Thursday, June 15, 2023

not winning writing contests, are writing contests worth it
                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by:  Ariel


I'm beginning to have doubts about entering writing contests. 

For more than twenty years, I have entered contests as a way to build my resume.  Now, I'm unsure whether to continue the practice.  

The piece I entered in the 2023 Tennessee Mountain Writer's (TMW) annual competition had received compliments from several agents.  In fact, based on this piece agents have asked me to send them more manuscripts.  So, I know from their reactions and from the comments of my critique partners that this manuscript was strong.  I was sure this piece was going to win a prize.  But I found out that my story didn't win an award.  It didn't even receive an honorable mention.

At first, I was shocked and angry.  

I reviewed the contest guidelines and then checked my submission.  It looked fine. Then I went back to the contest website to double check the winner's names.  There were only two:  first and second place.  That was it.  No other prizes.  I've entered the Tennessee Mountain Writers Contest for over fifteen years and have always, always won a prize.  So, having entered a prize-worthy manuscript, I was stumped that it didn't receive any award. 

This slight, this insult got me thinking about writing competitions.  Some people believe it's important that winning a writing contest will impress agents.  But after querying for many years, I'm starting to feel differently.  I think that being a member of a professional writing association, having work published in magazines, attending writer's conferences, and working with critique partners make a better resume.  

I'm not trying to discourage anyone from entering a contest.  Getting your work before judges could give you some indication of the strength of your work.  That is, if you trust the contest and the judges.  I would urge you to look into contests that don't charge too much and those that state the names of the judges.  

I realize judging writing is subjective.  In my case, perhaps the judge* didn't like my lyrical writing style.  Maybe the judge didn't like the story because character change was too subtle.  Or because it was about cats.  Who knows?  I contacted the contest chairwoman asking why nobody won third place or honor mention.  She didn't have an answer, but she assumed that the judge felt no other submission was worthy of a third place or an honorable mention.

Writers pay money to enter a contest and have their best work judged.  Writers are proud of the pieces they've selected for a competition.  So, if I could I'd ask the judge to put herself in the place of the writers.  How would she feel if she had submitted her best manuscript to a writing contest and found out that it had not won a prize and no honorable mentions had been awarded?  Bear in mind, in most cases honorable mentions do not win a cash prize.  Then I would ask her:  Who would it have hurt to have given one or two writers this honor?  

After the winners had been announced for the Tennessee Mountain Writers Contest, I tried to find the names of the judges.  I wanted to check their resumes.  What were their credentials?  Were they published?  But the judge's names were missing.  Maybe they had been listed while the contest was running and now, the names have been removed.  I find this troubling.  Even after the contest, the names of the judges should be listed along with the names of the winners.  

You might think I'm bitter over this, but I'm not.  I've learned through this situation.  I don't need a contest to validate my work.  All I need is a decent bio, and I have that.  So, it feels like now after twenty years it's time to be more discriminating about contests.  It's time to enter contests that are fair to writers.  Sadly, after winning so many awards from TMW, it's time to accept the fact that I will never enter this contest again.  

✌ and 

*Arbitrarily assigning the pronoun her.