Increasing your chances of making it to the finals in a literary contest, or yes, Virginia, there is more to a winning entry than great writing

Literary contest season is just around the corner, so by popular demand, I’m going to revisit one of my favorite omnibus topics, what differentiates a contest entry that makes it to the finals from all the others. What criteria do contest judges use, and how may a clever writer gear an entry to cater to them?

Was that great collective gasp I just heard from those new to contest entry? “But wait!” the neophyte entrant cries, “why should my entry be judged upon ANY criterion other than pure quality of writing? If not…“ and here, tears well up in the neophyte’s harp seal-like eyes, “how can we be sure that the best writing will always win?”

That roar you just heard, dear readers, was the chuckle of everyone currently alive on the planet who has ever been a contest judge. 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.

Which means — hold onto your hat here, Virginia, because this is a big one — that the best-written entry does not necessarily always win. The best-written entry that meets the judging criteria doesn’t even necessarily always win. But without a shadow of a doubt, a brilliantly-written entry that does not meet those criteria, or that violates contest rules, will virtually never make it to the finals.

Of course, there are criteria: as with any other art form, the assessment of quality is in the eye of the beholder, so there would be absolutely no way to standardize judging across entries if there were no pre-set criteria. And these criteria are not limited to matters of style and expression, but technical matters as well. Anyone out there care to guess why?

I can already my long-term readers chanting the answer: for exactly the same reason that agencies are so eager to use technical criteria to reject submissions – time. Since the vast majority of entries are rife with technical errors, it’s the single quickest way to thin the stacks of submissions.

Sorry about that, Virginia. And when you’ve got a second, I have some bad news about Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, unless you have had the foresight to have volunteered to serve as a contest judge for years before you enter your first contest – not a bad idea, incidentally; contests are always seeking new judges, and it’s one of the least expensive crash courses in why most manuscripts get rejected you’ll ever find – it’s rather hard for the average entrant to learn what precisely the relevant criteria are. And, as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I think the practice of keeping this kind of useful knowledge from aspiring writers is, well, let’s not say despicable; let’s call it counter-productive.

So in this series, I shall be dispensing 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. You’re welcome.

Why do I feel so strongly that you need to have this information at your fingertips? Experience. For those of you new to my blog, I am the poster child for literary contests: I actually did have 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 NYC publisher before the 2005 contest winners were announced rolled around.

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: agents like to be the SECOND person to recognize a writer’s talent, after all.

There are a LOT of contests out there, as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contest” is aware. 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 rake in a whole lot of 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 a little bit of homework.

The first question you should ask: is the contest credible?

There has been quite a bit of controversy within the last couple of years 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.

I know, Virginia, I know. Just hold that cold compress to your head, and the dizziness should subside soon.

Why should a prudent entrant worry about how a contest is judged? Because selective judging may favor certain entries, rendering it harder for a newcomer to break into the finalists’ circle. It is not unheard-of, for instance, for organizations to solicit entries from outside their memberships, but have an established track record of only awarding prizes to their own members.

Check the fine type of the contest rules, as well as the hometowns of the finalists and semifinalists of years past: if they cluster too much, wonder if the locals have an edge.

Nor is it at all unusual for contests ostensibly for the unpublished to allow published writers to submit their work-in-progress for judging alongside the work of the less experienced. (Check last year’s winners’ list for the moderately well-known: if John McPhee has won their short story category any time since 1955, they’re probably not too careful about keeping out those with hefty publishing credentials.)

Not to mention the scandal a few years back when a major writers’ magazine happened to notice that the students of the writers who were judging contests seemed to be winning major awards on a fairly regular basis.

Ready for another shock, Virginia? After the scandal broke, absolutely nothing bad happened to the judges who were favoring their students in competition. Some of them are still regularly judging contests.

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.

The moral: let the entrant beware.

Tomorrow, I shall give you some tips on how to go about bewaring. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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