Sunday, September 6, 2009

Judging a Writing or Poetry Contest

When I was younger writing contests were so exciting. My high school English teacher did all of the leg work so all I had to concern myself with was creating a written work of art. Now that I am much older and definitely wiser, I have to wonder if writing contests are worth my time and energy.

Being away from writing for several years I thought I should try my hand at a writing contest.  Not intent on winning the contest per say, but to use it as a means to see where I stand in today’s writing society. The critique alone would be well worth it. The decision made to enter a contest was easy, finding the right contest would not be.

There are hundreds of literary contests, online and off. Most are legitimate contests for writers; some are even prestigious. Unfortunately there also seems to be various questionable competitions developed to "scam" aspiring writers.

Many writers see writing contests as a possible stepping stone to success – something to add to their writing resumes, or even get their names out there in the writing community.  This can be true if the contest is held by an organization with prominent standing in the writing industry, has high standards and is judged by professionals in the genre field of said contest. Take for instance, the Malice Domestic contest run by St. Martin's Press, where winning includes a book contract, or the Golden Heart Award, a contest for unpublished book-length manuscripts conducted by the Romance Writers of America, or the Writers of the Future contest, which is judged by well-known writers and editors. Winning or placing in a contest such as these is definitely worth mentioning in a query letter.

Winning contests promoted by unknown magazines or a local writers' group or one of the Internet contest mills won't get you props with agents and editors. It has less to do with the fact that the editors and agents won't have heard of these contests, but more so because they know that small contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.

Crafty companies and individuals with less that honorable intentions have found ways to capitalized on the naiveté or desperation of beginning writers. Writers who are so eager to get published that they are willing to pay whatever it takes to enter contests that "guarantee" they will get published or promise outrageous monetary prizes.

Often when the prize offered is a book contract, winners don't find out until after they have won that they must pay a fee for publication, or agree to pre-purchase large numbers of books, or pay the publisher for a publicity campaign. It is not suggested that you enter a contest that doesn't allow you to refuse a contract if it's offered.

The prize money pledged in some of these competitions may never actually exist. The so-called "contest sponsors" may never choose a winner and just continue to collect writing submissions and the cash of the unsuspecting "entrants." However, there are “contest mills”, which are not actually scams since there are usually winners and they do receive prizes. These contests are purely for the organization to make a profit from entrance fees.

Using these tips can assist you in determining a hoax from a legitimate contest.

Who's conducting the contest? If it's an organization, magazine, or publisher you don't recognize, be sure to verify its legitimacy. If it doesn’t feel right, don't enter. Be especially wary of contests that are conducted by individuals or are nothing but a webpage of contest rules. Search for contests that list the judges - and then pick the ones that boast published authors, editors and/or agents.

If the organization promises that entries will be passed on to a literary agency verify its reputation too. Make sure there are no undisclosed connections or conflicts of interest.

Is there an entry fee? Having an entry fee is not an automatic red flag that a contest isn’t on the up and up. Many legitimate contests charge a fee to cover processing expenses and to fund the prize.

There are appropriate entry fees. For book manuscripts, stories, or poems, between $5 and $15 are considered average for smaller or amateur contests. Larger ones may charge a bit more, but anything over $25 should warrant some investigation.

What exactly are you getting for your money? Some legitimate contests may offer a critique of your work - whether you win or not – for a small fee. However, if you're encouraged to purchase additional services when you enter--critiques, marketability analyses, tickets for an awards banquet, or other services for unreasonable fees--it may very well be that the contest is a moneymaking venture, rather than a real competition.

How frequently does the organization conduct contests? Running a contest every month, or bunches of contests every quarter, can also be a sign of a moneymaking scheme.

Are the contest guidelines clearly stated? A legitimate contest will provide clear rules, including information about contest categories, deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes and the circumstances in which they will or will not be awarded, judging, and any rights you may be surrendering. If you can't find these don't enter.

Who'll be doing the judging? It's in a contest's interest to name its judges, since this speaks directly to the contest's legitimacy. This is important information for you as well, since the prestige of a contest has a lot to do with the caliber of the judges, and a contest with a judging panel of successful writers and/or industry professionals is much more likely to be a good addition to your writing resume if you win.

Some contests prefer to protect judges' privacy, so a contest that doesn't name its judges isn't necessarily illegitimate, as long as you're confident of the reputability of the contest sponsor. If you aren't, be wary.

What's the prize? The prizes should be clearly described and they should be appropriate to the contest sponsor. Unless you're certain of the sponsor's legitimacy, contests with large prize amounts should be treated with caution, since they may be moneymaking schemes.

Contests that offer representation, publication, or production as prizes are very tempting. Be careful, though, because these contests aren't always what they seem. Always research the agency, publisher or magazine company to make sure it's reputable and successful, and don't enter a contest whose rules make it impossible for you to refuse the prize if you win.

There should never be an extra cost associated with a publication prize. If there is, it's almost certain the contest is a fake.

Have you read the fine print? Always read the contest rules and guidelines carefully before you submit, so you can be sure exactly what you're getting into. Sometimes things are buried deep in the fine print.

For instance, you may have to agree to give up various rights even if you don't win, such as first publication or the right to sell your entry elsewhere. You may be required to use the contest sponsor as your publisher or agent. Giving up copyright may be a condition of the contest, which means the organization holding the contest can use your entry for any purpose it wishes (even without your name).

Contests can be fun and challenging and if you win, the recognition and prizes are nice too. Be honest with yourself about your reasons for entering and realistic about your expectations. Don’t let losing one contest prevent you from pursuing your writing or allow one win to keep you from continuing to learn.

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