Increasing your chances of winning a contest

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve decided to give all of my loyal readers a really nifty present: starting today, I shall be giving you a week’s worth of bona fide tips on how to maximize your chances of winning a writing contest, as well as guidelines to navigate your way amongst the dizzying array of contests out there. As both a former contest winner and a veteran judge of literary contests, I am here to tell you: no, Virginia, winning isn’t just about the quality of the writing. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well.

For those of you new to my blog, I am the poster child for literary contests: I had every writer’s fantasy come true. I won the Zola Award for Nonfiction Book/Memoir at the 2004 PNWA conference, met my fabulous agent within 12 hours after receiving the blue ribbon, and signed a publication contract with a great NYC publisher before the 2005 conference.

While such speedy results are not the norm for contest winners, winning or placing in a well-respected contest can definitely kick open a few doors. Agents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile. (Most queriers list no writing credentials at all, so a writer with publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks more professional than most. Even if those credits or wins are in wildly different genres than the book being pitched. So, at the risk of seeming repetitious, you might want to consider entering the Holiday Table contest here on this very blog — see posting of December 9 for details — because the winner will receive TWO publication credits AND a legitimate contest win to dress up future queries. And did I mention that the PNWA contest deadline is only a couple of months away?)

There are a LOT of contests out there, as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contests” knows. Most, unfortunately, do not offer cash prizes, but many do offer publication. (In fact, contests are a not uncommon way for literary magazines just starting up to get good writing for free.) Almost all, however, charge an entry fee, sometimes a hefty one. As I have mentioned before, there is now an entire industry devoted to offering help to aspiring writers, and like seminars and conferences and how-to books, what the contests offer writers who enter varies widely. So just as you should learn all you can about a writers’ conference before you slap down the registration fee, before you pay to enter a contest, it would behoove you to do your homework.

First, is the contest credible?

There has been quite a bit of controversy within the last year over how various literary contests are judged. Not all are blind (meaning that the judges do not know whose entry is whose), and not all contests that claim to have blind judging actually do. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but only award to their own. It is not at all unusual for contests for the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. And some observant souls pointed out earlier this year that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Obviously, this kind of pseudo-blind judging is grossly unfair to the other entrants, but the moral of this story is not that not all contests are squeaky-clean. It is no secret that there are many contests out there that solicit widely for entrants primarily as a fundraising effort, rather than a sincere attempt to discover heretofore unsung talent. Nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students, so the moral is most definitely LET THE ENTRANT BEWARE.

I shall never forget the looks on the faces of everyone at the awards ceremony of a QUITE respectable Southern conference when the teenage daughter of two of the contest judges carried off the Young Writer award (and, as I recall, a not insignificant check — derived, no doubt, from the entry fees of trusting high school students). Now, her parents had actually been judging in other categories, not hers, but since they had been her first readers and were rather chatty people, the judges in her category certainly knew which entry was hers. I’m not saying that the contest was rigged, per se; I’m just saying that the mother won in the nonfiction category.

The general rule of thumb to avoid this type of situation: enter contests sponsored by organizations, not cliques. The writers’ grapevine can really help you here. Ask other writers about particular contests before you spend time and money on entering them. POETS & WRITERS magazine, which lists literary contest deadlines in each issue, does a pretty good job of screening, so if a contest seems a bit shady to you, check if it is listed in P&W.

And, of course, if you check out a list of the last few years’ winners (and you should; more on why below), and you see the same last names recurring, or see that the judges themselves seem to carry off prizes, you might want to think twice about sending in your entry.

Second, how good are your chances of winning?

Yes, any contest win or place will look nice on your writing résumé, but obviously, some contests are more prestigious than others. Less prestigious ones can actually be a better bet, if they are legitimate. When you are first starting out as a contest entrant, you might want to stick to smaller contests, where your odds are significantly better. Big-ticket contests attract stiff competition; contests with large cash prizes attract a higher percentage of professionals amongst the entrants.

Also, your chances of winning are higher if your writing resembles that of past winners. Most contests will list past winners on their websites, tucked away in a corner somewhere; check them out. If the sponsoring organization publishes winning entries, read a few. If your writing is stylistically radically different, the contest is probably not for you.

Remember, in most writers’ organizations that offer contests, the first round of reading is performed by volunteers — the same volunteers, year after year. If the volunteers favor Gothic romance, and you write futuristic fantasy, you’re probably better off saving your money and going for a different contest.

In any contest with celebrity judges (i.e., famous writers who make the final selections), this goes double. If your writing doesn’t resemble the famous judge’s in form, think twice before bothering to enter.

Even if you’re lucky enough to find a celebrity judge who is well-read outside of his own subgenre — and willing to reward work unlike his own — the bigwigs virtually never read all of the entries; commonly, they read only the finalists. That means that those crusty volunteers I mentioned above screen the entries first — and all too frequently, edge out good entries that do not resemble the celebrity’s, on the well-intentioned theory that our writing tends to reflect our reading tastes. They’re just trying to save the celebrity some time.

Tomorrow, I shall talk about what you can get out of the writing contest. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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