young writers, so over-21s often don’t mind paying in as they can see where their entry fees go.
You must check the details of the publishing rights being handed over by entering and make sure you understand them. It would be worrying if any competition sought more than a twelve-month exclusive licence to publish an entry online and in print. The rights should also revert back to the writer after this, or the agreement become non-exclusive. There are also considerations for audio or broadcast rights, territories, and so on. The rights to entries which are not going to be published—as in, have not been either longlisted or shortlisted, depending on the structure of the competition—should automatically return to the entrant upon competition. All this needs to be considered so take a good look at the rights section of the terms and conditions and understand it.
Most of all, you need to be excited about what you write. Experience as both an entrant and a judge has demonstrated to me that unless you feel passionately about your entry, you are unlikely to enter anything with the qualities necessary to be shortlisted. If you are happy with what you might get, and not adverse to what you might give, plus you are engaged with your idea, then it is worth entering. Competitions offer the new or developing writer the opportunity for some much-coveted exposure, and they are a lot of fun to do. Your talent will grow as a result of exercising your craft, often in new and uncharted territories when responding to a theme. You might even win.
© 2020 Lee Stoddart
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Lee quit the corporate world to write spec-fic and horror. He was twice shortlisted and published by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.