Contest submissions revisited

The streets may be icy, but here I am, all cozy and warm, going through the backlog of reader questions posted via the COMMENTS function while I was going over the Idol list for lo! those many weeks. My, there have been some great questions posted, and I’m pleased to be getting back to them. Some of my best blogs have come from reader questions, so keep sending ‘em in, everybody!

For those of you who don’t know how to post a question (skip this paragraph if you already do), go to the bottom of any post. There, after the “Posted in…” category information, you will find green type that says either “No Comments” or a number of posted comments listed. Click on the word COMMENT. This will both bring up a page with the blog in question and any comments that have already been posted. At the bottom of this new page, you will find a section entitled “Leave a Reply.” Fill in your chosen screen name (pseudonyms are dandy), your e-mail address (this is not posted; it’s just to cut down on spammers), and your website, if any (and if you want to share it). Then type your question or comment in the little box provided and hit the “Submit Comment” button.

It’s that simple! The nifty blogging program lets me know whenever anyone posts a comment, so feel free to comment on months-old posts.

All right, enough technicalities for today. On to the questions. Serenissima wrote:

“I was wondering if it would make sense to enter an annual contest with a revised version of a piece one had submitted before. Do organizations such as PNWA have the same judges from year to year?”

Here’s the short answer: yes, it would, and yes, they do. Next!

No, but seriously, it does make sense to enter a revised manuscript in a subsequent year’s contest: writers do it all the time. In a contest like the PNWA’s, where entrants receive feedback on their submissions, it’s actually encouraged.

Do read the rules of any contest VERY carefully before you pop your entry into the mail, though, because not all contests allow repeat submissions. In fact, it’s a great idea to go over the rules with the proverbial fine-toothed comb anyway, because the single best thing you can do to improve your chances of winning or placing in a contest is to follow the stated rules to the letter.

Why? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, you would be astonished – at least, I hope you would – at just how few of the entrants in any given contest seem to have READ the contest’s rules. Often, these rules are buried at the end of the entry materials, but by all means, seek them out. Follow them as if your life depended upon it, because let me tell you, a volunteer judge’s patience is likely to become scanty by his fifth entry of the evening.

Rule non-followers are very, very easy targets for a begrumbled judge’s momentary ire.

The second reason is rather more sinister, and definitely less widely-known. As with submissions at agencies and publishing houses, any well-respected contest (translation: a contest prestigious enough that it would help your writing career to win) receives so many well-written entries that choosing the finalists is generally quite hard. It saves judges a LOT of time if they can simply rule out the entries that did not follow directions; if an entry contains a disqualifying element, the judge is usually instructed to stop reading, and for most contests, a rule violation results in automatic disqualification.

Do the math: over the course of a few hundred entries, even a 5% disqualification rate would equal a substantial reduction in reading time. So how many entries would a contest have to get every year before adding additional rules designed to trip up the entrant would start to seem worthwhile?

I have to be honest with you: even as a contest judge, I often find contest rules poorly-written, difficult to understand, and sometimes downright arbitrary. It’s been my experience, though, that the more senseless the requirement, the more likely it is to be used to disqualify entries. In fact, it is not unheard-of for very popular contests to employ initial screeners, whose SOLE function is to check the entries for rule violations before the non-rule breaking entries are passed along to the judges.

Please, tread with care. If you find yourself too sorely tempted to skip any specific requirement listed – such as, say, the information that must appear on the title page, an often-fudged requirement – save yourself some time and money, and just don’t enter the contest. Use the money to take a writing class, or to enter another contest, because if you don’t follow the rules, your chances of winning plummet to practically zero.

On the re-entry issue, it pays to be a rule-hugger. Many contests specify that you cannot enter EXACTLY the same manuscript in subsequent years, but they usually leave it up to the author to decide just how much revision constitutes significant change. (If memory serves, the Faulkner contest is the only major one in the country whose rules actually specify how much must have changed from last year — although I do know a very good poet who won third place with identical poems in the Faulkner two years back-to-back. So I don’t know how seriously they enforce it.)

