By Andrew Blackman-
There are hundreds of writing contests out there offering prizes of thousands of dollars for short story writers, poets and
novelists. The downside is that you often have to pay to enter, so if you enter too many without success, it can be expensive. Contests are always a bit of a gamble, but there’s a simple way to increase your chances.
Write for the judge.
Of all the details of writing contests, the judge is often the most overlooked, and yet it’s one of the most crucial. The judge
is the person who will be deciding whether you win or lose, get published or get a rejection slip. Doesn’t it make sense to find out what this person likes or dislikes?
Fortunately, with writing contests, this is usually easy to find out. Whereas regular submissions to magazines or newspapers will be handled by an editor who may remain quite anonymous, writing contests are judged by writers. You can read their words, get inside their heads, find out what sort of story they’d want to read. Many have blogs or Twitter accounts, or have been profiled or interviewed in newspapers and magazines. A simple Google search can turn up a mass of insights that can help you win prizes.
Here’s an example of how it works. Last year, I decided to enter the Nottingham Short Story Competition. The judge was M.J. Hyland, so I decided to find out more about her. I read a story she had available online, visited her website, read interviews and profiles. Then I wrote a story just for her, a story I thought she’d really like to read. The result: a respectable third place, publication in an anthology, and a check for £125. I’ve used a similar method to win thousands of pounds worth of writing prizes.
But isn’t that compromising your integrity? Shouldn’t you just write for yourself?
No. Anything you write is for an audience; the whole point of telling a story is to entertain or enlighten other people. The
audience here is just smaller than usual! Of course you should never write anything you don’t believe in, and I’m not saying you should mimic the judge’s writing style or content. What I am saying is that you can improve your chances greatly by understanding the person you’re writing for.
As an added bonus, reading and analyzing the work of an accomplished writer will help you learn from them and improve your own writing. So even if you don’t win the contest, the exercise will have been a valuable one.
Of course, sometimes the judge will be someone you can’t really write for without compromising your integrity, someone whose interests or writing style are radically different from your own. In that case, the best course of action is simply to walk away and congratulate yourself on saving the entry fee. There are plenty of contests, so there’s always another possibility!
To find a writing contest to enter, the FundsforWriters newsletter is of course a fantastic resource. Here are a few others to check out:
Andrew Blackman is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who now concentrates on fiction. His first novel, On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in April. He blogs about writing and books at www.andrewblackman.net.