Picking the right literary contest for you, or, about the Easter Bunny…


Know what this is, campers? It’s the building where, three days hence, I’m going to be giving my first-ever formal lecture on my memoir.

Yes, THAT memoir. The one that all the legal furor was about; the one that still hasn’t come out. Essentially, this will be a promotional appearance for a book that isn’t available for sale. Quixotic, no?

Admittedly, a fairly hefty percentage of the buildings at Harvard look like this, especially in the snow. So don’t walk into just any red brick building, should you be planning to attend. Check the Vericon schedule, to make sure that you don’t get lost amid all of the similar architecture. Hey, while you’re at it, why not pre-register and take advantage of the significant discount?

Okay, that’s enough self-promotion for today. Let’s unroll the Picket Fence of Integrity, to separate practice from theory:


Literary contest season is practically upon us, so as I do every year, 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 tend to use, and how may a clever writer gear an entry to cater to them?

“But wait!” the neophyte entrant cries (after having skipped yesterday’s post, evidently), “Why should my entry be judged upon ANY criterion other than pure quality of writing? If not…“ and here, as you may well imagine, tears well up in the neophyte’s harp seal-like eyes, “how can we be sure that the best writing will always win?”

Um…the same way we know that the Tooth Fairy is indeed the one who filches all of those discarded teeth from under the pillows of the innocent? Or the reason that we’re convinced that the Rabbit of Springtime is responsible for chocolate eggs showing up on Easter morn?

If your first instinct upon reading that last paragraph was to say, “By Jove, yes! There are some things that I am simply willing to take on faith,” then I can only suggest that you avert your eyes from what I’m about to say next.

Only the cynical on board now? Good. As both a former contest winner and a veteran judge of literary contests, I am here to tell you: no, Virginia, winning a literary contest is virtually never just about the quality of the writing. It’s about the writing AND playing the contest game well. Of course, being lucky doesn’t hurt, either.

Which means — hold onto your hat here, Virginia, because this is a big one — that the best-written entry does not necessarily always win.

Heck, the best-written entry that meets all of the judging criteria doesn’t even necessarily win. But without a shadow of a doubt, even a brilliantly-written entry that does NOT meet those criteria, or that violates contest rules, will virtually never make it to the finals.

Which means, in practice, that a good two-thirds of the entries to the average contest never stood a chance. Not because those entries were poorly written, but because contest entrants have, as a group, a less-than-admirable tendency not to read rules and guidelines very closely.

Over and above technical violations, most entries are also docked points for such unromantic trespasses as incorrect formatting, misspellings, lack of a hook in the first line…and that’s before the aesthetic judgments are even under consideration.

Anyone out there care to guess why the nit-picks are generally tackled first?

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, casting the technically flawed manuscripts out of finalist consideration is the single quickest way to thin the stacks of entries.

Sorry about that, Virginia. And when you’ve got a second, there’s something you ought to know about Santa Claus.

Unfortunately, unless you have had the foresight to have volunteered to serve as a contest judge in the 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.

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. I wish that more contests were up front about what kind of submission they would reward, and what they would condemn.

Why do I feel so strongly that you need to have this information at your fingertips? Because if you are going to invest the not inconsiderable time, effort, hope, and entry fee in trying to generate some EXQLC, call me zany, but I’d like to see you stand a good chance of winning.

That bizarre acronym stands for eye-catching query letter candy, in case you were wondering — and short of previous publications, winning, placing, or being named a finalist in a well-respected contest is some of the best EXQLC you can have. Agents pay attention to that kind of credential; it makes your query letters jump out of the daily pile.

Why? Well, most queriers list no writing credentials at all, either through lack of awareness that it would help make their query more effective or, more commonly, because they have no credentials to list. (If you’re one of the many who finds himself scratching his head, wondering what could possibly fill that gaping hole in the query letter, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category at right for a few tips.)

The cumulative result of this phenomenon: a query that lists publication credits and/or contest wins automatically looks substantially 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.

But how does an aspiring writer know which contests will make for the best EXQLC for the buck?

This is a very serious question: as anyone who has ever Googled “writing contest” is no doubt already aware, there are a LOT of contests out there. 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?

Unfortunately, the first place I would normally send you to find the answer to such a question, Preditors and Editors, is not going to be much help. Oh, it will tell you if a contest is a notorious rip-off, but as a matter of policy, P&E will not recommend any contest that charges any entry fee at all.

However, unless a contest is being run as a charity — which even most non-profit writers’ organizations cannot afford to do — or the administrative details are being handled by Santa while the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Great Pumpkin frantically read entries, I’m not quite sure how even the most well-meaning contest organizers could pull this off.

P&E’s disapproval of entry fees means, in practice, that the reputable contest that charges $15 to cover irreducible administrative costs (contests don’t run themselves, you know) ends up lumped in the same category as the aspiring group of friends who realized that they could rake in a whole lot of money if they threw up a website, announced a literary contest for book-length works (there aren’t many of them) at $80 a pop, and sat back to rake in the dough.

Ultimately, that the potential entrant will need to dig a little deeper to determine credibility.

To complicate matters further, 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. In fact, the last few years have seen quite a bit of controversy in the writing community over how various literary contests are judged.

Specifically, not all feature blind judging, where 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. A good tip: check last year’s winners’ list for the moderately well-known. if John McPhee has won their short story category any time since 1955, for instance 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. Heck, 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.

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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