A Thought or Two on Writing Contests

Lit by Susan Bono, 02/09/07

I think everyone who sends work to contests or publications should have the experience of judging a writing contest. Being part of a panel of judges is especially edifying! After coordinating 12 contests for Tiny Lights and helping to judge many other writing competitions in the past few years, it never ceases to amaze me how often judges disagree! In fact, I've learned to PLAN on it. Judges are, for the most part, intelligent, well-read people who take their duties seriously. But their wildly disparate reactions remind me that writing contests are more like dog shows than foot races. A lot of factors go into selecting a winner. What I love may leave you cold, so coming to consensus can be a tricky process. I always tell writers that if your work doesn't win, go ahead and blame the judge(s)!

Yes, blame the judges, or pity them for their incredible stupidity, but NEVER follow up a contest with a sour grapes criticism of the contest, the winners, or the organization that sponsored it! Never ask an editor why you didn't win or complain about any feedback (or lack thereof) on a manuscript! Out here in California, that might be bad for your karma, but anywhere you go, it's bad for your reputation. Learning to lose gracefully is part of the game. Editors tend to remember poor sports, but not in a way that bodes well for them.

Boring, but true: spelling, grammar and punctuation matter. Don't let screeners get distracted by sloppy copy. Yes, your work is likely to be screened before it gets passed along to the busy and (usually) underpaid judges, who will never see that long-winded cover letter you sent with your manuscript. Let your work speak for itself and use the cover sheet primarily as another place to include all vital contact information, which should always be easy to locate. Don't make the mail handlers get your return address off your check, and don't make them fish around in the envelope for your entry fee. You have paper clips. Use them.

And speaking of basics, if you don't have access to email, expect to irritate contest coordinators. Editors and publishers deserve an inexpensive and convenient method for relaying information and receiving manuscripts for publication. If you don't have email, borrow an address from a trusted friend who will let you know if an editor has questions.

PLEASE read and follow the contest guidelines carefully. They are usually available online, which is actually the fastest and cheapest way to obtain them. Show those contest people how smart and thrifty you are by not making them send you a copy. REMEMBER YOUR ENTRY FEE. And don't start inquiring about results a few days after the contest deadline.

Re: SASEs. Where do you stand on self-addressed, stamped envelopes? They are becoming less vital as the electronic age unfolds, but consider the possibility that an editor or judge might share a comment or suggestion if there is a handy means to do so. If you decide not to honor a request for a SASE, please include directions for ms. disposal.

Re: Electronic Submissions: Easier for you, harder on the eyes and bank accounts of people like me, who hate spending long hours reading text on a computer screen and can't afford to remedy that situation by making hard copies. Appreciate both forms of submission, neither of which is perfect. Times change, and so do editors, but don't assume the old ways are all bad.

Speaking of money, it's expensive to enter contests, especially if you enter a lot of them. The fees can be deducted as professional expenses, you know, but I have two better arguments for sending a smile along with those checks. First off, you can't win if you don't enter, so it's important to regard your entry fee as an investment in yourself and your brighter future. But it's also important to keep in mind that your entry fees, which are used for things like prize money, printing costs, advertising and judges' honorariums, are what make most contests possible. Your participation makes you a patron of the arts and helps maintain a healthy literary community. Some wonderfully talented and deserving writer is destined to win the contest you enter. It could very well be you.

Susan Bono is Editor-in-Chief of Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative. She is in awe of those her enter her contests, because she herself avoids competition whenever possible.

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