How to Run a Writing Competition and Keep the Competitors Happy.
A guide for organisers of writing competitions
I have been entering writing competitions for a fair few years now. I like the challenge of having to adapt to suit different competitions’ different requirements. The rejections are part of the writing game and every now and then, there’s a win. Which is nice.
There’s plenty of advice available for those of us who go in for competitions, but nothing at all for those who actually run them. I have suffered much frustration and teeth-gnashing on account of organisers who have no conception of what entrants go through once they’ve decided a competition looks a good prospect. I have a few pointers here, based on my experiences, so those of you who are guilty - attend! This means you.
Have one. Obvious, really, but it’s surprising how many competitions are tricky to find because there’s nowhere to look. No one wants to have to write to you for details these days. A website shows that you are experienced, capable and professional. And make sure it works efficiently – have all the information accessible. I have abandoned a competition before now because the website took too long to get to the point or the details played hide and seek. Ideally, get a good designer, but Blogger has very clear ready-made templates available for use - and it's completely free.
Keep your website up to date. Make sure you have the content ready before you make the site live. Archive all your old information and previous competition winners so that we don’t have to go clicking on different icons trying to find this year’s competition and its details. Someone said recently that people will be more interested if they have to work at a website to find out what they want to know. NOT TRUE. People will just get angry and give up, and serves you right.
Most competitions have similar rules - not previously published, double spaced on A4 and so on, but some of you come up with immense lists of rules that tie the contestants in knots. We simply want to send you our story and hope to win a nice prize, so if you start making us agree to this or that obscure condition or sign our lives away in blood, any right-thinking person will tell you where to shove it.
Make it a decent one. Anything less than £100 for the winner (flash fiction and poetry excepted) isn’t worth his/her talent. Even £100 isn't very princely really, and means that the smaller prizes will be very small indeed.
And on the subject of money - if a story is good enough to go in your anthology, it’s good enough to be paid for. I have had stories in several anthologies when I’ve been a runner-up, and the best competitions award prize money to everyone in them. The worst ones only award cash to the first three, but put the runners-up in the anthology anyway, thinking that we will be so thrilled to be a ‘published author’ that we won’t mind. Wrong. To my mind, it’s just a cheapskate way of producing an anthology and I feel cheated. There are quite a few competitions of this nature and I always examine the mission statement very carefully.
Something else I’ve come across occasionally is splitting the prize because your judges can’t make up their minds. Shame on you. What is a judge for, if not to decide on a winner? I’ve been caught like this twice. In both cases, the prize wasn't large anyway, making it even more niggardly, and then the story was printed on the website so I couldn't send it out again to a better competition. If you really can’t decide, stick a pin in the list - nobody’s going to know and no one will feel disgruntled.
Another way of getting contestants' backs up is to award prizes to a person known to you. This is mostly not allowed, and rightly, but it does happen. I would advise writers to make a protest and avoid any such competition in the future.
There seems to be a trend towards charging a fiver for your competitions when the prize is only £100 or less (see The Prize, above.) This is a lot, compared with competitions that charge the same and offer a bigger prize.
If your competition is properly advertised, lots of people will enter it and you can keep the fee down. When my own group, Exeter Writers, decided to run a national competition, we started out in some trepidation in case we didn’t get enough entrants to pay for the £250 prize we were offering, not to mention second and third. But we did our homework and got 300-odd entrants at a modest fee of £3.50, covering the prizes and making a profit into the bargain. We've put our fee up by 50p this year, but are now offering a local prize as well. So there’s no excuse for the rest of you.
The postal entry form
O, Fair Variety! Entry forms are designed at the whim of the organiser. No objection to that, as long as they are clear and arranged for the convenience of the contestant as well. Competitions are increasingly going digital now, so there should be less of a problem in future, but some entry forms are a nightmare.
'The medium is the message'. Make your entry form simple and clear. See that it fits on one page (printing to a PDF will guarantee it prints properly). It's really irritating when an entry form carries over onto the next page by a couple of lines, wasting a perfectly good piece of A4.
Some entry forms are staggeringly inept. One competition had half a page of rules, followed by half of the entry form on the same page and the other half on the next. Another had been scanned onto the website and clearly showed the writing on the back through the paper. I was so incensed by one raggedly laid-out form that I copied it to Word and re-aligned it before printing and sending it. I might have forfeited a possible win for being self-righteous, but someone has to make a stand.
Keep the entry form separate from the rules. Far too many competitions make sure that we can’t print the entry form without printing the rules, other information and a highly coloured frontispiece as well. My pet computer wizard, a professional who can do anything, is able to isolate an entry form and print it, but others are not so fortunate. Remember that PRINTING INK IS EXPENSIVE – hundreds of pounds per gallon, in real terms, which is more than vintage champagne. Have some consideration. We have to print the forms out, and heavy graphics and unnecessary words are going to waste our ink.
Make proper use of the page. Don’t make us write on closely-spaced lines in tiny, tiny script, and for goodness sake, leave us enough room to get all of our email address in.
If you’re providing an entry form by email attachment, make sure it’s the right size to print out. I received one a while back that was simply Huge and could only be viewed in segments, and it took all the resources of my wizard to get it down to a manageable size. How anybody else would do it, I have no idea.
There are no excuses - get your website properly organised.
Always give a date for notifying the winners AND STICK TO IT. In a recent competition, the organisers couldn’t decide when to tell us the news, and kept altering the notification date until it was several months after the original. It was only mini-fiction, too - what took so long? Another national short story competition kept altering the submission date for at least two consecutive years with various excuses (I’m sure her father died twice). Some competitions even keep the results to themselves. Presumably they have notified any winners, but with nothing on the websites, we are left wondering if the competition has indeed finished. We are agog to know the results, and some of us want to send our story elsewhere if it’s been unsuccessful, and may miss a deadline. Once a competition has been won, put the results up on the website immediately.
Nothing wrong with running a competition from somewhere in the back of beyond, but don’t expect us to go there for a possible prize.
This is how it goes. You get off to a good start by advertising a lovely competition with a good prize and perhaps even a clear notification date. Lots of people enter. So far, so good.
Then you invite a certain number of us to come to a presentation somewhere miles away from where we live, but advise us that this does not necessarily mean we have won, which leads to a difficult decision. Do we go to the trouble and expense of getting to the venue without the certainty of knowing we will win enough to pay for the trip? Or stay at home and wonder if we would have won a prize if we’d gone?
It’s particularly difficult for those of us who don’t run a car (which doesn’t actually cross your minds), and are expected to take trains and taxis to a prize-giving in a scout hut in the Grampians and find our way home to Truro at midnight on a Sunday. I exaggerate, but one competition I went in for came very close.
This is unkind. Get it the right way round. Most competitions are fair about this and send the cheque anyway, so tell us if we’ve won or lost, then invite us.
Make your requirements clear. Play writing competitions are the worst offenders here. ‘Send us your play’, you say. Love to, but what length do you want, how should it be laid out, what are your specific requirements, when do you want it for and when will you let us know if it’s been accepted? And I’ve lost count of the number of play writing competitions that simply disappear without trace. There’s no need to notify everyone – just put the results on your website. You have got a website, haven’t you?
We love your competitions and we understand the complexities of organising them, but do remember there are struggling authors here going through enough angst over simply submitting a piece, without having to sort through discouraging websites. We warm to the competition that makes a difficult process easy and pleasant. A big ‘Thank you’ to those that do.
See my National Competitions List at the Exeter Writers website.