Considering the Value of Writing Contests
I’ve been absent from this blog while polishing up my essays and memoir opening to submit to contests. Entering these contests has provoked several questions with answers, some good, others not so much.
In a blog post several years ago, I asked my site visitors how they felt about writing contests (How Do You Feel About Writing Contests?).
At the time (2012), I didn’t think anything much about these competitions one way or another, never having submitted my work to any. But in 2014, an excerpt from my memoir was a finalist in a memoir-writing contest and in 2016 I won first prize for an essay about how I wrote my memoir (My Mother’s Money). I was awarded $400 and my essay was published in The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. So this past summer I thought, what the heck, maybe contests are the way to go. Maybe I could earn a little money and gain positive acknowledgement through that endeavor.
I entered individual personal essays, a collection of personal essays, and the first 4,000 words of my memoir manuscript in a few contests. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the value (and the stress and expense) of submitting to writing contests.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s seldom a fee to submit work for publication, but you have to pay for the privilege of submitting to contests. It feels a little like tossing dice in Las Vegas. As I click on the PayPal link, I tell myself, if nothing else, at least I’m being a good literary citizen by adding my few coins to the thin coffers of literary journals so they can offer prize money to a winner.
If you don’t win, generally you get no feedback to the questions that crop up in your mind: Was my entry a near miss? If it’s a finalist or earned an honorable mention, where did it fall short? Paying to get someone, through your contest fee, to evaluate your work, find it wanting, but getting no feedback, can make you feel ignored—for a price.
In one contest I thought I had a good chance of winning, my work didn’t even place. Often, even after you’ve paid $20 to enter a contest you didn’t win, you can’t read the story, poem or essay that did win unless you shell out more money for a subscription or a single copy of the pub. However, the sponsor of that particular contest that I didn’t win or place in allows everyone to read the winning entries, a very good thing. That way, next year, I’ll have a better idea if any of my work is suitable. (It probably isn’t. The winning entries both seep with the sadness of medical tragedy.)
Let’s see what else we’re talking here: It takes a ton of time to write a strong essay. It costs money too, in paper and printer ink, at the very least. (If you’re like me you print out your work in various stages to subject it to deep reads.) Then you nervously follow all the submission rules, which for some reason, sometimes are presented in a punitive tone. You I pay your money and submit the piece. Then endure the tortuous waiting period, only to come up against the kiss of doom, the extended deadline.
Those Movable Deadlines
To meet the deadline, perhaps you’ve spent money on sitters so you could work without interruption. You might have invested in take out meals to avoid spending time in cooking for yourself or your family.
A deadline I scrambled to meet has been extended another month to the date I thought I’d be hearing back, win or lose, from the contest sponsors so I could scratch that one off my list. And a writer friend tells me extending the deadline means the contest sponsors aren’t satisfied with the quality of submissions they’ve received. Or it could just be that they didn’t get enough submissions—and therefore fees—to have sufficient prize money to award to some lucky writer.
What’s the solution? Sadly, I’ve got no definitive advice. But here are some choices:
- Be clear about your reasons for entering each contest.
- Don’t be lured into submitting to an expensive contest solely because you think winning might grab the attention of an agent or editor who will ask to see more of your work.
- Only enter contests that offer feedback on your work.
- Only submit to contests costing no more than $10. Submitting to numerous $20 – $30 contests can seriously drain your bank account.
- Submit to contests that offer more than one prize. Money for 1sr, 2nd and 3rd place and honorable mentions should be awarded. The runners up deserve something for their time, talent, and trouble.
- Submit to contests that will consider publishing your entry. Maybe it didn’t meet the standards of the contest, but is perfect for their publication. I didn’t win the recent Tulip Tree writing contest, but I was invited to have my essay, “Chasing Dragons,” about being bullied, appear in their brand new anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. I’m quite happy with that, as anthologies have a wide distribution and long shelf life.
- Bear in mind that while you’re researching and submitting to contests you probably are neglecting other writing projects. Is it worth it?
Will I continue to submit my work to contests? Probably. I’m surprised to discover that I enjoy a little frisson from the suspense and excitement involved.
The Truth About Writing Contests offers tips about entering contests from Writer’s Digest. (Note that Writers Digest itself sponsors numerous writing contests).
And don’t miss these penetrating insights from Becky Tuch on The Review Review web site. Writing Contests: Should You Take the Plunge?