#5OnFri: Five Things I’ve Learned about Writing Competitions Now I’m Judging One

by Constance Renfrow
published in Community

I’ve submitted to writing contests every so often for the past few years, and honestly, I’ve always found it to be a pretty intimidating process. You know what I’m talking about: I search through dozens (hundreds?) of listings until I find one that fits, Google the judges and read the previous winner’s work, then shell out whatever the entry fee is, and wait for months and months to hear back—secretly hoping I’ve won but actually convinced mine is the worst piece those supernatural beings that are judges have ever seen. But all of a sudden I’ve metamorphosed into a judge and sadly it comes with neither a gavel and wig nor godlike omnipotence. I’m one of two judges for Three Rooms Press’s Quarter-Life Crisis Competition for Writers 26 & Under (check out the submission guidelines here), and  I’ve already gained a better understanding of what’s behind the curtain. So I’m here to tell you, dear DIY MFA Readers some of my earliest insights into writing competitions.

1) Remember that judges are people too

As you might have already gleaned, whenever I submit to a writing contest I have a tendency to think of the judges as the Greek Gods on Mount Olympus: all-powerful, shrouded in clouds and mystery and probably togas, and able to destroy my short story (and writing career) with lightning bolts of red ink. But that’s not me—in no way do I correspond with that image. I know that’s not Meagan (my co-judge, and one of the nicest writers I’ve ever met). And judges I’ve reached out to in the past have also been incredibly kind and sweet. We’re people and we’re probably writers too, which means we’re susceptible to the same nagging self doubts you are. We make mistakes and have our own personal preferences and get frustrated just like anyone else. So don’t be afraid to submit because a contest has a big-name judge or because his or her resume sounds intimidating. Go for it! But first . . .

2) Copy editing and proofreading are vital

As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, when submitting your book to a publisher, proofreading is a good idea but it’s not one hundred percent essential.  When thinking about Quarter-Life, I imagined the same would hold true: if something was glaringly wrong, I’d fix it . . . no big. But in a contest, stories are (obviously) up for judging—there’s going to be a winner, and it has to be based solely on the material presented. Suddenly those typos are a big deal; they say that this piece isn’t ready yet. And clunky syntax or an awkward sentence can completely throw off the rhythm of a paragraph or shatter the illusion of a scene. As in every other competition, you get points for presentation, so be sure to proofread and copy edit and maybe for good measure, ask a friend to look it over too.

3) Read the legal information

Remember when Amtrak was offering those train-ride residencies and the entire world excitedly sent in their best work? You recall what happened after that, right? Someone who had actually read the legal stuff announced to the Internet that Amtrak now held the rights to your story, in perpetuity—just for submitting. Most contests include a brief section of legalese—who gets the rights to the piece for how long, monetary compensation, what to do if you later publish it elsewhere, etc. etc. I know it’s long, usually in tiny font, and tedious looking, but read it! As I was poring over a number of contest submission guidelines to find a suitable model, I was shocked to see some of the rights these contests demand—knowingly or unwittingly. I’m sure most writing competitions are not out there to take advantage of you, but to end on an adage (you know, like we’re totally not supposed to do in contest submissions . . .): it’s better to be safe than sorry. Read the fine print.

4) Follow the submission guidelines

I mean duh, but also: no, seriously, follow the submission guidelines. A number of contests I’ve studied threaten to delete (or old-school throw out in the recycling) any submissions that don’t adhere to their (usually very strict) guidelines, and when you have to pay to enter, that’s literally deleting numbers from your bank account. And even if they don’t delete your submission, odds are good somebody’s going to be annoyed. If you have any questions at all about the submission guidelines, just email the person running the contest. (Remember what I said about them being nice people?) I guarantee they would prefer to answer your questions now than deal with a messy submission down the line.

5) Submit early

As a submitter, I’d always figured sending my work in long before the deadline would at best go completely unnoticed (if they’re all read in a lump at the end) or at worst be detrimental—the first pieces end up at the bottom of the pile, after all. Now, I can’t guarantee this is true for all competitions, but I’m certainly enjoying being able to take my time reading the early submissions. Right now they’re like pleasure reading rather than assigned reading. Of course submitting early doesn’t give you a leg up, and who knows, maybe when we reread the story, our experience will have changed, but I’m of the opinion that it’s never a bad idea to give someone more time to consider your piece. Particularly with contests that promise a response very soon after the deadline, I would suggest submitting as early as you can (you know, while still ticking all the other boxes). And that, dear friends, is the extent of my knowledge—you have it all now. Take it and submit to contests near and far. But first, perhaps, submit to mine? You can read more about Quarter-Life Crisis and what we’re looking for here. The deadline is May 1, 2015 at 11:59 p.m. I can’t wait to read your work!


Constance RenfrowConstance Renfrow is an editor at Three Rooms Press; an editor and publishing consultant at constancerenfrow.com; and a regular fixture at the Merchant’s House Museum in NYC. Her fiction and poetry is published or forthcoming in Petrichor Machine, Two Cities Review, Denim Skin, and the anthology Magical, and she writes features for Rapportage and CityElla. She is absolutely in love with the Victorian era, so she’s naturally working on her three-volume novel, when she’s not blogging at 21stcenturyvictorian.com.


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