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Contests: To Enter or Not to Enter?
by Kathe Gogolewski

Return to Tips to Winning Writing Contests · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

The cursive note scribbled on the letter sent spurts of adrenalin coursing through my veins. Donna, the note read.

Check out this poem by Kathe. I think it's exactly what you've been looking for. Get back to me ASAP. Chad

The note was written to Donna, but the letter was addressed to me, and it contained a poem I had submitted to a poetry contest.

At the time, I was new to the publishing world and was thrilled to realize that my work was (evidently!) of professional quality. Chad was talking to Donna about my poem! Not only were they accepting it for their anthology, but they also wanted me to attend a conference, and... was I reading this correctly? I had been nominated for Poet of the Year! They wanted me to read my poem with other finalists at the conference. Really? On the merit of one poem? Wow, it must be much better than I thought!

My consternation grew as I read the instructions for registering and obtaining airfare and hotel accommodations. Nowhere in the letter did I find any mention of monetary compensation, even as a finalist.

I refrained from bellowing out the news to my husband in the next room and returned to the beginning of the letter. On closer inspection, I noticed that the hand-written note was a computer generated ballpoint blue, not real ink from a hand-held pen. My dander went up. Was this a scam?

Well, no, but as I later learned, it was grossly misleading. Thousands of hopefuls would pay the price in more than psychological terms through expensive airfare and hotel accommodations -- and let's not forget the conference fee: $595 at last count -- only to arrive and learn that every poet at the conference had also received a Poet of the Year nomination.

Attendees are left to discover, one by one, their place within a tight schedule where they will read their poems to each other throughout the long weekend. And the prestigious judges? The poets, of course. They get to cast the votes for their favorite poems, after receiving sound advice to vote for themselves, first, of course.

This scenario plays out over and over, conference after conference.

Here's how they snare writers: the company places ads in magazines and ezines announcing a poetry contest. There are cash prizes for winners with guaranteed publication. Writers can submit any number of poems without charge. Sounds inviting, except a real contest has losers; this has none. Everyone wins, no matter how tasteless or inappropriate the poem. Consider my second entry into the contest, which I wrote deliberately to show case their pitch and delivery:

Words of Praise

O words of praise so freely flowing
Oceans of it to keep you glowing!
Come On! They say, you must submit
Your poetry is such a fit
Precise and eloquent you are
For this we've searched so long and far
We'll publish your prose happily
(Just don't forget our little fee)

Now think what all your friends will say
Your enemies will have to pay
To get your pearly autograph
And you will have a hearty laugh!
C'mon you know you have the nerve
At last you'll get what you deserve
Submit your work! Do not delay!
(Just keep in mind you'll need to pay)

For we are so impressed with you
You're one of the enlightened few
Bookstores everywhere will fight
For you to visit at their site
The crowds will gather, cheer your name
And life will never be the same
You'll grow famous, wait and see
(Just remember now -- it isn't free)

Wouldn't you expect someone in the organization to catch this? They did not, as I suspect they were far too busy processing thousands of other poems to mind the details for this one. So, without a glance, this, too, made it into their anthology. And for only $50, I was informed that I could purchase the book (more if I wanted my bio included). The anthologies are thick hard-bound books, congested with poems that bump into each other -- about fifteen twenty-liners packed into three columns on tissue-thin paper. These volumes will never grace a bookstore or library shelf, and industry professionals do not award literary credits for any of the works. Even so, contest officials offer no shortage of ways for you to spend your money: your poem is available for a price on an engraved plaque or an audio tape; you can have it printed on a coffee mug. And of course, there's always another conference. And, perhaps worst of all, after learning the truth (in case you wanted to forget the experience), you are now on a mailing list that can require the jaws of life to extricate you from it.

So, should a writer avoid contests altogether? Certainly not! An author can build credits from winning legitimate contests, especially prestigious ones, such as the Malice Domestic contest run by St. Martin's Press, or any contest run by Romance Writers of America, including the Four Seasons Awards or The Golden Heart Award. The Pacific Northwest Writers Association sponsors another good one. Legitimate contests employ industry professional judges, well known in the publishing world, who make careful selections according to rigorous industry standards. The competition is brutal, of course, however, you don't need to win in order to benefit. With the entry fee, many offer thoughtful critiques of your work.

However, not all writers are looking for literary credits. Small contests can offer a fun and interesting challenge, though they may not impress an agent or big house publisher. Submission is usually easy, and entry fees are either very low, or there's no charge. For example, the Preditors and Editors Readers Poll, held online once a year in January, invites authors to post links to their books, short stories or poems, and readers may vote on their favorites. It's simple, fun and free. Other small contests may charge a small fee, such as Long Story Short, an online ezine, however the quality of writing is consistently good, creating a healthy competition for entrants.

Can you assess the value of a contest before entering? The following tip list can help you identify the legitimate ones:

1) Check out the organization offering the contest. Do you recognize it? If not, check it out further and be wary. You can use Preditors and Editors (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/) to find out how the site rates. And stay away from contests offered by only one person!

2) Look at the entry fees. Verify the legitimacy of anything over $35. If it's not a well-known organization, steer clear. The norm for the smaller contests is between $5 and $25. Some are free. Others offer non-monetary prizes, such as publication, books or subscriptions. If publication is the prize, make sure the exposure is wide enough to make it worthwhile. Find out where and how you'll be published.

3) Look for the number of contests run in a year. The money-makers, those in the business solely to make a fast buck, run contests back-to-back all year long. If you see a lot of contests, ask for more information. Assess the quality of writing in their publications to determine their goals.

4) Before entering, look for a scoring sheet or some kind of assessment about how you will be judged. If they are asking for only $5 or if it's free, don't expect too much if anything, but if they're charging in the $15 to $45 category, feedback is warranted, and this should be noted in the guidelines.

5) Look for judges. What are their credentials? Are they industry professionals? A legitimate contest will provide this information. Some contests will protect the identity of their judges, however, so don't set this one in stone. (Jello will do). In the least, they should give you the judge's credentials, such as a senior editor from Simon and Schuster, for example, without giving the name. Again, don't expect this for the smaller contests.

6) Consider the prize. If it's too high, be careful — it may be a scam to entice people into spending money on the entrance fee. While a $10,000 prize is likely a scam, even $5,000 and up should be treated suspiciously, though it's worth checking out. Some publishing houses offer publication to winners, which is enticing, but many scam artists offer the same thing, so make sure you have done your homework and found out about the publisher.

7) Look for the Guidelines. Are there any? There should be, and they should be very clear, providing information about eligibility, deadlines, format, fees, and any rights you may be surrendering. If they don't have them, find another contest. And follow the guidelines closely!

Remember to have fun... and good luck!

Find Out More...

Writing Contests: When Winners Are Losers - Moira Allen

Copyright © 2006 by Kathe Gogolewski.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kathe Gogolewski especially enjoys writing stories that appeal to children of different ages, genders and educational abilities. Kathe retired from teaching five years ago when she and her husband moved to Southern California. She hoped to begin writing full time but did not account for the lure of the bells that buzzed in the elementary school across the street from their new home. She soon found herself volunteering as a science and writing teacher. Now, Kathe teaches an integrated science and language arts unit to fourth and fifth grade classrooms using a program she wrote to accompany her middle grade reader, Tato. She has published two books (TATO and A Promise to Keep), and another is due for release in 2007. She is a contributing editor for The Muse Marquee, an ezine for writers, and also contributes an articles for Coffee Cramp Magazine and is a contributing writer for Ranch and Coast, San Diego's Luxury Lifestyle Magazine. .


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