You’ve hit the nail on the head, though, Serenissima, in identifying the primary problem of the repeat entrant: the only way that she would get caught repeating a submission would be by a returning judge. Most contests’ judge rolls are swollen with those who have done it before – which is to say, the pool of those who have both the reading chops and the time to donate (in virtually every contest in the country, even the very expensive ones, the first-round judges are volunteers, not paid staff) is relatively small.

Judging is a big time commitment, after all, and not one to be undertaken lightly. In the PNWA contest, each first-round judge is asked to read at least 10 full entries, as well as provide both extensive written feedback for the entrant AND a separate write-up for the section chair; in years where there is a shortage of volunteers, they may read as many as 20 each. Multiply that by, say, a 25-page page limit, and judges are facing reading a fairly hefty book, cumulatively.

However, which judge gets which entry is randomly assigned, so the chances of a judge getting the same submission two years in a row are rather slim. It does happen, though — in fact, it has happened to me as a judge, and in that contest, I was not required to return the repeat entry for reassignment. Rereading isn’t necessarily a problem, especially in contests where entrants receive written feedback — seeing one’s advice followed is, after all, rather gratifying — but if the judge who gets an entry twice happens to be a habitual Big Old Grump, he might not be very nice about it.

My, did I just suggest that not everyone who volunteers to be a contest judge does so to assuage a rampant love of literature alone? Could I have been implying that some judges, such as the BOG mentioned above, do it because they like the power? And is it remotely possible that I might be hinting that if your entry ends up in the beefy hands of a BOG, you are likely to receive some pretty nasty criticism, whether or not BOG has seen it before?

Nah, I couldn’t mean any of that, could I? Every contest judge is an angel incarnate, and literary contests are judged on demonstrated writing talent alone. A judge’s personal bias, bad day, or annoyance at reading the same entry twice knocking a good entry out of prize consideration is as uncommon as — well, snow in Seattle in November.

In a nutshell: if the rules do not explicitly exclude resubmission, I say go ahead and resubmit. You can’t entirely rule out the possibility of your entry’s landing on the same BOG’s desk twice, but the chances of it are rather low. (And incidentally, readers: if you encountered a BOG who was gratuitously mean on your last year’s entry feedback forms, you should let the contest-giving organization know as soon as possible. The PNWA, at least, does try to weed out the BOGs. They’re bad for repeat business.)

As we get closer to PNWA entry time, would you like for me to run another series on contest dos and don’ts? Drop me a note via the COMMENTS function (now that everyone knows how to use it!), if so, and I’ll start cranking up the insight mill. And, as always, keep up the good work!

5 Replies to “Contest submissions revisited”

  1. Thanks, Anne! I’d like to see another series on contest dos and don’ts, especially targeted toward PNWA. For example, once upon a time, I remember you suggesting to submit title pages with contest entries. Given the page limit rules of PNWA, I worry that they’d count the title page as an additional page. Nuts and bolts issues like these would be helpful for those of us who aren’t contest pros. Thanks again.

  2. If I remember correctly, last year’s PNWA contest allowed either Courier (New Courier) or Times Roman (New Times Roman) for entries written on a computer. I always wondered why they didn’t have a different page number limit for Times Roman at 250 wpp, and Courier at 200 wpp. It would seem that a person submitting in Times Roman would have an advantage when the maximum page count is the same. This year I believe they are limiting computer printed entries to Times Roman only. Yet for those who might actually type an entry, those who use a Pica typewriter would be at a disadvantage.
    Point being, that if using Times Roman or an Elite typewriter, one would have a better chance to produce a “complete” entry and still send along a title page, all with in the stated page limit.

  3. Hi, Anne

    I don’t know if you will think this important enough to blog about but I think I may have found the answer to why some stories published in the Writer’s Digest win the contest, even though we know without a doubt there had to be better stories submitted.

    If you are the only one who had a title page, the story was in the right format, etc. etc., thus keeping your story in the running, then, yes, you are going to be the winner! Am I right about this, Anne, or am I still going to be left wondering why some of these stories win?



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