Our thanks to WWW team member Matthew Dix for this post. Matthew’s work for Where Writers Win includes identifying and posting writing competitions of value to emerging authors!
It’s easy to bemoan the contest culture that seems to have taken over the writing world, and yet the judges and presses who host these writing contests maintain that their prizes are an excellent way for both emerging and established writers to advance their literary careers. And though the number of writing competitions has skyrocketed in recent years, one thing has remained a constant in the writer’s life: rejection.
Still, many of the most highly-regarded and vetted judges advise their contestants to think of their contest submissions not in the restrictive terms of winning or losing, but as an opportunity to open a greater dialogue with the writers they love.
Here are a few pieces of advice from writing competition judges culled from the Writing Contests issue of Poets & Writers magazine.
Contests are a process of deletion, not selection.
While the trap of discouragement is inevitable when receiving a rejection letter from a contest in which you’ve invested your hopes, it’s important to remember that, though you did not win, your work has not depreciated as a result.
DIAGRAM editor Ander Monson told Poets & Writers that the final call in a high-stakes contest “is often pretty arbitrary.” By which he means, “subjective.”
A number of excellent pieces often pass before a judge’s eyes, and the choice for a winner is not always obvious. Many contests recognize runners-up and honorable mentions, and not only the winner receives editorial feedback.
Often, the investment you make by way of entry fee will pay off even if you don’t win the contest you enter. The opportunity to put your work before a writer whose work inspires you is what you ultimately pay for.
Familiarize yourself with the work of the press or journal you submit to.
Poet and editor of Noemi Press, Carmen Giménez Smith, advises contest entrants to consider closely the previous work of the press or journal hosting the contest you submit to before entering.
“Even when there isn’t a specific aesthetic mission,” Smith warns, “a press will have an inclination, a mood, and writers should read several titles from a press before submitting.”
Informed entrants will have a greater chance at surviving multiple rounds of cuts and overall chance of winning the contest they enter.
Grab the judge’s attention – before it’s too late.
When submitting to a writing competition that allows for multiple or manuscript-length entries, organize your work so that your strongest pieces appear first. Judges often have to read dozens or even hundreds of submissions per contest, and a slow start may cause a judge to abandon a submission before even completing it.
Poet Kwame Dawes advises writers that “frontloading a collection with the strongest poems is just good practical sense.”
Even if your submission contains only one piece, a split-second decision made after reading a weak opening line could cost you a prize. Before submitting, reread the opening pages of your piece to make sure your writing is captivating from the start.
Edit, edit, edit.
While it may seem obvious, many judges remind writers to only submit their best work to a contest. Fiction writer Stuart Dybek reminds writers to kill their darlings and to have friends review a piece to make sure the grammar and spelling are impeccable before submitting.
Dybek told Poets & Writers, “I’ve judged contests, especially book-length contests, in which a manuscript would have been much stronger had it been better edited, not diluted by lesser work — when less would have been more.”
Have you placed well in a literary competition? Tell us about your success and how you’ve used it to further your writing career!
Matthew Dix is a recent graduate of College of Charleston in South Carolina and plans on a career future in the publishing industry. His current projects for WWW include sourcing new festivals, contests, conferences and retreats for the Winner Circle calendar, and identifying the hottest vloggers for the newest category in our Winner Circle vetted Book Reviewers.