Sunday, August 11, 2013

3 Authors Expose The Realities of Hosting Writing Contests

Writing contests, like writers, come in all shapes and sizes. Many are hosted by literary magazines, universities, foundations, and other literary vehicles.  Occasionally, one pops up on the website of  a fellow writer. These have always intrigued me.

Most writers, myself included, experience writing contests as a participant.  We send our beloved creations to a stranger, at the mercy of their judgement. Then we wait for a few months, hoping our writing comes back with praises for their keen insights on the human condition, and maybe a little bit of cash to help pay the rent.

However, what happens if writers turn this model upside down?  Instead of entering writing contests, what if they hosted them?

I've compiled material from a set of writers who have met some basic criteria. First, they have all hosted multiple contests.  Second, they awarded prizes other than recognition. Third, they have published their own books.  Without further ado, let me introduce my panel:

    Susanna Loenard Hill, is the award winning author of nearly a dozen books for children, including: Punxsutawney Phyllis (A Book List Children’s Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice), No Sword Fighting In The House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can’t Sleep Without Sheep (a Children’s Book of the Month), and Not Yet, Rose (a Gold Mom’s Choice Award Winner.)  Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Japanese, with one hopefully forthcoming in Korean.   She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley with her husband, children, and two rescue dogs. 
C. Hope Clark, is a mystery writer and founder of Funds For Writers a weekly newsletter service she founded that reaches 40,000+ writers to include university professors, professional journalists and published mystery authors. Writer’s Digest has recognized the site in its annual 101 Best Web Sites for Writers for a dozen years. She recently published her second novel, Tidewater Murder. It is the second in the Carolina Slade series, following A Low Country Bribe. Her full bio is available here

Victoria Grossack, coauthor for the Tapestry of Bronze series and host of the Ode to Olympians Prize. Her writing has been published in Contingencies, Woman’s World, I Love Cats, and The Journal of Actuarial Practice. She is a regular columnist for Writing-World. In addition to the five Greek mythology based novels that she has written with Alice Underwood, she is the author of The Highbury Murders: A Mystery Set in the Village of Jane Austen’s Emma. She also tutors mathematics, as solving problems in algebra and geometry make a nice break from creative writing.   (*Most of the information I used here comes from her Goodreads article The Other Side of the Slush Pile.)

In the rest of this post, these authors will discuss:
  • Why Should Writers Consider Hosting A Writing Contest?
  • What are the Best and Worst Parts of Hosting a Writing Contest?
  • How Do You Determine The Prize?
  • What Advice Would You Give Participants?

Why Should Writers Consider Hosting A Writing Contest?

Hosting a contest can help build your platform (something that is all the rage in the publishing industry).  It can boost traffic to your website. Yet, it will take time away from your writing, and a writer's number one job is to writer.  However, publicity was not the only reason these authors started their contests. Perhaps there is a compelling enough reason to take time and energy away from your work and start a contest.

Susanna Leonard Hill: I want my blog to be an interesting, fun place for writers and readers of all ages to congregate, so I try to think up interesting, fun things to do....The contests break up the routine of the blog and give everyone a chance to participate at whatever level they like, whether it's as writers, readers, or voters. 

I would love to expand my contests to included a kids' section that was all entries written by kids, but as yet we don't have enough contestants in that age group. 

C.Hope Clark: First, to draw attention to my website, FundsforWriters. I ran an annual essay contest for nine years. Second, I realized that there were few essay contests, particularly ones where writers could draw upon their experiences and relate. I adore a good essay proving a point, so I wanted to offer the type of contests I'd appreciate. So, the decision was selfish in terms of promotion, and charitable in terms of offering an opportunity.

Victoria GrossasckWhy do the agents – editors – judges really want manuscripts? In most cases it is because they want to sell the manuscripts further, either to publishing houses or to the general public.
We do hope to build up some good will and publicity for our series of novels. But we have other motives, too. Our competitions pay homage to the many competitions of ancient Greece, which brought us the great sporting events of the Olympics, but was also the spur for the creation of many plays and other works of art. We want to encourage the same dedication to excellence.

We particularly want to support educators teaching mythology, so each contest has two levels: those for poets under 18, and those for adults.

What are the Best and Worst Parts About Hosting a Writing Contest?

Once you decide to run a contest, you'll have to figure out how involved you want to be. Somebody has to gather entries, communicate to contestants, read and judge the entries, and finally gather and disperse the awards.

Susanna Leonard Hill:  The best part of running contests is the participation and enthusiasm.  We always get great entries that showcase really impressive talent and creativity.

