Mistake No. 97: The comp's a con

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. (Read more about that shady practice here.) 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.

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