Contests, Part IV:But is it worth it?

Howdy, campers —

Welcome to Part IV of my holiday present to my loyal readers: a multi-part series on how to make literary contests work to your best advantage. Soon, I shall be moving on to tips that will give you a technical edge in most writing competitions, but first, I want to continue my discussion of how to decide whether any particular contest is going to be worth your entering.

This criterion (see earlier blogs from this week for the other criteria) is perhaps the most important factor to consider in evaluating a contest — other than whether your writing is ready to face competition, of course. Unlike the other criteria, which mostly focused upon the contest itself, this consideration is about you and your resources.

The fifth question to ask yourself: will entering the contest take up too much time?

Unfortunately, there are few contests out there, especially for longer works, that simply require entrants to print up an already-existing piece, slide it into an envelope, write a check for the entry fee, and slap a stamp upon it.

Pretty much all require the entrant to fill out an entry form – which range from ultra-simple contact information to outright demands that you answer essay questions. Do be aware that every time you fill out one of these, you are tacitly agreeing to be placed upon the sponsoring organization AND every piece of information you give is subject to resale to marketing firms, unless the sponsor states outright on the form that it will not do so. (Did you think those offers from Writers Digest and The Advocate just found their way into your mailbox magically?) As with any information you send out, be careful not to provide any information that is not already public knowledge.

How do you know if what is being asked of you is de trop? Well, a one- or at most two-page application form is ample for a literary contest; a three- or four-page application is fair for a fellowship. Anything more than that, and you should start to wonder what they’re doing with all of this information. A contest that gives out monetary awards will need your Social Security number eventually, but they really need this information only for the winners. I would balk about giving it up front.

I have seen contest entries that ask writers to list character references – an odd request, given that the history of our art form is riddled with notorious rakes. I’m not sure I believe that a contest should throw out the work of a William Makepeace Thackeray or an H.G. Wells because they kept mistresses…of disqualify Emily Dickenson’s poetry submission because her neighbors noticed that she didn’t much like to go outside.

I have asked contest organizers why they do this, and they claim that it is so they can rule out people whose wins might embarrass the organization giving the award – basically, so they do not wake up one day and read that they gave their highest accolade to Ted Bundy. Frankly, I would MUCH rather see mass murderers, child molesters, and other violent felons turning their energies to the gentle craft of writing than engaging in their other, more bloody pursuits; some awfully good poetry and prose has been written in jail cells. I do not, however, run an organization fearful of negative publicity.

My suspicious nature rears its paranoid head whenever I see requests for references. If an entrant lists one of the contest judges as a reference, is the entry handled differently? If I can list a famous name as a reference, are my chances of winning better? Only the conference organizers know for sure.

Contest entry forms frequently ask you to list your writing credentials, which I find bizarre in contests where the judging is supposed to be blind. Again, perhaps I am suspicious, but I always wonder if entries from authors with previous contest wins or publication credentials go into a different pile than the rest. They shouldn’t, if the judging is genuinely blind, but to quote the late great Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

I’m not saying that you should rule out contests that make such requests – but I do think that the more personal information the organization asks for, the more careful your background check should be. When I see a request for references, for instance, I automatically check and see if the judges and/or their students have won previous competitions. A lot of the requesters are indeed on the up-and-up, but there is no surer waste of an honest writer’s time, talent, and resources than entering a rigged contest.

You can also save yourself a lot of time if you avoid contests that make entrants jump through a lot of extraneous hoops in preparing a submission. Specific typefaces. Fancy paper. Odd margin requirements. Expensive binding. All of these will eat up your time and money, without the end result’s being truly indicative of the quality of your work – all conforming with such requirements really shows is that an entrant can follow directions.

My general rule of thumb is that if I can pull together a contest entry with already-written material within a day’s worth of writing time, I consider it reasonable. If a contest requires time-consuming funky formatting, or printing on special contest forms, or wacko binding, I just don’t bother anymore, because to my contest-experienced eyes, these requests are not for my benefit, but theirs.

Because — and I am about to reveal another secret of the contest trade here — the primary purpose of these elaborate requests for packaging is to make it as easy as possible to disqualify entries. By setting up stringent and easily-visible cosmetic requirements, the organizers have maximized the number of entries they can simply toss aside, unread: the more that they ask you to do to package the entry, the more ways you can go wrong.

Interestingly enough, many of the organizers of contests that establish these demands are quite open about its being merely an exercise in rule-following. Think about it: if they really only wanted standardization amongst the entries, they could easily just say, “We will only accept entries in standard manuscript format.” No fuss, no bother, and besides, all of their entrants who want to get published should be using standard format, anyway, right? (If you are not already aware of the requirements of standard format, do yourself a favor and read my posting of December 8. Manuscripts not conforming to standard format tend to be rejected unread in both contest situations and in agents’ offices.)

Instead, the organizers in this type of contest can merely assign some luckless intern or volunteer to go through the entries before the judges see them and pluck out any that are in the wrong type of folder, printed on the wrong type of paper, don’t have the right funky margins…well, you get the idea. Voilà! The number of entries the judges have to read has magically decreased!

I find this practice annoying, frankly; it provides the organization with the illusion of selectivity on bases that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And that, my friends, is unfair to writers everywhere.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini