Are you writing? Then SHHH! I’ll tell you a secret

Woman with winning rosette

This is me. In my head. But let me be happy

Writing competitions might save your life. Unless you’re keen on starving for your art, in which case you should probably stop reading now.

Writing competitions are the lowest common denominator of literary prizes. And I mean that in the best way possible.

Because we may be living in an era when writing competitions have become the new – if not only – way of submitting work when you’re an unknown writer.  I don’t know how long this era might last, but I’m so totally going to try to surf the wave whilst it’s there, and see what happens.

For those authors of literary fiction so high-browed that their hairlines meet their eyelashes, there are the fancy competitions, the ones with big name sponsors and deep-pocketed prizes, generating headlines to beat the band and, if you’re shortlisted, book sales you could never have dreamt of otherwise.

But for those of us on the bottom rung of the ladder – writing competitions are even BETTER.

Without really realising it, I’ve been  following a strategy in the last few months, by entering any and every writing competition which looked promising. And it’s just occurred to me that depending on how things go over the next few months, I will have either bypassed the traditional submission process entirely,  kick-started my attempt to woo the powers-that-be with a better CV than I would have had otherwise,  or added considerably more weight to a self-publishing endeavour. Either way, it’s a positive, and you don’t get too many of them this early in the year.

So what makes writing competitions such a good idea for emerging writers? Well, come here ’til I tell you.

Time is Money1. You Need Deadlines

There is a very good chance you may never finish that highly literary 3,000 word short story about one man’s struggle with post-modernist troglodytism, unless you’re writing to a deadline. And let’s face it, for 90% of writers, there are no deadlines, unless you’re talking about a closing date for a competition.  So go ahead and pick one.

2. It Helps To Avoid Slush Piles

Here’s what happens when you submit to a publishing or agent slush pile:

January 23rd 2010:   Finished quadruple-checking my manuscript today. I’m so excited. After 6 months of research, I’m truly confident that W.R. Frightfully-Warbly is the agent best suited to my work. It was such a rush seeing that envelope disappear over the counter in the post office.  After all that effort, I can finally take a breath!

July 16th 2010:   Finally managed to get through to W.R. Frightfully-Warbly’s office and spoke to a lovely young gentleman by the name of Jackstard who’s working there for the summer. He says W.R. has been flat out at important book fairs, but Jackstard will personally seek out my MS from the Submission Vault and put it on the great man’s desk. Find myself getting excited again!

January 25th 2011:   Still no word from W.R Frightfully-Warbly. No sign of him either, for weeks now. And this flat I’ve rented across the road from his office is overrun with vermin.

February 6th 2013:   Feeling quite weak… I have not eaten for 6 days, ever since the exterminator was called in… And now I find out that W.R. Frightfully-Warbly stopped taking unsolicited submissions in 2009. Why wasn’t I told?

Open Your Eyes, Judge3. Competition Judges Should Actually Read Your Stuff

Even if your wife/best friend/secret lover was sitting next to that coveted agent’s right-hand man at dinner, and managed to get them to agree to have a look at your manuscript, and you duly sent it in, and the right-hand man actually held it in his hands, you have no guarantees or even likelihood that anyone in the office read more than:

a) The first line

b) Your name

c) The title

d) Twenty-seven Daily Mail Showbiz articles

1st, 2nd, 3rd place

Even 20th place can be a great win in writing competitions

4. There Is Major Kudos in Longlists and Shortlists

Some people really do think that only winning counts. This is complete rubbish. Being a runner-up can kick ass. As I said in this post, sometimes it’s really not that bad being the one who minds the handbags during the slowset.

Take pride in your short- or long-listings. Shout them from the rooftops. Because what you’re really saying is that you have proof that somebody in the business read your stuff before, and liked it enough to put a check mark on it. It’s more important than you think.


Isn’t this obvious? Your stuff is good, you know it is! Of course you might win! Just make sure to get the damned thing edited before you send it in!


So What Should You Be Entering?

This is what winning feels like

This emerging writer found very early success

The more competitions I see (and there are more and more of them, especially novel competitions), the more I like them, because it seems like there’s a nice balance at the moment, of just enough competitions: neither so many of them that they’re rendered meaningless, nor so few of them that they’re impenetrable.  Some I’ve entered have had fewer than 500 entries. When you think about it, taking into account the luck associated with the unpredictable zeitgeistiness of genre, those odds aren’t that bad.

It also seems like not too many people have copped just yet how utterly splendid an opportunity writing competitions are: so the submission process hasn’t yet become so clogged as to render competitions useless. (No need to worry about me spilling the beans here. Fewer people read this blog than I hope you suspect.)

Just pick the right prize. Make sure the competition is linked to a reputable publisher or arts body and be hugely suspicious of any that charge you vast amounts to enter. In fact, if they’re really looking for new talent, they really should be free.

