The perfect writing competition?

I love the buzz of writing competitions; joining in with other writers, waiting with baited breath for long- and shortlists, guessing which titles will win, reading new work, making new friends, and occasionally catching some CV bling. Competitions are, for me, a cracking blend of job and party.

Some competitions are more exciting than others though, and my enjoyment is hugely affected by competition design. This is what I look for:

A (user-) friendly website: clear dates, rules, prizes, and info on the organisers or judges, with smiling human faces. Good sites: Bristol, Bridport, Fish, and Short Fiction Journal. If the site design’s pretty, all the better: Fish again, The Moth Magazine (although not quite responsive?).

An online submission process, with online payment. I’ll print and post if need be, but honestly, round here… a lot of stuff gets eaten by dogs, dropped in puddles, or sent to the wrong address. Ow.

An entry fee means that every entrant has made an investment, so readers, judges and winning authors can be paid. Fees vary; a reasonable range might be roughly £2-£7 for flash, £6 – £12 for short stories, or £10-15 if there’s a whopping prize, a critique, or if the entries are novels.

Of course there are some great free competitions out there — e.g. BBC NSSAWriters and Artists, Times EFG — but there are also a lot of tiny competitions who’d have writers work for just publication. I have mixed feelings about this; we don’t write solely for the money, but if writing’s a profession, it should be paid. (I have a billion exceptions where I would nevertheless write for free — not least microfiction or Twitter fiction, which is just FUN, e.g. The Penny Dreadful run a Hallowe’en one-line horror tweet, tagged #PDHorror. Go to it!)

Prizes. Maybe £50-500 for flash, £300-5000 for a short story, with massive prizes from BBC NSSA, Manchester, Times EFG and the like, or prizes may include writing retreats (Writers and Artists), courses, deals or books. It’s good if there are prizes for runners up as well as winners. The main prize is publication though; ultimately you have to go where you want to be published.

Online tracking: did they receive your story (and which story was it again)? Most competitions send an email auto-receipt, but some have really cool entry and tracking systems. Fish archives by year of entry; you can see your story, entry number, payment, and whether or not it’s been marked. Bridport’s also pretty good (story name, entry, status: ‘entered’).

Organiser and judge tweets. This is the chilli chocolate of  the competition world:

“Just received a big box of entries from x competition”

on a judge’s Twitter stream is BLISS. An unopened box, on a judge’s desk! And I don’t know if my story’s in it or not! The perfect tantalus. The best competition for this is Bath, who tease with tweets about entry numbers, numbers of single-name titles, and so on. Individual judges may also do this of their own accord. Mwah.

Who are the judges? Usually external, established authors or poets (most of the big competitions), or sometimes the competition organiser (newer/smaller competitions), or the public (e.g. Costa Short Story Award). All of these work as long as competitions are clear and open about the judging process. (So, who are those filter readers? Anyone?)

Longlists tell us a lot. Firstly, stories have been read! As if that’s not exciting enough, longlists are the most inclusive form of winning, so we get to congratulate established authors, new writers, and friends. Often there’s an eclectic mix of titles, and we can all take bets on which will win. If you’re on the list, you can tingle your way to the shortlist. If not, then you know nice and early on that your story is free for submission and publication elsewhere (assuming they don’t do what Bridport did this year, and issue the longlist the day after the winners were announced).

Shortlists. Now we’re in the remit of the judge rather than the filter readers, and if we’re listed, we can start to dream of winning. Shortlistings alone carry kudos, especially if they come with publication. I love shortlists, I really do.

Archives: it’s nice if lists are archived so that entrants can link to them — Flash500 keep shortlists, longlists and judges’ reports on linked pages, Fish keep their lists in the news section, Bridport archive winners and shortlists, SO’F archive winners, shortlists, and publish stories online.

TimingFor me the perfect competition sets up lots of stages where entrants can interact.

  • Twitter: chat about entering, enter, read about judges…
  • longlist [search for friends’ names, ponder titles, celebratory tweets]…
  • wait a week or two, shortlist [further celebrations]…
  • announcement, publication of winners [mass excitement]
  • buy anthology and enjoy stories.

In all the the best competitions, there’s a chance of coming away with a new writing contact or friend.

And the winning stories are… (this bit can be weirder than you expect)…

A secret? It’s OK if a competition deadline has to be extended due to crazy entrant numbers, power failures and the like — hey ho — but it’s not OK if entrants have to wait for months, not knowing, because of general disorganisation. Announcements should be dated.

A surprise. I once found out that I’d won a competition when I opened up a magazine and found my story in it. Not complaining!

Expensive? I also entered a competition where the results were first announced in a publication that I was expected to buy.

Non-existent? What about the competition (at that time free to enter) that refused to award a prize because the stories weren’t worthy? I say, fair enough: the judge judged. (Willesden, we miss your mug.)

Announced. Announcements happen online, by email, by post, and at ceremonies (champagne in the House of Commons, anyone?). Bubble and squeals for the shiny people, their eminent titles, and their hard-to-write bios. Well done!

Awful, or worse. Rarely, I’ve read a winning story and thought, “Surely not…” — the joys of subjectivity — or worse, “I’m sure I’ve read that before.” Some competitions allow previously published stories, whereas other stories are simply derivative; there’s no copyright on ideas.

Brilliant. Usually, the winners provide a really, really good read. (Anthologies rule!) Occasionally you read something that changes your perception of the world.

The judge’s report: fascinating fodder for those who entered and didn’t win — provided it’s constructive and polite. (I once read a judge’s report that urged writers to not focus on their own issues because, “You are not as interesting as you think!” — so that was lovely for all the people who didn’t win.)

Critiques. If you’re new to writing, or wondering whether a particular story works, a critique can be really enlightening. Writers’ Forum Magazine offers a good value, brief critique. Fish also offer critiques (would be interested to see one of theirs or hear opinions).

Publication. The holy grail.

Please, please, if you’re publishing us online, give each story its own url. (Let us link. Let us not link and scroll.) Examples of competitions who do a fabulous job: Seán Ó Faoláin, BBC NSSA (interviews and podcasts) and Mslexia runs podcasts too. Manchester does an online anthology of the shortlist; great for having a nose.

Print magazines and anthologies: we love these. A print copy is a Thing; bought by proud mothers and next year’s wannabe winners, at least — but some of them are regular favourites. FishBridport, Bristol. Nom, nom, nom. Gobble them all up and ask for more.

In betweenies — the best competitions become an institution: an old friend. You can relax with these guys, you know they’ll nudge everyone when they’re open, and share literary goodies when they’re not. After a while you stop caring whether you win; you’re in it for the conversation.

Author support — Bristol follows up on the successes of their past winners, announcing book launches and further successes — nice touch. I’ve seen Bridport and Bath promoting and congratulating their past winners, as well. Writers and Artists provide wide-ranging resources for writers, and HISSAC have a writing and mentoring community.

My favourites?

Bristol (well organised, reasonable rates, good prizes, print anthology, friendly aftercare and tweets), Fish (well organised, a bit expensive but great prizes, very inclusive long- and shortlists, brilliant tracking system, print anthology), and Seán Ó Faoláin (well organised, reasonable rates, good prizes, classy online publication with some incredible writers, and super-friendly).

But really, all of them.

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I’ve had to leave this post before finishing it, but decided to publish rather than leave it to die on the vine. I’ll be adding more competition details, but do feel free to comment. 

Fling your veg: