5 Myths about Big Writing Contests

It really bothers me when I hear about excellent poets who have written amazing poems, poems anyone in their right mind would envy, getting rejection emails from fancy poetry contests.  I can’t help but feel that many—though not all—of these contests take advantage of the contestants.

I write “not all” because I admit I have been awarded first place in two poetry contests.  First, I was damn lucky.  Second, these were not the big contests judged by writers who’ve won everything from National Book Awards to Pulitzers.  Third, one of those contests did not have an entry fee, which is about as pure and innocent as it gets.  I also have friends who are devoted, honest editors and whose journals and presses either run competitions or are associated with institutions that do.  Their contests are notable for reasonable fees and are often judged by the editors themselves.  It’s also clear by reading these publications what kind of work they want to see in the submissions.

The moral here is to choose your contests wisely.  Never enter a contest run by a magazine you don’t read regularly.  It’s better if you submit to a magazine that has already published you, preferably recently.  If a journal has published your work, that means someone there liked it, and that someone might just like it again.  This is not to say they will recognize your anonymous submission, assuming that person is your reader, but you at least know that your magic has worked there before.  This is an advantage.  And, if you can enter a contest for free, you’re crazy not to give it your best shot.  What do you have to lose?  But, on to the 5 myths.

5 Myths about Big Writing Contests:

  1. I’ve been trying to get poems into The Whatchamacallit Review unsuccessfully for a long time, but this year their contest is being judged by a poet whose work I love. Maybe I’ll have a better shot now with the contest.  Wrong.  The famous judge for the contest is only going to see a small number of the contest entries, often as few as 10 entries.  And, who decides which entries the famous judge sees?  The same people who’ve been rejecting the work you’ve been submitting regularly to the magazine.  (You didn’t really think the famous judge was going to read all those submissions, right?)
  2. The contest fee is a hefty $25, so there won’t be that many entries, and my work will have a better chance.   Poets, God bless them, believe in themselves, rightly or wrongly.  If hundreds of people didn’t pony up for the contests, the contests wouldn’t exist.  Notice that contests rarely tell you, even afterwards, exactly how many people entered their work.  They don’t want you to do the math.  Las Vegas wouldn’t exist if the casinos didn’t win much more often than the players.  Writing contests are a legalized form of gambling with really bad odds.
  3. All work submitted is also considered for the magazine. So what?  Regular submissions may be free or for a $3 Submittable fee.  Also, a few arcane contest procedures aside, does it make sense that the readers would think your work wasn’t good enough to send to the judge, but it was good enough to publish in the magazine?
  4. First prize is $2500.00, which would pay for a plane ticket to Bora Bora, where I can live on coconuts and shellfish while I write more poems. The more contest money is dangled in front of your nose, the more contestants they expect to submit entries.  The magazine has to pay serious money to the famous judge who will read 10 submissions or so, then they have to pay all the first readers, editors, and staff, and finally they have to set aside some of the money to fund the magazine.  If you can crunch the numbers on how many $25 contest entries it will take to pay for all this, you can probably better fund your poetry habit by getting a job in tech.
  5. This was a very competitive group of submissions, and we hope you’ll consider submitting next year. Translation: we know you’re not going to subscribe to our expensive literary journal, and this contest is how we keep the lights on.  So, please keep nourishing that fantasy of yours about going to Bora Bora and send us money again next year when it will be just as competitive if not more so.  I keep waiting for someone to come up with a better way to fund literary journals, but nobody has found the right formula.  In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to have contests, but this isn’t an ideal world.  So, when next year’s contest rolls around, think seriously whether your entry fees wouldn’t be better spent buying your friends’ poetry books and/or directly supporting the literary journals you read and admire.  Or, you could just put the money into a savings account called “Bora Bora Vacation Fund.”

A word about reading fees: publishers who charge fees to read your manuscript without giving you anything in return, such as 2 books from their catalog or a year’s subscription to their magazine, are taking advantage of you more ruthlessly than the contests I complain about above.  At least those contests have prizes.

Just so you know, there is a deceptive contest practice worse than any of the ones I’ve mentioned, and that is the competition where the press or journal decides no entry is good enough this year, doesn’t award the prize, and doesn’t refund the money to the contestants.  Yes, it happens, but thankfully not often.

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