Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Writing competitions -- a blog posting

Published By: Writer's Hub - 01 Jun 2010

Last week an e-mail about a short story competition landed in my in-box. I went to open it. I stopped. I moved my finger across the keyboard, pressed delete and sent it to oblivion.

For some time now I have been feeling more and more queasy about writing competitions, Competitions, I have begun to think, are not good for writers. They are certainly not good for me. The time has come to go cold turkey.

But why?

After all, if you are a short story writer or a poet, competitions are almost the only way to get your work read. Publishers arenít interested, but competitions allow you to send your babies off into the world to take their chance.

For me, it all started in New York, where writing tutors at the New School waved my manuscripts in front of me and urged me to ďget your work out thereĒ. In the States, that meant sending your stories out to the countryís many literary competitions Ė some of them so prestigious that people queued at midnight to buy the prize-winning anthology.

But returning to the UK meant returning to a different writing culture. Here, the only writing competitions around appeared to be run by the Macclesfield Writerís Circle, or by small charities wanting stories about cats or kindness.

Even so, trained in the American way, I sent my stories off to anyone who wanted them. I won some small cheques. Newer, bigger competitions arrived on the scene and more of my stories swam off into that wider sea. They, too, won some awards, and were published in collections and reviews. Last year almost every story I submitted found its way to the top of the competitive pile.

But even writing that sentence makes me feel cheap and uneasy. It makes it sound as if writing is merely a game, with winning the only objective. And, too often, Iíve started to think, thatís exactly what writing competitions turn writing into.

Because what Iíve come to realise is that the stories of mine that do well are rarely the stories that I feel are my best. Rather they are the ones that leap from the pile because of some shock value, or unusual subject matter, or quirky title, or matching of a judgeís interest.

And Iíve noticed that, too, that if you enter a lot of competitions you slowly but surely start to give people what you think they want. You write shorter and tighter because thatís what the entry conditions demand, you choose eye-catching subjects, rework old pieces to fit new rules, and knock out new pieces just to have a go at new contest or other thatís caught your eye.

In short, you start to become a hack and when that happens itís definitely time to get off the merry-go-round and get back to writing the things that matter.

And thatís what I now plan to do.

But this, just for the record, is what Iíve learned from my competition journey: that competitions make great servants, but lousy masters.

Use them carefully and by all means send off work that you believe in -- winning a big competition is one of the best boosts to writing confidence around. But remember, too, that writing competitions can sing siren songs of fame and acclaim that will ensnare you and lure you onto the rocks of empty daydreams. So if you ever fear that competitions are distorting your aims, or wasting your time, or deflecting your energies -- then give them up immediately!