Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Playing the Odds - Contests

Why writers fear contests stymies me. By choosing to be writers, we choose to be competitive. (Unless you're working for the man in a nine-to-five job.) We have chosen a profession where we bid, pitch, query and all but beg for work. We know if we don't land the gig, there's another writer right outside the door who will. We fight to polish, hook, grab and intrigue with our words.

So why don't we like entering contests?

I cheer when I receive an email saying, "I finally listened to your advice and entered a contest." The message usually discusses a fear of the beast, as if entering opens a front door to your home, or access to your diary. Not winning, for some reason, scares people silly while they'll pitch to agents and editors expecting rejection.

You are not a dope for entering a contest, but that's a common sense I feel from many readers. "How dare I think I can win a contest?" Well, that thought can be spread across the entire profession. How dare you write anything at all? Someone might not like it!

Contests are fantastic barometers. You write to deadline, often on a theme. You seek to polish words so they capture attention. They pay in terms of money, publication and/or reputation. Contests are no different than querying a magazine or publisher. Frankly, the great thing about contests is you actually see who was chosen. In many cases, you get to read the winner, and in doing so, you learn and grow as you analyze why the writer's piece was selected over yours. You improve your skills of presentation, grammar, flow and storytelling.

Some writers play the lottery more readily than entering a writing contest. The odds are one in over a million. If you are lucky, you win $20, and those odds are one in hundreds. The odds in placing in a writing contest are much greater. The Annual FundsforWriters Essay Contest resulted in 503 entries. Six prizes will be awarded. Writer's Digest contests have thousands of entries, but numerous categories. Landing honorable mention is a big plus. Your odds are probably one in several thousand.

In a lottery, you have no control over who wins or how to jockey for consideration. In a contest, you show your skills, and those are purely in your control. If you don't win this time, you can compete again, wiser from the experience. If you play the lottery for ten years, you purely gamble. If you enter a contest for ten years, you actually increase your odds of winning . . . on many levels.


Steve Spohn said...

I think it's a combination of factors. First, when you are learning about writing by taking in the advice of the major authorities, most of them preach not to enter contests. "Writers should never pay, they should be paid," yell the trailblazers.

Second, I believe it plays on confidence. Sure, you might be confident enough to send in a query to an agent, but in essence some people asking for validation of their skill set. However, if the agent rejects you, there's nothing lost. Conversely, if you paid $25 to enter a contest and lose, well, you don't even get another rejection letter to put on your pile (furthermore some people believe you must accrue X amount of rejection letters before you're an actual "professional").

I did not answer the contest sponsored by Hope's foundation. I certainly applaud those of you who did, and regret the decision not to enter with those also decided it was better to pass. Ironically, diligence very well may be my middle name. But the fear of putting my personal story to paper only to "lose" was enough to keep me from even trying.

In the future I hope to remember the lesson: if you try, sometimes you will fail. But if you do not try, you will always fail.

franks1wife said...

I did take your advice. I entered a travel writing contest with Leap Local.

And out of lots of INTERNATIONAL competitors, I placed in the top 25 stories!

You failed to mention in your blog what an ego-booster this is in a profession where egos often take a beating.

My story 'Vilano Dolphins'will be coming up in Leap Local's Monday Escapes. Hope you get to check it out!

Again, thanks!

Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D. said...

My issue with contests is that so often you pay your money and send in your entry, and both disappear into the void as if they fell in a black hole. A few entries emerge as the winners, but I have no idea why one of them was not mine. I just know my money is gone. If I got a critique from the judges, or even a critique of why the winning entries won, I would be happy. But I do not have a lot of money, and sending it in $15 and $25 chunks into the void does not appeal to me.

Kathleen Basi said...

The money also makes a difference for me; it's easy to nickel and dime yourself to death. But sometimes it's just simply a matter of discipline. The last few weeks I've told myself if I'm going to pay for this TOTAL newsletter, I'd darned well better do some submissions off it! So I found three or four markets--two contests, a literary magazine--and a deadline. And then I picked a story that's been buzzing in my brain for a while...um...two years, to be exact...and I forced myself to sit down and write it. And rewrite it. On deadline. Will it win? Who knows? The odds still aren't in my favor. But at least I'm pushing forward. Doing what I say I want to do.

(I didn't enter your contest, either! I wanted to, but I had so many projects up in the air that I couldn't focus my thoughts on a topic that I believed in. Maybe next year!)

Anne K Albert said...

Entering writing contests is a great way to become a better writer. It provides the writer with a deadline, specific guidelines, and submission details. These mirror agent and editor requirements.

Placing and/or winning a writing contest gives the writer credentials.

The YEARS of hard work I applied to entering writing contests paid off. (I'm published.) Contests work, but they can't do everything. The writer needs to apply, adjust, alter, and continually write.

Great post.

Live, Laugh, Love- Always! said...

I love your blog, it is the bright spot in my day. Unfortunately, I do work a 9-5 job as I suffer from a chronic illness and cannot afford to be without benefits... but in my heart I am a writer. I write all the time and when I see your blog post every day I feel HOPE! I see how much is out there and I may someday get to the point where I start selling something to earn a little extra. I loved today's post because right now most of my writing is for contests. There are so many of them and I can enter a few every weekend. There are many free ones and ones that only cost a few bucks and if I even win even just one, I will feel amazing. In the meantime I just keep plugging away at the writing and sending out what I can, when I can! Thank you for your inspiring and hopeful posts!

D.G. Hudson said...

I'm divided on contests - some are worth the effort and some aren't.

I'd suggest:
Research the contest before entering, so you'll know in advance if it's a good fit. How long has the contest been operating? Who's judging? and so on.

I considered entering your contest but didn't due to revision work on a novel. Procrastination, too.

I've not had much luck that way (contests), but there are some contests that lure me to try.

Enjoyed the post.

Val said...

As the proud winner of 89th place in this year's Writers Digest Memoirs/Personal Essay category, I heartily agree with your take on contest competition. I will be framing my Honorable Mention certificate. Not everybody has one of those, you know.

I had planned to enter your FundsforWriters contest, but procrastinated over the theme. Which I suppose means that I lack diligence. :( OR that I need to broaden my repertoire.


Kelly Robinson said...

I'm not keen on spending money to write either. The amount of money some writers spend on books on how to write, writing classes, contests, etc. often seems like a way to keep them feeling like a writer while their pockets get emptier. That said, your Total newsletter is worthwhile. I've sold to several markets you've listed. It has paid itself back dozens of times over.

Debra Mayhew said...

I did enter the funds for writers contest this year and was having those doubts whisper in the back of my mind that maybe I shouldn't have. So thanks for reminding me that I'm not a dope. :) Writing can be done without courage. Submitting can not.

Hope Clark said...

"Writing can be done without courage. Submitting can not." I like that, Debra.