The worst part of running contests is having to decide who the finalists will be!  It's so hard to choose. Almost every entry has something about it that's well done.  In the end, it's a great exercise in what editors go through every day.  You can't pick everyone.  And ultimately, there is an element of subjectivity - sometimes the people I choose as finalists might not be the ones someone else would choose - but I do the best I can by always having at least one assistant judge and by leaving the final decision up to the readers.

C. Hope Clark: 
Best? Wonderful stories, first. Plus I enjoy the excitement of the participants. They have hope when they enter, and I loved being part of their dream.

Worst? Bad stories. So many entered who were not prepared. So many unedited first drafts, which saddened me. Second worst part of running a contest is how time consuming it is. Contests eat up a LOT of time that applicants do not realize. The reading (multiple times), logging in, advertising, finding judges, announcements. So much time. A decent contest likes to thoroughly vet and choose the best. Sometimes the choice isn't so easy.

If you sponsor a contest, give it due attention. Promote it well. Treat applicants with courtesy. Notify applicants that you received their entry (they really appreciate this and few contests do it). And offer a prize that isn't insulting. When I see a first prize of $25 or so, I know that the contest isn't to be taken serious.

Victoria GrossackWhen we began the Odes to the Olympians contest – dutifully honoring Zeus in our first competition – we were afraid no poems would show up.

A greater worry troubled us: what if none of the poems we received were good? We didn’t want to give prizes to bad poems. So we reserved the right, when posting the rules, to award nothing, if no poems merited first place. However, we really did not want to be in that position. Declaring “no winners” could make it appear as if we were lousy at publicity, or cheap, or suffering from some other type of disorganization. Poetry contests without winners are bad poetry contests. 

Then it’s time to read the poems. This takes many hours, because there are hundreds of poems. I have to take many breaks to keep them from blurring together as I read. It’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Then we inform the winners. Even though this is all done by e-mail, we can feel the delight in their responses. We share in their joy – it’s a marvelous feeling.

How Do You Determine The Prize for a Writing Contest?

Let's be honest, how much money would  it take to entice you to participate in a contest?  Would you be willing to fork over that amount of cash?  What about non-monetary prizes?  What sort of things would you find alluring?  Then there's the shortlist/runners up/consolation entries.  Should they get tossed a bone?

Susanna Leonard Hill:  I try to offer prizes that writers will value, and I try to offer prizes that have something to do with the theme of the contest.  For example, the prize for the first annual Halloweensie Contest was a personalized signed copy of Haunted Party by Iza Trapani.  I also offer things like writing craft books, market guides, and gift certificates to indie or online bookstores.  But by far the best and most popular prizes are critiques by professional writers, or the chance to get a ms in front of an agent or editor for a read and critique.  Those are harder to come by.  Agents and editors are very busy and I don't know very many :) but I love being able to offer something so helpful to my winners.  (If any agents or editors happen to be reading this and want to volunteer their services, please let me know :))

One Holiday Contest entry that I know of came very close to a contract with Little Brown, but was passed on at the last minute.

C.Hope Clark: I used to offer prize money that would attract MY attention. First prize of $200-$350. Also a second and third prize so applicants feel they have more than one chance. Get much less than that, and it isn't worth the attention of the writers and you diminish the quality of the submissions.

Victoria Grossack: As we are running a contest, we don’t expect a profit, at least not directly.  The amount of the prize is $50 (US). We also hand out “Honorable Mentions” for the poems that we think deserve them. These poets win no money, but we post their poems and names at our website.

What Advice Would You Give Participants?

These authors have seen hundreds, if not thousands of contest entries.  There is something to learn here, so pay attention.

Susanna Leonard Hill: Follow the guidelines.  There's usually a maximum word count, so PLEASE stay within it or you will be disqualified and that would be so sad.  The other main consideration is that my writing contests are always for children's stories, never for adults, so kid-friendliness and appeal weigh hugely in the judges' decisions.  Aside from that, write your best and HAVE FUN!  That's what it's all about :)

C. Hope Clark:
I no longer run a contest. I post calls for contest submissions, however, in my weekly FundsForWriters newsletters. First and best piece of advice: do NOT enter something that hasn't been well edited. Second: follow the dang guidelines! Sounds elementary, but my guess is that 5-10% of entrants ignore some part of the guidelines.

Victoria Grossack
Follow the rules!  If the contest is for a poem about Aphrodite, then if you send in one about Pegasus, it will not win, not even if it is the only poem we receive.  Poems which are late or which exceed the line count are also automatically disqualified.

