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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Poets, writers, and poetry judges talk about writing contests

Some poets and writers enter writing contests often. Others wouldn’t dream of it! Why or why not? When I asked an eclectic group of poets and writers at all stages of their writing careers what they thought about writing contest, they had this to say:

Zahra Brown
I wouldn't enter a writing competition. It's one of those things to brag about but doesn't mean much else. I don't need awards, bestseller lists, etc. Who remembers the winners in the long run? I would NEVER pay to enter a competition. If the winners they chose are “good enough” then surely their work can make money through sales.

The Poetry Editor
That makes sense – if every contest resulted in publishing the books of poems or poetry chapbooks by the winners, but many writing awards do not include publication. (More about this shortly.) The question then is: why enter work that won’t be published?

Philip J Bradbury
I've just entered 2 writing contests this month, and it's not different from submitting writing to publishers. It's just another way to get our writing out there and, as with all things designed by humans, there can be glitches. So I put the work in, take the risk, and know it's a step closer to being published. What's the alternative – get knocked back once and give up?

Poetry Editor
Good for you! That kind of persistency also separates traditionally published writers from self-published ones, but I digress.

Elaine Bernstein Partnow
I've often entered contests with essays and short stories, only rarely with novels. My motivation has been to get my work out there, earn some recognition--and maybe some prize money! I'm also running a contest now under the auspices of my web site, TheQuotableWoman.com entitled "The Most Quotable Woman I Know." Winners receive cash prizes, a copy of the international classic, The Quotable Woman, The First 5,000 Years, and publication on my blog and in an e-book planned for next year. All rights revert to authors after publication. My purpose in running the contest is, of course, to bring more traffic to my web site, but, more, to honor those women who may not have a public platform, as do the women in my book, but who are nonetheless incredible, amazing women who have had a huge impact on the people around them. It has been my life's mission to raise the voices of women--and this contest is another way of my doing so.

The Poetry Editor
Yes! When I directed the Christian Writers Fellowship years ago, we had a contest to encourage Christians writing in all genres because few awards existed then for religious poets and writers.

Nicole Frith
Well, I certainly try to send out as many stories as I can because to me they are a way to get yourself known. In Australia, there are many contests that are highly regarded which most writers are aware of, however just like anywhere you sometimes feel that you are sending your last ten dollars off to contests that never publish anyone! I am in two frames of mind when I consider a contest; as a writer I want so much to be recognized for my work, yet if I don't send it off because of legitimacy concerns then I would never get published! So maybe it is a catch 22 situation; you have to take a chance on some contests and one day you just might get published or win!

Terri Huggins
In all my years of writing, I have never entered a contest. However, it is something I think about frequently. Because professional and well-known editors are judges for many legitimate contests, I look at it as a way to get my piece in front of them and possibly get more work as a result of it. (I've heard scenarios such as this from past contest winners.) And I would love to have the words "award-winning" in my title. However, I have yet to enter because of the time it takes to actually research the legitimacy of each contest. I would like to know the entry fees, what rights are associated with the contest, and where it may potentially be published should I win.

The Poetry Editor
Yes! The answers to those very questions can help poets and writers to discern the legitimacy and trustworthiness of a contest. I have to add, though, that the best-run contests are usually “blind,” which means the judges see poems and manuscripts with their titles and entry numbers but no byline, address, dedications, or even pseudonyms that might identify the writer.

Mary-Margaret Simpson
I used to use reputable writing contests as a way to motivate myself to get a piece out the door, but they had to be reputable. I have received an honorable mention from the Writer's Digest annual contest, and it's a nice item on my resume. But I don't like contests where you don't see the actual winning entries at some point down the road. The whole point is to learn, right?

The Poetry Editor
Good one! I hadn’t thought of entering a contest as a source of motivation, but apparently I have done this without realizing it! I kept thinking, for example, that I had 15 to 20 poems on one theme that were ready to see print, but I never got around to sifting through my poetry file until the deadline for a well-respected chapbook contest gave a strong incentive.

Dana Stanley
It has been years since I entered a writing or poetry contest, but I think it is a good way to hone your craft and get your name out there. As someone has said: Research, and FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.

The Poetry Editor
Amen to that! Every year in the contest I judge someone inevitably tries to put their name on the manuscript, which, since I have never known the people anyway, would not have done any good. Also, our Director stays on top of things with a watchful eye and a very broad black marker in hope of helping the work of a person who can’t follow directions still be considered. If, however, I recognize a manuscript I have previously critiqued or even seen, it’s disqualified immediately.

