The comp’s a con (Mistake #97)

So, the following tweet caught my eye the other week …

… and I found it pretty cynical and depressing.

I have judged a writing competition, for The New Writer, and I can assure you I did not choose the winners by means of a lottery. I spent a number of evenings reading the shortlisted entries, across a longer period to allow for plenty of thinking time, and then spent further time agonising over the final decisions, making sure I was 100% happy with my choices. There was a modest fee involved – doing the maths, I imagine it would amount to about £2 or £3 per hour – but I agreed to do it for the experience, not the money, and in support of the competition and the good organisation and people behind it, not to mention to support good non-fiction writing, which I’m passionate about.

How can I be sure all other competitions are judged as carefully as I judged this one? I can’t. But if an established writer is named as a judge, I’d have every confidence in him or her. We writers are a good bunch, on the whole. If your name is going to be associated with an award, as mine was with the one above, you want to be seen to have done a good job. It reflects on you.

And what about entry fees? Organising a writing competition takes time and resources – publicity, advertising, administration, answering queries, hiring judges, issuing winners’ certificates, and so on – so of course organisers usually have to charge.

Those which don’t charge may have a sponsoring body behind them, who may (or may not) have less interest in the quality of writing and more interest in deriving a lot of publicity from the whole endeavour. Alternatively, the body behind a free-entry competition may be sneakily specifying in their terms and conditions that copyright to all entries is automatically transferred to them – thereby granting them a vast quantity of articles which they can use throughout their media to derive an income from. (See the Writing Competitions section of this article on Copyright.) Frankly – a decent entry fee, to me, might signify a more honourable endeavour than one without; indeed, the absence of a fee might make me suspicious.

Good work finds an audience? Well, good writing may find a readership, rather than an audience – but no, not all does, and some average work finds a readership too. It’s not that simple, or fair. Besides, the implication in that claim is that you don’t need to enter an award to get your work noticed. Perhaps; perhaps not.

But entering your award will get your work noticed by the judges, and if you do win, it will be noticed by many more people. If you do get placed, you may win a modest sum of money, but most of all you’ll be thrilled, encouraged, and be able to add ‘award-winning writer’ on your writing CV. Editors might sit up at that. Some competitions offer feedback as part of the ‘package’ of entry, and this can be invaluable too, even if you don’t win.

You’ll have guessed I’m a big supporter of competitions. There are hundreds of fiction competitions every year, and sadly far fewer non-fiction ones, which I list on a dedicated page on this blog here. Take a look. You may find one or two worth entering. Good luck!

Do you think writing competitions are a lottery? Can they be a gateway to success and greater glory? Are there unscrupulous writing competition organisers out there? Let me know of your good – and, with careful discretion, bad – experiences.

Comments 4

  • Alex, I agree that most competitions – especially if they have a well-known writer 'attached' to them are well run and not a 'con'. Those that annoy me (and, let's face it, I'm easily annoyed!) are the comps that don't announce the results when they say they will (don't they realise, we are WAITING?!) and also, the odd one that 'tweaks' the rules when they get an entry from a child (by awarding first prize to him/her and then awarding a 'second' (but lesser) first prize to an adult. I have experience of both of these but they're few and far between. I reckon most people who complain about competitions are just having a burst of 'sour grapes' because they didn't win. But you have to remember, when you enter a competition, that they are pretty subjective: what one judge likes, another may hate. But I still believe that good writing will rise to the top. Otherwise, why do I often see the same names (eg: Melanie Whipman) in the winners' lists?

  • I've judged a few competitions and will be doing more. I've also won or been placed in some.

    I too disagree that it's a lottery. Judging is subjective to some degree. A different judge might well have picked a different winner – but I'm sure they'd have selected from the same few which were considered the best.

  • Rule tweaking – especially in the absence of any 'we reserve the right to change the rules' clause in the T&Cs – would definitely annoy me too. I agree with you re: subjectivity – there is no magic formula for a winning piece of writing – and ultimately it has to come down to the judge(s) …

  • In the one I judged, the shortlist of the best (which were mostly excellent) were selected, and from that pool I was to select the winners. I liked that I was given sole responsibility for that final call and it made me take it more seriously, I imagine. It's a responsibility – and like Helen says, good writing will rise!

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