Now, what makes a poem good?  Which ones please us?  We like those which concentrate on a myth or an aspect of a god or goddess and illuminate that myth or aspect with well-chosen phrases.  A good poem is consistently good – every line works with meaning, words, and rhythm.  We receive many poems that are mere lists of a deity’s attributes with no overarching theme; acrostics are particularly prone to this problem.  We appreciate that acrostics can be a good way for some people to learn to write poetry, but they rarely make great poems.

Bonus Material

For more tips on holding a contest online, check out this post by Jean Oram.

As an alternative to a full blown contest, many writers will do one time give-aways.  Darcy Pattison opines on that technique in this article.

Your Turn

Have you encountered other writers who host writing contests?   Let me know and I'll reach out to them.

If you decide to host a writing contest after reading this post, put your link in the comments, and I'll spread the hype.


  1. Thanks so much for inviting me to participate in this post, Nate! I learned something from the other writers, and I am looking forward to reading what Jean and Darcy have to say!

    1. My pleasure. Thanks for inspiring other writers.

  2. Hey Sus! Glad to see everyone here. Lots of fantastical info. I love the idea of entering contests, but you're REALLY putting yourself out there. And that is a scary thought to me. I don't mind asking for critiques, that's different. But entering a contest over at Susanna's means lots of other writers will see your stuff. YIKES!

    It's hard to believe that some writers don't follow the guidelines. If they can't do it in a contest, then they won't do it when querying.

    WOW. Bonus material. And it's FREE!! SCHWEET!

    1. Thanks for stopping by to read, Robyn. I know. It is a little scary. (Okay. A LOT scary :)) But it's great practice and experience, and gives you the chance to learn from other contestants. Plus you could win something awesome :)

  3. Great post. Doesn't it seem silly and unnecessary to say, "Follow the guidelines."? Apparently, it's not! All three authors felt the need to say it. Hilarious! Step it up, contestants! Contests have guidelines for a reason.... :)

    1. I know, Genevieve! Isn't that funny that we all said the same thing? I guess it just goes to show it's a common problem :) Thanks so much for coming over to read!

    2. In my own experience, I've been caught up in the excitement of the contest before. You get some sort of inspiration, or are really excited about a peculiar piece and then you miss some little detail (how to format your entry, to put your name on it, you miss the deadline date or missed the time zone). It happens. These are good reminders to take a moment to follow the rules.

  4. Thanks, Nate. Enjoyed the interview and love you taking the time to show contests - their good and bad sides - to your readers.

    Hope Clark

  5. Great point on following the rules. It's easy to get in the rush to submit, but sometimes it's best to sit one out until your entry is ready.

    1. So true, Stacy, and good practice for submitting to magazines and publishing houses! Thanks so much for coming by to read and comment!

  6. I love Susanna's contests! The prompts stimulate creativity as do the sometimes very confining rules, which is great to challenge myself! It's also wonderful to see where the same guidelines lead different writers. Honestly wouldn't b0need a prize to enter, but I think having something to hope to win makes me want to work harder! Great post!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoy the contests, Julie. I love running them. Like you, I love seeing where the same basic prompt leads different writers - always in so many diverse directions! I'll look forward to seeing your entry in the Halloweensie Contest... not too far away now :) Thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment!

  7. Very nice insight from these three ladies regarding hosting contests. I think it would take a rather brave and organized individual to jump on the contest bandwagon.

    Great post!

    Donna L Martin

    1. Thanks so much for coming by to read and comment, Donna! I don't know about brave and organized... :) but it is fun! It's interesting too - I think we all run our contests differently. I may be the only one for whom entries are entered online on people's individual blogs. I really like that aspect because it means everyone gets to read all the entries and learn from other writers and also see what they're up against :)

    2. Susanna - entering via links to blog posts is fairly common for other contests.

      Your link system is unique however. I don't see that one much.

  8. I'm another HUGE fan of Susanna's contests. Due to her contests, I have written several manuscripts that I wouldn't have otherwise written. I get inspired by her creative, fun prompts just go for it. I'm competitive so I work hard on my entries. Also, reading the entries is just a bundle of fun. A lot of her contests are around holidays and the entries add an extra dose of celebratory spirit for me. I appreciate Susanna's generosity and contribution to children's literature.

    1. Thank you so much, Penny! I'm so glad you enjoy the contests, and I really appreciate your support, enthusiasm, and wonderful entries :) I'm greatly looking forward to this year's Halloween and Holiday contests! Thank you so much for stopping by to visit, read and comment!! :)