Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Writers' Wednesday: How To Make the Most of Writing Contests

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Have you ever entered a writing contest? Have you ever placed in the top 3? Or won the whole contest outright? Maybe you’ve thought about entering a contests but been too afraid to try. Or maybe you didn’t know where to start looking.

Well, writing contests can be a valuable tool for aspiring writers. They can be a great way to get feedback on your writing from external readers /judges /editors /agents. And they can be an equally great way to start building a writing resume, to begin promoting one’s name as a published author.

But where to start? How to choose the right contest for you? How to prepare the perfect entry?

Here are a few things to keep in mind, both before you enter a contest and after you receive the judges’ final decision.

1. Choose contests based upon their end results. Consider what you’re hoping to get out of entering a contest. Is it prize money? Is it publication? Is it the chance to get your work in front of an editor or agent? Or is it simply the chance to have an external reader review your work? Think about your end goal, and choose your contests appropriately. The Writing Show First Chapter Contest awards 750 words of feedback from industry professionals. The FirstGlance Films Screenplay Competition sends its top 3 winners to be read by Hollywood producers. The 2007 Marjorie Wilson Best Poem Contest awards $2500.00 to its top winner. You get the idea.

2. Choose contests for which your work qualifies. This seems like a no-brainer, but you might be surprised. Don’t enter a 10K word short story into a flash fiction contest. Don’t enter a novel into a screenplay writing contest. Don’t enter your paranormal erotica opening into a contest run by Avalon (a “sweet” publisher) just because you see the word “romance” in their guidelines.

3. Choose contests for which the odds are in your favor. This one’s a little harder to figure out, but if you do a little digging, you can uncover contests for which either the number of entries is limited, improving your odds, or the number of prizes given includes more than the top 3. The Short Story Award for New Writers, for example, is a contest open only to writers whose fiction has never appeared in a publication with a circulation over 5,000. The WOW-Women on Writing Quarterly Contest names 3 top winners, 7 runners-up, and 25 honorable mentions…and every one of those writers receives a prize and a mention on the WOW website.

Once you’ve chosen a contest to enter, how do you increase your chances of winning or placing?

1. Follow all the rules. Carefully. If they want 3 copies of your opening chapters, make sure to include 3. If they ask you to secure the pages using a binder clip, don’t use a rubber band. Make sure you’ve put the information they want into the header or footer of each page. If they ask for a SASE, make sure to include enough postage to cover the costs of returning your entries. Also, check their rules for deadlines: most will say the entry must be postmarked by a certain date, but others will say the entry must be received by a certain date. There’s a difference!

2. Revise, revise, revise. Before submitting your entry, make sure it’s your best work. Read over as many times as it takes. Share with your writers’ groups or critique partners to get objective feedback. Don’t let careless errors undermine your chances of winning.

3. Read prior winning entries. Many organizations will include the top winners on their websites. A winning entry in one short story contest might look very different from a winning entry in another.

A few last thoughts on writing contests:

Consider the judges’ feedback carefully. If you can expect comments from the contest judges, be careful how you read those comments. Don’t just take the positive ones that praise your brilliance as a writer and disregard the rest. Sometimes the negative/constructive criticism can be just as helpful in revealing areas of our writing that need work. However, if 3 or 4 judges from a couple different contests tell you that your dialogue is fresh and realistic, and 1 judge tells you that your dialogue is stilted and untrue, you may want to take that single comment with a grain of salt. Most of all, don’t let contest feedback get you down. Remember that these judges are people, with their own values and biases and opinions, just like you. And speaking of that…

Sign up to judge a contest. Really! Many local writers’ groups run contests, with their members doing first-reads on entries. You do not necessarily need to be a published author, or past winner, to judge. All you have to do is read with a careful eye and open mind. By judging, you get a glimpse of the other side. You learn about how other writers put entries together. You discover how difficult it is to put a number on certain elements of a creative endeavor. And ultimately, you become a better writer yourself for the experience.

Don’t let contests keep you from finishing your work. Many novel-writing contests, especially in the romance genre, ask for the first 3 chapters. As a result, it becomes easy to polish those first 3 chapters over and over again, until you have a near-perfect entry. But what happens to the rest of the novel? What if you win a contest, and the final judge, your dream agent, requests the full manuscript for review? What if all you have are the first 3 chapters? Unfortunately, I know a few authors who have turned into “contest junkies.” They become obsessed with the idea of entering as many contests as they can, and they often final or win because they’ve put so much time into their entry. However, they have no complete works to speak of. Ideally, writing contests are a means to an end, a way to motivate you to keep writing while giving you some feedback along the way.

Good luck, and if you know of any writing contests you‘d like to praise or recommend, leave a comment and let me know! Basic Author


Marianne Arkins said...

I haven't entered one in a while, but my big thing was: who are the final judges? I entered to get my work in front of a particular agent or editor. Good feedback was nice, too, but the ultimate prize for me was being read by a person who I dreamed would request a full ms from me.

Shwebb said...

Hey, thanks for the kick in the behind--I need to submit more, and this would be a fun way to get motivated.

N.J.Walters said...

It's funny, I've only entered one writing contest, but in an indirect way it was responsible for my getting published.

They wanted the first ten pages, which, I'll admit, I wrote a few days before I entered them. I didn't find out about the contest until almost the deadline.

When I didn't win or place in the top few, I kept writing. When I finished it, I found a place to submit it and was shocked and thrilled when it was accepted. It was my first published book!

Jess said...

Wow that was really interesting!!