Thousands of writing contests are held each year, ranging from the prestigious and lucrative to the one at your local fete that has a potted plant as first prize. Competitions can be a great way to hone your skills and prompt you to write on a topic or theme you may not have considered previously. Cash and other rewards can help support your writing, wins or commendations can enhance your CV and your work may be published. As most competitions have entry fees, however, you might invest a lot of money with little or no return. What can you do to maximise your chances of success? Here are some suggestions.
Generally speaking, competitions offering the most prize money also have the largest entry fees and attract the highest calibre entrants. On one hand, you need to be ‘in it to win it’, but also try to be realistic about your chances. If you’ve never won anything except a chook raffle, perhaps start with a small local competition before entering the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Competitions in a niche area might attract fewer entries and thereby provide you with a greater likelihood of success. For example, a competition with a set theme (e.g. the environment) or one only open to certain kinds of people (e.g. under 25s or over 50s) may attract fewer entries than an open competition.
Read past competition winners’ entries. Sometimes these will be available online or in an anthology. This will help you to determine whether your material is suitable for a particular contest.
If the names of the judges are given, google them to see if you can find any of their work. What style, genre or topics do they prefer? This will give you a better idea of what to submit.
Focus your energy on competitions that have another payoff as well as prizes (e.g. an anthology). That way you have an extra chance of having something to show for your efforts.
Follow the submission guidelines exactly. Do they have a separate cover sheet or do they want your name on each page? Do they have specifications regarding format? Email or post? Do you pay by cheque, PayPal, credit card or bank transfer? What’s the word limit? Is there a theme? If you don’t take the time to follow their guidelines, why should they take the time to read your entry?
Have several pieces on the go at the same time (e.g. different genres, word limits) so that when competitions come up, you already have something to work on rather than starting from scratch.
Make your entry the best it can be and only send your best work. Spend a lot of time on it. Revise, revise, revise! Get honest critique from people you trust. Ultimately, this will be your best chance of success.
So what are you waiting for? Dig out those half-finished manuscripts and see if any of them are suitable for upcoming competitions. You’ve got nothing to lose.