So go on: pick a prize (and flaunt your arty bits). You might be left on the shelf otherwise.

Have you any competition tips? Please do tell… what goes around, comes around, after all!

  27 comments for “Are you writing? Then SHHH! I’ll tell you a secret

  1. sean farrell
    February 19, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Tara. A superb post!


  2. February 19, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Right, you’ve absolutely convinced me anyway. I’m gonna go for it too.

    – mel


    • February 19, 2014 at 12:17 pm

      Great stuff, Mel, and my fingers are crossed for you. We can have the finder’s fees chat later 🙂


  3. February 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm

    That’s a fresh perspective for me Tara, I have never entered a writing competition and never planned to. I reckon you just changed all that. Bye the way thanks for sharing, could have kept it all to yourself and took all the prizes. Karma will undoubtedly reward your kindness.


    • February 19, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      Gosh, I hope so, John. The alternative would be just too depressing. Although it could be great material for a misery memoir. Every cloud, and all that!


  4. February 19, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    It’s a great post. I have to admit I would have to get over the ‘trying to second guess what the judges are looking for’ bit but you’re right – it is a great way to get noticed and yes, I’m with you on the deadlines. Is there a handy resource to find current writing competition btw?


    • February 19, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      Hi Lorna! I think one of the best tips I ever heard at an IWC Publishing Day was – never write for a competition, because your writing will be forced and below par; instead, find a competition which best fits what you’ve written, and submit.
      I think one of the universally acknowledged best resources to find competitions is Paul McVeigh’s blog – does great round-ups in every category. In Ireland, the Book Nanny did some good listings ( and also Kate Dempsey has been blogging about writing news & competitions for years over at Emerging Writer (
      Hope that helps!


      • February 19, 2014 at 12:56 pm

        That’s brilliant – thank you. Yes, good tip – use the competition to finish and hone your existing writing


  5. February 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Great post, Tara!

    I’ve found competitions helpful in regards to feedback on my manuscript, from a reader perspective. There’s also a great way to market your book if it does get published and/or if you self-publish.


    • February 19, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      Thanks, Elke! Yes – I think sometimes competition rules are more closely followed too than submission guidelines, and easier to police; so as a way of getting the writer to comply with requests and the publisher access to new talent, if managed properly, it can be a win-win situation, on a basic level.


  6. carolannwrites
    February 19, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Absolutely wonderful advice once more and with SUCH wit and tongue in cheek thrown in for good measure! Your blog posts never disappoint, Tara!


    • February 19, 2014 at 2:17 pm

      Thank you Carolann. You’ve actually just won the TaraSparlingWrites Award for nicest comment AND nicest person. Congratulations 😉


  7. jgrwriter
    February 19, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful post. 🙂


    • February 19, 2014 at 4:49 pm

      My pleasure! I only do it for comments like that you know 😉


      • jgrwriter
        February 19, 2014 at 6:59 pm

        LOL 🙂


  8. February 19, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Great post! I’ve just started doing this with flash fiction (<300 words) literary journals. Fingers crossed as the first results date is in early April…

    Loved your ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 19, 2014 at 9:12 pm

      Thank you! Flash fiction comps are a real art. Good luck!


  9. February 19, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    Really enjoyable read Tara, I never would’ve thought to give these competitions a go… now I’m thinking ‘And why the hell not?’ Of course my initial response is telling me ‘Waste of a good stamp, that’s why… It’ll never bloody win anyway’
    As per fear and doubt lurks at the back of my mind – my glass is never half full but more utterly bone dry. However to heck with the self torturing thoughts, time to cease the moment (and all that)… shall be scanning the pages of google for entry details first thing tomorrow morning!!! 😉 hehe


    • February 20, 2014 at 8:28 am

      And may I be the first to wish you the very best of luck!
      The submission process will reap some dividends – if nothing else, it will throw a shape on your work which may otherwise never have materialised.

      Good lord I’m being dreadfully positive this morning!!


  10. February 20, 2014 at 4:59 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Tara. Knowing I have deadlines in mind helps fuel my writing and preparing pieces for writing competitions. This past month alone, I’ve cranked out 5 short stories, all of which will be submitted as entries for competitions.


    • February 21, 2014 at 9:05 am

      I’m in awe of the short story writer, Gus, it’s an art form which is so precise in its measurements that I get frightened! Do let us know how you get on – and the very very best of luck!


  11. johanna buchanan
    February 20, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Couldn’t agree more Tara. It was the fear of Jackstardly and Mr Frightfully-Warbly that made me self-publish!


    • February 21, 2014 at 9:08 am

      You had nothing to fear, Johanna. Clowns like Jackstard have about as much real power as a wet triple-A battery 😉
      Besides, positive self-publishing journeys like yours are an inspiration to all of us!


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