Poetry and short story competitions remain enduringly popular. It’s not difficult to see why. They’re fun and exciting, for starters. And, of course, more importantly, competitions can, on occasion, prove life-changing: a win or even a very good placing in a major competition can be very – sometimes hugely – lucrative, not to mention kudos building. Success in leading competitions, such as the Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition, The National Poetry Competition, the Arvon International, The TLS Poetry Competition, The Bridport Prizes for Poetry and Fiction, the BBC National Story Story Award, the Asham Award or the Rhys Davies Prize, will do much to attract some much needed attention to a new writer and can sometimes prompt very serious interest from publishers. Certainly, a number of leading names in poetry and fiction, such as Andrew Motion, Jo Shapcott and Kate Atkinson, first made their mark with notable competition wins. In Wales, the Academi Cardiff International Poetry Competition and the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition were the first to highlight the unique talents of Tiffany Atkinson, Tristan Hughes and Jo Mazelis.
The great thing about competitions – and certainly a large part of their appeal – is the fact that they are judged anonymously. Anonymity practically guarantees that winners and runners up in the big competitions will almost always be a pleasing and intriguing blend of both the better known names and exciting new voices. A limited publishing history is no obstacle. An impressive writing CV is of no advantage. Work is judged on merit, not on the basis of personality or status, or even, for that matter, experience. The competition is, in the best sense, a level playing field. Of course, what most writers want to know is whether it’s worth entering competitions in the first place. They want to know the odds of their actually winning. Given that the sums involved in entering competitions are generally very low, taken with the fact that very many competitions play an invaluable role in promoting poetry and literary fiction (and the sponsoring organizations which are dedicated to their survival), then, if you’ve a good piece of work, it’s certainly worth it. You’re doing your bit for your art, as well as exercising an entirely healthy self-interest in entering.
Admittedly, the major competitions attract a phenomenally high number of entrants. For the large open international competitions, thousands of people from all over the world send their poems and short stories in with high hopes. The lure of amounts sometimes in the thousands of pounds, together with the possibility of achieving both a profile and possibly a publisher, is simply too great to resist. That said, very many writers tend to send their work into competitions with little or no consideration of its quality. Many also make the mistake of not reading the rules or of spoiling their entry with identifying information, such as typing their name in bold at the foot of the page – thereby disqualifying themselves at the outset. Many more forget to include their entry fee, even. So, if you enter a poem or short story you’re proud of, follow the rules to the letter and present your work professionally, you actually have a much better chance of being placed in competition than you might at first think.
But, of course, as with any kind of competition, there’s a certain amount of luck involved. So much depends on the individual taste of the judge or judges. Sometimes, work – of however high a quality and however original – can still miss its mark. But, if you approach reputable competitions as a highly entertaining diversion and don’t enter them with disproportionate amounts of emotional investment, they can do you no harm and may, in fact, do you and your work the power of good.
But remember that competitions are precisely that: competitions and not, in any realistic sense, funding. If you’re starting out and seeking financial support to dedicate yourself to your writing, and you live in Wales, then you are strongly advised to apply for a Literature Wales New Writers Bursary. Bursaries can help you by providing you with the opportunity to ‘buy time’ out form employment to work on a sustained project in the genres of Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction or Poetry. They can also help you with associated costs, such as travel for research. For disabled writers, Literature Wales can provide a bursary to help towards the cost of administrative assistance, or even the cost of a computer to enable you to complete your project. Bursaries are awarded on the basis of demonstrable talent, commitment and promise.
The prestigious UK competitions for poetry or short fiction, as with the smaller competitions run by the little presses and magazines, generally require only very modest sums as an entry fee – in the region of £3 to £5 per poem or short story submitted. If you’re a member of the sponsoring organization, you can often expect to have one free entry in addition to your first paid entry or a discount on subsequent entries after your first. Short story limits for most competitions are usually in the region of 2500-5000 words, while limits for poetry tend to be around 40-50 lines - the most notable exception being the Arvon International Poetry Prize which places no limit whatsoever on the length of poems (therefore a good port of call if you’re a maestro of either the long poem or sequence). You send off your poem or short story with the entry fee and then you wait several months. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll get a phone call to tell you that you’ve won or been placed second or third, or a letter if you’re a runner up. Some competitions, such as the Academi Cardiff International, crank up the tension: you’ll be shortlisted and only find out on the night whether you’ve won the jackpot. With the major competitions, the sums can be very generous indeed – from £1000 right up to £5000. The BBC National Short Story Award promises a staggering purse of £15000 to the lucky winner.
For poets, there’s also The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. Send off the entry fee (currently £24) and between 20 and 24 pages of poems, and you may be selected as one of the shortlisted poets. You can then either enjoy publication in pamphlet form and a share of the prize money, or proceed further and enter a larger collection to win the overall book prize. The competition regularly attracts high quality and established practitioners, such as Patrick McGuinness and Tim Liardet, and has played a key role in discovering new names destined for big things, such as Next Generation poet Catherine Smith, whose recent second collection with the publisher landed her a place on the Forward Prize list in 2008.
The Academi maintains a list of upcoming major and smaller competitions in Wales and the wider UK of interest to creative writers, along with details on how to obtain entry forms. Click here for details. In addition, the Story Website has an up to the minute list of short fiction competitions run throughout the UK and internationally. The Poetry Library in London also regularly updates its comprehensive list of current competitions of interest to poets.