How To Make the Most of a Writing Contest

Snow-draped treesOkay writer, raise your hand if this has ever happened to you.  (It’s okay.  Nobody’s lookin’.):

You’re cruising the internet, local bookstore or writer’s group and come across an announcement for a writing contest.  It may be fiction or non.  Short story, humor, poetry.  Whatever.  You’re intrigued.  You check out the guidelines.  Polish your best material to a solar sheen, submit, and cross your fingers.

The results are announced.  You didn’t win.  Your work of genius not only didn’t win, it didn’t place or show.  The runners-up and honorable mention categories didn’t thaw your tree, either.

When Your Dog Could’ve Done Better

Disheartening, isn’t it?  Especially when the piece that snagged “winner” laurels is as dull as a spoon. As dry as the Atacama in August.  As imaginative as last week’s headlines.

Your dog could’ve done better.

A twinge – or maybe a truckload – of professional envy tugs at your sleeve.  You shake your head and mutter, “If that is a ‘winning entry’, then I’m the tooth fairy.”  Doubt and disappointment grapple with disbelief and discouragement.  You know your work is good.  But you just can’t break into the winner’s circle of a writing contest.

Maybe…

Maybe you need to read the contest rules more closely next time, making sure your submission is a good fit?  A review of past winners can be instructive, too, letting you know what judges (who are these people?) are looking for and why? Maybe you ought to hike into the nearest Himalayan hillside and become a hermit?

Been there, done that.  I’ve won writing contests – usually the type that specialize in smart-alecky – and haven’t even made the first cut in others. So, what’s a writer to do when your best crashes and burns?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t take it personally.  This may be the most obvious, but it’s also the hardest.  Rejection hurts.  Especially when you’ve worked hard to win, maybe for weeks or months, and the trophy goes to some barely literate peasant who’s been at the craft for twenty whole minutes.  Realize that losing may be the result of factors beyond your control: bribery, cronyism, nepotism, lack of name recognition, judicial vapidity, blindness, a shortage of tea in China…
  • Resist the temptation to pillory the judges.  This may be easier said than done. But realize that not all of these folks are residents of Mars or sport red tails and pitchforks.  They may have misjudged your abilities, but blasting back only makes you look small, petty, and amateurish.  It’s also a sure-fire way to get yourself banned from future contests.  Don’t go there.
  • Share your disappointment with a sympathetic ear, like a literary friend, colleague or relative.  I’m not suggesting spending the next twelve years wallowing in a pity party.  But rejection hurts.  Be honest about it with someone you can trust.  Get it out of your system.  Then make plans to move on.
  • When you have your legs back under you, ask a seasoned writer with a successful track record for some honest feedback.  Most will be gracious (notice I said most).  We all have blind spots.  Some honest feedback and tips could open your eyes and improve your chances next time.

Was Going to Say…

Snowy road, sunThis is the part where I’m supposed to say, “Try again.”  I was going to say that. Maybe hum a few bars of “the sun will come out tomorrow, but your bottom dollar….”  But if you’ve gathered your courage, worked hard, polished and submitted your very best to a contest with less than stellar results, the Pollyanna thing rings a bit hollow, doesn’t it?

Not to mention trite.

So rather than sugarcoat disappointment, I’m going to tell you the truth: Writing contests aren’t for everyone.  Only you can decide whether or not they’re for you.  Whether or not you want to risk it.  Whether your confidence as a writer can withstand repeated losses.  If losing a contest or two or three or more is going to make you fade and fold as a writer, you may want to forego that route.  If your confidence in your skills is enough to brush off the disappointment and keep plugging, have at it.  Just choose wisely.

Not the Sum Total

Also, realize that winning or losing writing contests shouldn’t be considered the sole, sum total of your writing abilities.  Contest results may be little more than a contrived compilation of ignorance or lack of imagination.  Sometimes both.  It’s easy to think that contest winners are somehow better writers.  Have achieved a stamp of approval you’re still longing for.  Or that you stink as a writer.  Maybe you have some learning and growing to do, but don’t let that loss rip the wind out of your sails forever.

‘See Spot Run’

I’ve seen clever, beautifully crafted Hemingway-esque entries thrown under the bus because they were four words over the word limit.  Meanwhile, the “winner” was akin to See Spot.  See Spot run.  See Spot run fast, but came in under the magic number.  What does that tell you?

Sometimes there’s just no accounting for taste.  Or the lack of it.

So again, if writing contests aren’t getting you where you want to be, let ’em go.  Take a break.  Plug into other venues.  Maybe polish that entry and submit it to a magazine, an ezine, or a non-profit that fits.  Offer it as a guest post to another blogger.

Keep writing, practicing, polishing and perfecting.  You’ve got something to say.  A story to share.  Keep at it and your audience will find you – with or without that blue ribbon.

Have you entered a writing contest and were disappointed in the results?  How did you respond?