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Searchlights & Signal Flares 

What's Your Take On Writing Contests?

February 2005 

This month: Arlene Mandell, Cristie Marcus, Annette Gendler, Anne E. Silber, Pam Laird, Mary Gaffney, Susan Bono


     Here's my latest entry:

     Of course I want to win.  Why else do you think I sent you that check for $10 along with my subtle, insightful, symbolism-filled poem, "Three Sheep in a Meadow"?  Of course I have no way of knowing whether you'll use my check, and all the other checks stuffing your mailbox, to buy tequila or oil for your Chevy pickup or a purple feather boa.  You might even use the money to publish an anthology.

     This year (and it's only February) I have already spent $247 on contest entries.  And I have written cloying, pleading letters like this:  "Creative Solutions for Your Loved One's Cremated Remains" - What a charming concept for a poetry collection.

     Actually, nothing I've written above is remotely true.  I just wanted to get someone, anyone, to pay attention to ME.

Arlene L. Mandell, who has actually won some contests and modest sums of money, loves/hates the whole process


     As a writer, I often find my inventiveness blocked, stifled, stymied.  So how to unclog and get those creative juices flowing?  Enter a contest, or more exactly, have a contest deadline looming, a deadline that must be met or opportunity wasted and forever forgotten.  It's like the old adage, ask a busy person to do a task for you and it gets done.  Ask someone with all the available time on their hands and they can never seem to get to it.  Without a contest posing a “must-be-postmarked-by date, I might just never come up with a new story or bit of Flash Fiction or poem or anything!  With a due-date approaching I cannot dawdle or put off.  The contest forces me to create and isn't that really the prize?


Cristie Marcus, Santa Rosa, CA

      At my MFA residency this January, we had a panel of three literary magazine editors (from Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Gettysburg Review), and when asked about contests, they unanimously advised: "Enter only free ones, never pay anyone to read your work."

     I'm not sure I'd go to that extreme, but I think I've revised my own rules about entering contests to be:

1. Enter only contests that have been around for a while and offer some prestige;

2. Give preference to contests that award 2nd and 3rd prizes and honorable mentions, not just one prize;

3. Get something out of the entry fee, namely at least a copy of the journal with the winning entries in it, or a critique of my entry.

     I still think there's merit in entering contests, having a deadline is one, but I do think one has to be cautious. Your chance of winning a contest is much slimmer than your chance of getting a piece accepted if you spent the contest money on postage and submitted the same story to ten different literary magazines. That's my new rationale anyway. Simultaneous submissions are standard procedure, all you have to do is keep good record of your subs and if your piece does get accepted somewhere, immediately notify the other publications. One thing editors hate is when they want a story and come to find out that it's been accepted elsewhere. Then you've wasted their time, and that gets you blacklisted really fast.


Annette Gendler


What's your take on writing contests?

     I've never entered a writing contest. I have two acquaintances who have each won a writing contest. In both instances, the win appeared as a great credit, and opened doors for them.

     I've never entered a writing contest because basically I don't like writing situations which create “winners” and “losers”. Football, baseball,tennis and Wars fall into that pattern, but I don't believe writing should. Writing is such a deeply personal venture, and the motives for writing so varied that only the writer can know what is won and what is lost in the process. For some, recognition is everything. For others, it doesn't matter so long as the words are put to paper. Writing contests do encourage those who seek recognition, but be aware that winning any old contest does not do a thing for you. I have heard from experienced judges that there are so many contests now that winning doesn't mean anything any more unless it is one of the top prestigious ones.

     Another thing I don't like about writing contests is that they are mostly fee-based. One has to exercise extreme caution. There are so many contests out there which only seek to bring in some money, and the prize is worthless. In one instance I knew of a winner who received only a fraction of her prize, the explanation being that the judges selected three other writers as a “tie”. They refused to tell her who the other three were. Smell a rat?

     I will never enter a contest. Maybe it is fear of losing, I don't know. I do know that a small panel of “judges” cannot evaluate my writing. What are their biases? Only I, and my readers can evaluate my writing, in an environment where there is no gain or loss, just a measurement based on the impact of what I wrote. Up today, down tomorrow. Get busy and write some more. Not for prizes, but for the simple fact that I am a writer.


Anne E. Silber is a writer of one novella, numerous articles and essays on topics of importance to her. Visit her website to learn more.  www.annesilber.net

     The first writing contest I entered sent my career as a writer back three giant steps.  Obviously, not the outcome I had anticipated.  Not only did I not win the contest, I managed to display myself as a bitter, sore loser and foul relations with an agent I imagined I was courting. 

     I should pause here and mention that I've already lied.  The very first writing contest I entered was 33 years ago for the Western Pennsylvania-Upstate New York Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, or some such organization.  I got second place.  My best friend won.  Her mother “helped” her with her essay, she admitted to me in the bathroom stall after the award ceremony.   She blew her nose on the cheap toilet paper.  Of course, I forgave her.  But I think a seed of suspicion was planted right then, waiting to bloom. 

     Back to the first contest I entered as an adult creative writer---it seemed to me to be a slam dunk. I had a cute story that twirled the contest theme around on itself. I worked the piece until it was smooth and tight.  Edited, touched up, enhanced.  I was sure I would at least place.  I did not.

     As I read through the winners at a very public reception, I came upon a high school student who had placed twice.  He had attacked the subject in a single-minded fashion.  It occurred to me that all the winning stories had been quite literal.  “Well,” I exclaimed under my breath, “that explains it.”  Too late I saw the woman standing next to me, the aforementioned agent, heretofore witness only to my charm and wit.  Too late I heard the bitterness in my voice, my suspicious tone.  Too late I recognized my own bad manners.

     The agent glanced at me.  Her eyes were unequivocal, cracking my fragile hopes, splintering me off from her future, and tinkling onto the floor what was left of my dreams, now shards that the literati in the room moved to avoid.

Pam Laird, Occidental, CA


     I'd  like for Tiny Ligts to accept longer contest entries, so I could enter some stories I can't make short enough. I think writing contests are great & want to win one again.

Mary Gaffney (writing from Panama)

     It's contest time again here at Tiny Lights, and so this subject is often on my mind. Eleven years ago, when I contemplated starting a magazine, the question of money came up. Where was it going to come from?

     How was I going to pay for paper, printing, artwork, advertising, mailing, a P.O. box, the fees for filing a fictitious business name? I wanted to pay my writers, too, make it worth their while to submit to editorial scrutiny, and to get them to notice me in the first place.

     Somewhere in all the stewing that ensued, probably during a drive to pick up one of my kids, the idea of an annual contest was born.

     Writers who were willing to risk a little money in addition to the possibility of rejection could make a whole magazine appear out of thin air. Even if they didn't win, they would receive a copy of something they helped create.

     Upon this principle of community effort, Tiny Lights was founded. Each year, the reading fees I've collected have managed to cover basic expenses. They don't pay for my time, but they allow me to justify my efforts. And rightly or wrongly, that's how I've come to view every contest out there—even the humongous ones like the Writer's Digest competition where thousands pay to play.  I'm helping make something happen every time I take a chance with a contest. Those people need me. And, as the saying goes, “You can't win if you don't enter.”


Susan Bono appreciates those writers who pay to play with her in Petaluma, CA.

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