Writing prizes: Always read the fine print

Great for getting your name out there (and for forcing you to finish something before a deadline, ahem), writing competitions have got a lot going for them. Well, some prizes do, others, maybe not so much.

It can take a lot of gumption to start sending your stuff out so when you’re on a roll and submitting left right and centre, it’s very tempting to send your writing off to anything that looks remotely decent. And therein lies the risk.

Before you post your little sweetheart off to be judged, spend some time researching the competitions properly. The biggies – your Bath, Manchester, Bridport, Bristol and so on – have clear rules and even clearer benefits, but some of the smaller, more independent prizes can be a little hazy on the details.

A charcoal picture of a typewriter by Lynsey MayIgnore haziness at your peril.

Lots of prizes charge an entry fee. This is generally used to cover admin costs and to help boost the prize money pot. Absolutely fair enough. Unless you’re paying £10 to enter a competition that only offers £100 to the winner and book tokens for second place. A well advertised prize is very likely to attract a substantial amount of entries, so where is all of the rest of the money going?

There’s also the worrying possibility that you’ll pay to enter a competition that won’t still be in existence by the time the winners are meant to be announced, so do assess the slickness of the website, the reputation of the judges and the history of the organiser before parting with your cash.

Even free competitions can offer a bad deal if you fail to read the fine print. I was once shortlisted for a competition only to find that my name appeared nowhere on the publicity, online or in newspapers (the winner, happily, did). The thing is, the story was included in a pamphlet that was available to a select group of people (although not for sale) and for many publications, a piece of writing loses its value once it’s been printed elsewhere. So after being shortlisted, my story became much harder to place and the only real benefit for me was a small ego boost.

Other competitions, typically ones for novels, may offer the chances of publication. Excellent news! But they could also only be offering first refusal and once your manuscript is in their hands you might find they’re under no obligation to make a decision or get your book printed within a certain timeframe. Read the rules closely and look at the publishers’ backlist before submitting – there are plenty of competitions (like the Dundee Book Prize) that actually will get the winner in bookshops.

You spent a long time making sure that bit of writing is as good as it can be, take the extra few minutes to make sure you’re not packing its lunchbox and sending it off to a very shady neighbourhood.

Have you ever had a bad experience with a competition? Please tell!

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