Friday, September 06, 2019

The 5 Most Common Misconceptions About Writing Contests — Debunked

By Savannah Cordova

Part of The Writer’s Life Series

JH: Writing contests can be a great way to get your writing out into the world, rack up some credentials, or just get some good feedback on your work. Savannah Cordova visits the lecture hall today to share some insights from a regular contest participant and judge.

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.

Take it away Savannah...

Writing contests are, without a doubt, one of the most enigmatic phenomena of the literary world. Anyone who’s entered their share of writing contests will know that the guidelines can often be vague, the judging process seemingly indiscriminate, and the feedback minimal, if given at all. And to those who haven’t entered them before, contests probably seem about as inscrutable as the Rosetta Stone (unless you can read ancient Greek and Egyptian, in which case I’d recommend eschewing contests entirely to become a professional translator).

Savannah Cordova
Not only are writing contests difficult to decipher, there also isn’t a whole lot of concrete guidance re: how to approach them. While some tips and tricks come from reliable sources, you can never quite be sure who’s writing from personal experience, and whether they’ve actually taken their own advice. It’s also pretty rare for judges to go into detail about their contest criteria, not least because they’re usually authors who are busy with their own writing projects.

(Here’s more on Writing Contests: How to Write to Win)

However, as a frequent contest participant and current judge of Reedsy’s weekly short story contest, I’m always happy to share my knowledge with fellow intrepid scribes. Because, even as an experienced entrant, I had no idea how much of what I believed about writing contests was warped, exaggerated, or simply untrue... until I became a judge and saw things from the other side. Now I hope to absolve you all of these five huge writing contest misconceptions—and bring you just a little bit closer to taking home the prize yourself!

Misconception #1: Your entry needs to be “literary”

Many writers seem to be under the impression that erudite, elaborate prose about complex subject matter is the one true path to winning a writing contest. If you’re not operating at David Foster Wallace level, you may as well resign yourself to failure.

This mindset is counterproductive for a number of reasons. For one thing, trying to emulate a “literary” style typically results in purple prose rather than an effective story. For another, it stifles your true voice, which is what sets you apart from the competition and allows your intended message to shine through. And finally, even if you can achieve a classic literary tone, that doesn’t mean the judges are going to like it! In fact, if they have to slog through as many of these stories as our Reedsy team does on a weekly basis, they’re bound to end up biased against you… especially if they can tell you’ve fluffed up your prose just to impress them.

(Here’s more on The Overwritten Novel: Identify & Fix Purple Prose in Your Novel)

So instead of aiming for literary, aim for compelling. It doesn’t matter how you get there; you could write the least “literary” story in the world about someone who eats too many hot dogs and still win a writing contest, as long as you tell the story in an interesting, thoughtful way.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to capture and keep a judge’s attention—you just need to tap into your own one-of-a-kind creativity, rather than try to mimic another writer’s. As Neil Gaiman once said: “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write as only you can.” 

Misconception #2: The longer the piece, the better

Another common misconception about writing contests has to do with the length of pieces that people submit. The Reedsy weekly contest has a word limit of 3,000, and I’d say at least half the entries I read teeter right on the edge of that limit, often clocking in at 2,500 or more.

While longer stories certainly can be well-done, and length alone never precludes me from considering a piece, I’ve realized that length is not at essential to strong writing—if anything, it’s the opposite. A great premise can be all too easily ruined by excess description and sluggish pacing, whereas a fairly standard premise can be enhanced under the bell jar of succinct prose.

A perfect example of the latter would be a recent Reedsy contest winner, “Dreams of Delia.” Any veteran judge or editor will know that family trauma is pretty well-worn literary terrain. However, this story tackled it with such raw intensity that it still managed to stand out to our judging panel—and the low word count (just 500, as this was a flash fiction week) contributed to that. Because when conveying a “key emotion,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald once called it, more content is just going to dilute the effect. The pithier the piece, the more powerful the punch.

I know it’s difficult to move past the idea that quantity = quality, lest your work be misconstrued as somehow unworthy or juvenile compared to others’. But trust me (and Polonius) on this one: brevity is the soul of wit, and we judges are always grateful when you keep it short and sweet. 

