Competition guidelines? Pah! (Mistake #64)

I’ve just administered a modest little online competition on behalf of one of my clients. It was not a writing competition or related to the publishing business in any way; it was a simple prize giveaway for subscribers of a newsletter.

Three things were asked of entrants:

1. To answer a simple question.
2. To express a preferred choice of winning product.
3. To provide an address.

I was managing the entries, which trickled steadily in by email, and from which several winners would be drawn at random after a one-month period.

I should have just let the emails stack up of their own accord until the deadline, but curiosity got the better of me and I idly started to click into them. It soon became clear that over half of entrants were failing to supply all three things asked of them. The ratio improved over the coming weeks, as those who’d taken their time sent their entries through, but the ‘early birds’, who I suspect simply experienced a rush-to-the-head to get their entry in, ensured that I had to disqualify what turned out to be a sizeable number – perhaps a third. Some failed on one or two counts, but one entrant almost deserved her own special prize in managing the remarkable feat of failing on all three, supplying none of requested information at all. “I’d like to enter your competition!” was the hopeful entirety of her submission.

Although I’ve not had any involvement in them before, I’ve heard through blogs and writing magazines and chats with writers who’ve judged them that many entrants to writing competitions fail to take the time to read instructions properly, and make variously problematic submissions, leading to disqualification. I suppose there is much more scope for error in this case, especially as each competition will have its own particular requirements. Examples that might earn your work a red card include: going over word count, not submitting the requested amount of copies, failing to fill out entry forms, missing the deadline, not specifying the category entered, omitting the entry fee, submitting poetry to a short story competition and, yes, forgetting to include a name and address and (often) age.

Now, on one level, I do sympathise a little with writers faced with several pages of guidelines and terms and conditions. Not quite as much as I sympathise with the judges for all the reading they have to do (that said, competition organisers, I am available for bookings if you’re reading…) but I do sympathise a bit nonetheless. Of course they’re boring. I find my eyes skimming the terms too: after a while it’s a constant battle to force them to read every word.

But read them you must. Fight the urge to skim. Take your time. There’s no benefit in rushing. Whether you enter on the opening day of the competition or by the last day you’ll stand the same chance of winning. (Or do early birds get their entries read sooner? Do they therefore stay in the minds of judges for longer, increasing their chances? Hmm…)

There’s an obviously selfish reason you should understand the requirements too: it helps you to ensure you submit the most appropriate work, in the best form, and increase your chances of success. Entering a prize draw takes only minutes of your time, but a writing competition is hours or days – all that work is wasted if you make an error.

But there’s a less obvious and more altruistic reason too: it’s just the right, polite and respectful thing to do, with respect to organisers and other writers. Save the very largest, writing competitions are not money spinners. They take a lot of work, and a lot of people – organisers, judges – are giving up their time for, well, probably not much reward, in order to read and assess your work. You wouldn’t run on to a football pitch or take your seat at a card table without knowing the rules of the game: show the judges and your fellow entrants the same respect. Writing competitions are organised for us, writers, and we want them to continue. Play fair, play right – and they will.

And if this has inspired you to enter some in 2012, see my competitions page here for some upcoming non-fiction competitions. (Please let me know if you know of more and I’ll add them.)

Incidentally, one entrant to the competition I told you about above sent three entries, the second apologising for the omitted information in the first, and the third apologising for the omitted information in the second. “Please delete the previous two! Here is my proper entry, with all the information required!”

She won. Perhaps there’s a lesson right there.

Comments 5

  • Very good points very well made. I ran a short fiction or non-fiction competition myself last year and someone submitted cartoons!

  • I'm involved with running and judging writing competitions, and it surprises me how many entrants fail to read the rules. Especially when, with writing competitions in particular, entrants have to pay money to enter them!

    Many competitions will not return your entry fee if you break the competition rules. So some entrants are wasting their money by not reading the rules! The competition rules are the contract – I think writers should scrutinise them just as much as they would any publishing contract.

    I've known competitions disqualify between 10% and 20% of entries because they break the rules, and it's right that they are disqualified, if only out of fairness to the the entrants who have obeyed the rules.

  • Thanks both. Stark figures re: disqualification, Simon.

  • Read and RE-READ the competition rules, would be my advice. I once spent ages editing a 4500-word story down to 4000 words, so I could enter it in a competition. Only after the results had been published did I realise the word limit was 3000 words.

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