The Writer's Cookbook

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Don’t Myth Out on Writing Competitions!

There are hundreds of writing competitions held every year, often with tempting prizes, yet many writers don’t enter.

There might be good reasons for this in some cases, but I’ve heard many that simply don’t hold water.

I’ve won 25 writing competitions and literary awards, and part of the reason why is that I’ve ignored some of the myths that prevent writers from entering and winning. I’ve also judged both poetry and prose competitions, so I know what not to do!

Give yourself the best chance by not falling for these common myths:

1. Only professionals win.

Some contests are only open to new writers, so professionals aren’t allowed to have a go. An example of this is the Writers of the Future Science Fiction Contest, which offers a cash prize quarterly and is free to enter. And what exactly is a professional, anyway? I won my first comp when I was a newbie. If you enter, then you stand a chance.

2. It costs a lot.

Some competitions are expensive, but many are free, even some with big cash prizes—the Sunday Times/Booktrust short story award, for instance, which has a £30,000 prize.

It’s worth checking out the writing competition websites to make sure that you know about all the free opportunities (like my own website, Comps and Calls)!

3. It’s a lottery anyway.

I’ve heard even experienced writers say this, yet there’s a crucial difference between a writing competition and a lottery. In a lottery, every entry has an equal chance. The prize is awarded randomly. In a writing contest, skill plays a part.

If you follow the guidelines, proof your work and get rid of clichés, then you are ahead of at least a third (and maybe more) of the other entries.

4. They’re all scams, aren’t they?

There are scams out there. If you enter a comp, are told that you’re one of the runners-up, and are asked to buy a copy of the resulting anthology for £30, don’t do it!

The chances are that practically everyone who entered is a runner-up. There’s some excellent info on Winning Writers about scam writing competitions.

That said, most comps are legitimate, and most have genuine prizes. I know—I’ve won them!

Most writing competitions are legitimate, and most have genuine prizes. Click To Tweet

If the comp you’re looking at came from a reputable source, has been going for more than a year and isn’t on any of the scam sites, then it’s probably worth a go.

If it’s free to enter, what have you got to lose?

If they ask you to buy an anthology later and it doesn’t seem legit (most anthologies are, though), then don’t. But please don’t miss out on wonderful prizes because you believe that they’re all scams—it isn’t the case.

Are these writing competition myths holding you back?

5. There are only a few and there’s too much competition for it to be worth it.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of writing competitions every year.

Many are free to enter, or very cheap.

There are literally hundreds of writing competitions every year. Many are free to enter. Click To Tweet

The problem is that most people don’t know about them.

Many of my writer friends are competing against each other in the same six comps every year (Booktrust, Plough, Bridport, BBC Short Story etc…) and not even entering the others. This means that there are loads of competitions with fewer entries, and importantly, fewer professional entries. This gives you a better chance of winning them.

Spend a little time checking the writing comp websites and you’ll enter comps that hardly any of your writer friends will enter. Check your local papers, magazines and websites too—that narrows the field even further.

6. My writing isn’t good enough. I don’t stand a chance.

As a judge, I’ve seen ancient jokes copied out. I’ve seen entries that were torn out of birthday cards. I’ve seen excerpts from classic books copied out word for word. It is very, very, VERY unlikely that your piece will be the worst that the judges see, and even if it is, so what?

Most entries are anonymised and they won’t know it’s you. And if you write an original piece, proofread it a couple of times, ditch the clichés, and follow the guidelines of the competition, you’re ahead of many entries.

You’d be amazed at the work that does win competitions! You really do stand a chance.

7. It’s a waste of time.

I’ve heard this one from people who send their work to agents and/or publishers; perform their work to small audiences; spend hours honing pieces that they will never submit anywhere; submit their work to litmags, and so on. These are all fine things to do—and bring their own reward—but some people consider them a waste of time. The same applies to entering writing competitions.

For one thing, writing competitions sharpen you up professionally. You have to write to a deadline, and negotiate the admin requirements.

Writing competitions sharpen you up professionally. Click To Tweet

It’s also fun. You get to dream of the prizes, and as long as you don’t depend on the prize money (you can never tell what will win) then this is a wonderful daydream.

It’s also lovely cheering on your friends and other competitors, and being part of the writing competition community. Entering comps is no more a waste of time than any of the other things that writers do!

8. The free comps get millions of entries.

This one makes me chuckle, because it always reminds me of the free comp I won a few years ago. It was open internationally, had a cash prize and there was no theme. It got just twenty entries, and mine was the only one to follow the guidelines correctly! Yes, I won. This isn’t an isolated case, either.

As discussed above, many writers are suspicious of free competitions or think that they aren’t worth bothering with, there’s no chance of winning, etc. They don’t enter them, convinced that they are doing the logical thing. So they don’t win, whereas you and I could.

Some comps do get a lot of entries, true, but by no means all, and if it’s free to enter, why on earth not have a go? It only takes a few minutes.

9. Writing to order, on a theme, debases your writing.

I wondered about this when I first started attending workshops and trying different kinds of writing. I do know superb writers who never write to a theme. I do, however, also know many superb writers who do write to themes.

My experience is that the themes exercise different writing muscles. Just as doing a different physical exercise will strengthen a different part of your body, a writing exercise can bring out creativity in places you didn’t know existed!

You might find a new form or style that really suits you, or a subject that fills you with writing energy. Writing about a subject you hadn’t considered before, you might even learn something about yourself!

Writing can be therapeutic. It isn’t the only way to explore your creativity—and I hope that you’ll write freely as well as to themes—but it is a legitimate way to develop.

10. The same people win all the time.

Not guilty!

Yes, I’ve won a lot, but only a handful per year. I know other people who have won a big competition twice, or like me, a string of assorted ones.

That still leaves loads of comps for everyone else, though. And all those successful writers had to win their first prize at some point.

If the entries are anonymised then you really do stand as much chance as anyone.

More often than not, a friend will say, ‘I’m amazed. I’ve never won a writing competition before, but I’ve come first in the…’ They won because they followed the rules and entered, and the judges liked their piece the best. It really is that simple.


Cathy Bryant has won 25 literary awards and writing competitions, and had work placed in many others. She has had two books of poetry published, and a nonfiction book: ‘How to Win Writing Competitions (and make money)‘. Cathy runs the popular Cathy’s Comps and Calls, listing free writing competitions and calls for submission.

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1 Comment

  1. Maria Venditozzi

    Thanks Cathy. That’s spurred me on!

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