Writing competitions can provide wonderful opportunities for emerging writers. The prospect of raising your head above the sea of other unpublished writers with a prestigious win or shortlisting, and perhaps attracting the attention of an agent or publisher, is irresistible. Or the lure of a cash windfall. Some offer publication as a giant golden carrot, and others the chance that an idol might read your work (Hilary Mantel as a judge for the Mslexia novel contest, for instance!).
There’s been a huge proliferation of writing competitions over the last few years, but not all contests are created equal. Some prey on insecure writers and are little more than scams. Even some of the well-known comps could do better when it comes to supporting emerging writers. With that in mind, I’ve put together a wish list of what I look for, the properties of an ideal writing competition, if you like:
Value: Most competitions charge an entry fee. After all, there are judges to hire and prize money to cough up. But it’s always worth comparing the size of the entry fee to the potential prize on offer. If the winner is set to receive little more than the entry fee, that should set off alarm bells.
Legitimacy: If you don’t recognise the name of the prize or organisation running it, ask around, do a quick Google search. What will you gain from winning a competition that no one’s heard of? If the competition is raising funds for a charity, you may choose to enter to support a worthy cause. But be aware that many organisations prey on desperate emerging writers.
Flexibility: Read terms and conditions carefully before parting with your precious manuscript. Some competitions prohibit simultaneous submissions. Although you may be tempted to ignore the fine print, bear in mind that the publishing industry is small (especially in Australia) and word gets around if you’re not willing to play by the rules. In the case of an unpublished manuscript award, restrictive terms and conditions can prevent you from submitting your work to other publishers or competitions for up to a year. Are you willing to wait that long and risk missing out on other opportunities?
Respect: Too many competitions pocket your entry fees, then ghost you. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve found out I didn’t make the cut by stumbling across shortlists and winner announcements on social media. Even, on occasion, after making the longlist. It’s not difficult to send a polite form email to everyone who missed out, so why do so few competitions do it? Organisers should respect each and every writer who pours their soul onto the page and goes to the trouble of choosing their competition over the hundreds of others out there.
Transparency: From time to time a competition will extend its deadline at the last minute, sometimes because of requests from potential entrants, but often because they haven’t attracted as many entries as they might have expected and therefore haven’t accrued enough entry fees to cover costs. The reasons are seldom given, but I believe more transparency from competition organisers in this case would be respectful to the writers who put in the effort to meet the original deadline.
Communication: This follows on from the previous points. Often a competition will state in its terms and conditions the date when a shortlist will be announced, winners notified, etc. But frequently that date flies by without so much as a hint of an announcement, leaving those who entered wondering whether to write it off as another miss, whether to throw their hat in the ring for yet another expensive competition or two. Or whether to throw in the towel. An email to all entrants extending the date for the announcement would prevent a lot of unnecessary angst.
Generosity: Some competitions are noteworthy for their enthusiastic support of emerging writers. I wrote a blog post a while ago about the value of competitions publishing their longlists, so you can imagine my delight when the judges of the inaugural Fresh Ink Emerging Writers Prize decided to announce a longlist to promote the work of more regional emerging writers. And my name was on the list! I didn’t make the shortlist, but was heartened by the generosity of the judges. Because competitions should be about lifting each other up, rather than setting one writer on a pedestal and casting everyone else into obscurity.
Emerging writers deserve respect when entering competitions. After all, every successful author was once that hopeful, unpublished writer. I encourage competition organisers to bear this in mind when conducting writing competitions. And I also encourage writers to promote the good competitions, the ones that meet deadlines, communicate openly, and go out of their way to support emerging writers. Because they wouldn’t exist without us.