As writers, we’re encouraged to share our art not just for the recognition and praise, but so others can give us feedback that
will—in theory—help us improve. Sounds like a nice, respectful process…except that it makes all of us writers physically ill.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath
Writing contests are great avenues for exposure and constructive criticism. And, there are so many of them out there now that even finding one that caters specifically to your genre or style is a walk in the park. In fact, sometimes it’s harder to narrow it down to just a few that you want to bet on at any given time.
Why do we bother? Some do it for the notoriety. Some do it for the praise. Hell, some of us do it purely for the potential prize money (writers gotta eat, too, guys).
But none of those reasons explain why the whole thing makes all of us writers feel physically ill at the thought of entering. Food poisoning, excessive PDA, and people who wait until the last second to merge into the closing lane in rush hour traffic have nothing on the daunting prospect of turning our work over to others to tear into and lay bare.
The overall answer is simple. Writers love to play god, and as such, we don’t like others messing with our creations—even if it is for our own good. Intentionally or not, we also pour so much of ourselves into every short story, every poem, every line. To allow someone to rip into our work like that, to analyze the pieces of ourselves that we’ve put on paper (or on the screen, as it were) is really fucking scary, and no possibility of a reward or temporary fame will ever override that.
Better the devil you know, though, right? So let’s take that overarching fear of entering writing contests and break it down into smaller pieces we can more easily swallow…and hopefully keep down.
Judges WILL fire at will.
As true as this statement is, it also deserves a resounding “duh” in response. A judge’s job, by definition, is to give an authoritative opinion. In the context of a writing competition, their responsibility is to be an impartial reader, then tell you what worked and what didn’t. You can’t take it personally; if the judge is sound, then they certainly didn’t. Even if it does feel like it sometimes, they are not there to criticize you as an individual. They are judging you as a writer, though, so show ’em whatcha got. If it’s any good, the judges will have to work that much harder to find something to critique or dock points for.
What we don’t know DOES scare us.
Write what you know. There are several different opinions floating around out there on this statement, but when it comes to writing contests, I tend to agree. After all, the whole point of entering the competition is to show off, not take a whole new genre or style for a tentative test drive. So play to your strengths, do what you love, and save the fun experiments cluttering the deeper recesses of your brain for your downtime, when you can expand your ideas and edit them until you get it right without the undue pressure of a contest looming over you.
Yes, there ARE a shit ton of rules.
Just like every other aspect of our lives, writing contests come with their own sets of rules. And when you’re already nervous about your entry, those rules can seem incredibly restrictive. But break them down and you’ll see that meeting those requirements is actually a little like world-building, or outlining a new plot. Certain events need to happen in order to move things forward, just as specific boxes have to be checked in order to make your submission admissible to a given contest. Now, anyone who knows me knows how much I love a good checklist, but even one laid out by a writing contest has me quaking in my boots a little. The key is to get a general idea of what it is the judges want to see, then write. Don’t look at the rules again until you’re ready to proofread your piece. Then, you take it one item at a time. Genre? Check. Word count? Check. Formatting? Check, check, check, babe.
Judges DO expect to be wowed.
Remember what I said about writing what you know? Yeah, about that…don’t lean on that favorite genre of yours so much that you turn in something bland or tired just for the sake of entering a piece before the contest’s deadline. The whole point of participating may be to strut your stuff, literarily speaking, but don’t do so in a rut of your own making. Write an unexpected ending, cast off the common tropes, and for god’s sake—not all endings have to be happy. In fact, the end doesn’t have to be a real ending at all. Leave things open-ended rather than wrapping them up in a tidy package, neat little bow and all. You’ll have the judges guessing, clamoring for more, and you get some wiggle room in case you ever revisit the concept and decide to extend it beyond the parameters of the contest for which it was originally written.
Yep, the possibilities ARE endless.
But you’ve got a word minimum/maximum and a deadline, so suck it up and get to work. Sorry, but this isn’t the time to wax poetic about the noble art and duty of the writer. Blah, blah, blah. You’re not entering a contest to comment on the struggles of the creative writer (unless that’s the topic of the competition, in which case you’re facing off with a whole different animal). You’re entering a contest to show, not tell everyone how great you are. So while you could explore every possible topic and meander down every winding path, don’t. Given the contest’s rules and themes, find a storyline or a single character that speaks to you and run with it/them. When you go with your gut, the rest will either follow, or you’ll realize that gut instinct was just a tad overzealous and wind up doubling back to regroup. In any case, you’ll figure out which direction you need to take your idea, and hey—who is anyone to begrudge the extra practice?
Sylvia Plath tells us that the greatest enemy to creativity is self-doubt. This innate tendency to question our own abilities is also a writer’s worst enemy when it comes to facing down the ugly monster that is a writing contest. In truth, they are always a culmination of the fears that take up the forefront of our thoughts whenever we so much as think of letting someone else read what we’ve written.
So whenever the urge to purge hits, just remember that it’s mostly in your head, not your gut. And if there’s anything us writers know about the head, it’s that its advice isn’t always sound, or all that optimistic. If you want to enter a writing contest, do it. The worst they can say is “no, thanks.”