To be honest, I don’t actually enter that many competitions. It’s an expensive game, and I’m too lazy to write enough material to keep up with the multitude of opportunities out there. But I’ve done alright in the ones I have entered during my few years of writing seriously, with a few wins, shortlistings and longlistings under my sadly expanding belt.
So I feel confident* enough to offer a few tips to anyone who is at the starting block. When you’re starting out, it’s bewildering trying to figure out whether to enter competitions selectively or cast your net wide (spoiler alert: it’s the former). Hopefully there’s something here that will spare someone a bit of unnecessary expense or embarrassment. And all I ask in return is that you dedicate your future awards to me**.
1. Polish your work. This may seem obvious, but really do make sure your entry is as good as it can be, both in terms of tightening the story and presentation. It’s easy to get carried away with the desire to meet a deadline, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you submit something half-baked. Or, even worse, what if the thing actually succeeds and then you have to look at or do public readings of something you know could/should be so much better? I’ve made this mistake and I can tell you it’s mortifying to see work out in the world that needs another edit or 10.
2. Read the fine print. Is there an entry fee? Is it in line with others or a bit on the pricy side? Do you actually want those potential prizes? I tend to pass on ones that offer writing courses/workshops/retreats in places that would be hard to get to. And I’m not keen on competitions that publish all the short/longlistees online or in obscure print publications (without offering any remuneration) as it cuts off the chances to submit that work elsewhere. I’m not saying you shouldn’t enter such competitions, but be aware of what you’re agreeing to by entering.
3. Check out who the judges are. Everyone admits that judging is a subjective business, and logically speaking this is even more the case where there’s one judge rather than a panel. In the case of a solo judge with the final say, it’s important to think about whether your work is likely to appeal to them. If you write light, comic stories, you probably won’t catch the eye of someone who’s renowned for their experimental literary tastes. Perhaps it would be better to invest that entry fee in writing fuel (eg. chocolate — I particularly recommend Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. Break into individual squares and serve at room temperature. Really this should be a pro tip in its own right).
4. Study previous winners. It can be really illuminating to read winning stories and judges’ reports (there’s a great article on The Bridport Prize site here with general advice on how to make an impact). Often you’ll find that original concepts, or surprising twists on classic themes, or exceptional use of language set winners apart. Judges and competition readers have to wade through a LOT of stories, and they quickly notice recurring themes — loss, relationships, dementia — so to make it through the first round you have to really stand out. Be ruthless and ask yourself whether your story has a unique hook. Does it have a killer first sentence? Is the ending strong enough? A memorable title also wouldn’t go astray, eg. something like ‘The Giraffe’s Last Lament’ will stick in the memory more than a generic phrase like ‘Going Home’.
5. Follow the guidelines. Again, don’t waste your entry fee by ignoring basic things like the formatting instructions (Times Roman, 12pt, double-spaced is the most common, though some competitions can have other requirements which they WILL expect you to adhere to). However you’re asked to present your story, follow it to the letter or you’ll go on the NO pile straight out of the gate. Those hundreds of stories have to be whittled down somehow, and this is the daftest way of having your hard work cast aside.
6. Don’t get too invested. It is incredibly exciting to make it onto a finalist list, but if you don’t succeed it isn’t the end of the world. There are plenty of other competitions out there, as well as lots of journals that may love your story. As with having a story accepted for publication, it’s very subjective and a story that fails to place in one competition may well go on to win something far more prestigious. In the same way that you have to view buying a lottery ticket as fun rather than a serious financial plan, this is a bit of excitement where you can enjoy the thought of ‘what if’ while you wait for those results. And who knows, that ‘what if’ may someday result in an ‘oh my God, I can’t believe I’ve won!’
*Not confident at all about giving advice, actually, but happy to help any way I can…
**I’m not seriously asking that you dedicate your awards to me. Cash rewards will be fine***
***No, not really etc