Kirsten Ehrlich Davies
When I was starting out as a "hobby" writer, I found competitions were a great motivation. I had deadlines, word limits and sometimes themes to follow, so it was a positive way to bring discipline to my writing. I wrote more stories than I would have if I'd simply been collecting rejection letters, and later my stories were broadcast on radio programs and published in my own collection of short stories as well as published in magazines. I did learn from experience that there are different types of competitions: There are the ones where everyone gets published with the honor of buying the book; the ones so prestigious I didn't have a chance of even being short-listed; and the ones where I had a good chance of winning a cheque or a certificate. If you choose your competition carefully, and use the competition circuit as an impetus to create more work, it can be very beneficial!

Jacqueline Shannon
I want to share my only experience with a writing contest. I was already making a living as a journalist and editor when I entered the Delacorte Press contest for a first young-adult novel back in the 1980s. While I didn't win first place in the year I entered, I was runner-up and the prize for that, at least back then, was also a book contract. The late great Olga Litowinsky was my editor, and she not only improved my book 100 percent, she improved my overall writing that much as well. Those were the days editors had more time to nurture and work with authors. Delacorte published my first YA novel, Too Much TJ., in 1986. That allowed me to land a great agent and since then I've had 16 more books published, fiction and nonfiction.

The Poetry Editor
Wow! What a wonderful success story! I wish Delacorte still offered that type of contest. Perhaps other well-known publishers still do, but I would advise writers to be careful of unknown publishing companies who want all rights or even too many.

Dana Cassell, Founder of Writers-Editors Network
We will not post contests on our Contests page that take any more than one-time publishing rights, and then only for the winners. Some contests take publishing rights for "entries" - not fair, even if they don't charge an entry fee.

The Poetry Editor
This reminds me to tell you all that Dana Cassell posts contest cautions on the Writers-Editors website.

Gale Martin
I won several significant awards from the annual Writers-Editors Network contests in the last couple of years. Each first-place win gave me valuable content for that all-important bio paragraph in query letters. But more significantly, these wins boosted my confidence and encouraged me to submit more of my work more broadly. There's just no substitute for third-party evaluation and validation of your writing.

The Poetry Editor
Good to hear! Thanks.

And thank you all for your responses to the question I posed to find out what other poets and writers think of contests. Hopefully, I can address some of your concerns, too, such as the typical reasons for entry fees.

As mentioned, writing contests do not necessarily produce a book or chapbook that can be sold by the sponsor, so the entry fees pay for advertising costs, prize monies, and an honorarium for the time and expertise given by the judges who read every entry, sort every entry, re-read the “maybe” and “yes” piles, weigh writing skill and levels of freshness and potential reader interest, then read, read, and read again to make the final cuts, and often difficult, placements. Sometimes, for instance, I may let the top few entries sit for a few days to see if they stop changing places!

Regardless, the writing contest sponsored by Writers-Editors.com does not publish the winning entries, which, on the plus side, means the poets and writers retain all rights, including first rights, so they can place their work elsewhere – even another contest – with greater confidence about trying.

As a poet and writer as well as a contest judge, I totally agree that contestants should learn from their experience. Therefore, we let them know who won and why when the announcements are posted, along with the title and person’s name, on the "Winners' List." In addition, we sign and send certificates to poets and writers who receive monetary prizes and honorable mentions too. Some years we have even included hand-written Post-A-Note to encourage writers of exceptional work as much as we can.

Since I’ve been one of the judges for the annual writing competition sponsored by Writers-Editors.com for several years, I’ve written some tips for contestants. Throughout the year, Dana also posts lists of other contests you all might want to consider. And, if you want to hear more good suggestions from Dana, who has been helping writers for about 30 years, you might enjoy the interview with her last year posted on my blog In a Christian Writer’s Life.


© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler, please do not use without permission.



  1. This is an excellent post, Mary. Thanks for your candid interview with writers and poets about contests.

  2. Thanks, Janie. It was fun and informative, hearing what writers at all stages had to say.

    Have you visited my Blogger/ Blogspot blog In a Christian Writer's Life? Hope you check it out. It might give you resources and encouragement helpful to you and your writing life :)

  3. Thank you for responding to each quote with your expertise. I thank you even more for making the post very easy to read! Easy on the eyes, which helps me keep reading!