Misconception #3: Never digress from the prompt

This one’s a bit tricky, since obviously you shouldn’t ignore writing contest prompts, but you shouldn’t take them too literally either. As a judge, I can verify that we don’t follow a rigorous rubric to ensure every story matches one of our prompts—we judge the quality of the writing itself, not the level of adherence to a prompt. Yes, we’d disqualify a story for being completely unrelated spam, but most writers don’t need to worry about that.

Not only is digression from prompts allowed, I personally would encourage it as much as possible, because—by the very nature of prompts—many people are going to respond quite similarly. You might think you’ve got an amazing, original concept on your hands, but the odds are that at least one other person has thought of the exact same thing. And keep in mind that the most popular writing contests will receive hundreds or even thousands of entries, which means that if you want to win, your idea needs to set itself apart from the pack!

(Here’s more on How Can You Tell if Your Idea is Worth Writing?)

Of course, if you’re absolutely in love with your premise, then don’t let me stop you. But from a purely tactical standpoint, it’s better to think outside of the box. An easy way to do this is to reject the first automatic response you have to a prompt, and maybe your second as well. Again, we all want to believe that we have a unique way of thinking, but in truth many of our instincts are very alike—and frequently lead us to the same conclusions as a result.

So try to push past these instincts and into unorthodox, truly innovative territory. It might seem like a risk now, but it’ll pay off when your story is the only one the judges remember! Plus, this kind of challenge will facilitate your growth as a writer and ultimately help you in all your creative endeavors, not just contests. 

Misconception #4: You shouldn’t be political

Most writers understand the inherent need to stand out in a contest, but they may be afraid of leaving a negative impression on judges who don’t share their views. However, if you have an idea for a story that’s political or “controversial” in some way, don’t hold back—as long as your story isn’t racist, sexist, or obviously offensive, a little bit of conviction goes a long way.

One of my favorite Reedsy contest winners, “Kill Your Double,” does a brilliant job of balancing political commentary with gripping narrative. The “One Nation” movement in that story will be easily identifiable to anyone who’s followed American politics over the past few years, yet its inclusion doesn’t overshadow the plot; it is merely the backdrop against which the events of the story take place.

If you’re writing a piece for a contest, this should be the sort of equilibrium you aim for. After all, you don’t really have room to get into the history and endless nuances of a major political issue, but touching on it briefly and then providing a snapshot of characters dealing with that issue is much more powerful anyway.

Keep this tip in mind especially if you write science fiction or fantasy. Political elements work very well in speculative fiction, because they allow the author to make a statement about our world without being too specifically accusatory—though of course, readers will always make their own connections, and not necessarily the connections you want them to make. However, if you keep the focus on the characters rather than the politics themselves, the implications of your story will naturally seep into readers’ minds and leave them with strong impressions. 

Misconception #5: There’s some magic formula for winning

Despite all the tips I’ve given in this article, the truth is that there’s no unassailable combination of factors that will guarantee a contest win! Every story we’ve picked as a winner in the Reedsy contest has been an excellent story, but that can manifest in a million different ways: great concept, moving message, beautiful prose, authentic details, witty dialogue, and so on.

Indeed, the tone and subject matter of our winning stories can change drastically from week to week, and that doesn’t mean that one week’s story is better than another’s. Whether or not a piece of writing deserves to win depends entirely on what that piece offers in and of itself. So while following my advice here may boost your chances of winning a contest, it’s really all about the story you tell. With that in mind, play to your strengths, and write as openly as you can.

And if you’re eager to hone your skills, there’s really no better way to do it than by entering as many contests as possible. The more you write, the more you’ll discover your natural voice and preferred material, and the more stories you’ll actually care about telling—which translates into other people (like contest judges) actually caring about them, too.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the article.
    Other than the series I am focused on writing, I have many short stories, poems, and articles about events, feelings, or observations; some are poetic. Others sort of bounce from feelings to events and memories. I have never sent any to publications did enter a couple to a contest but didn't win.
    Now with your article, I happened to pick at three in the morning when tired of tossing and turning from one bad sitcom, movie, or news feature, which is probably the best thing I've done in a long time.
    Again thank you, and I will go on to start submitting. As a senior with many colorful and painful experiences, I have a few things to say.