Raw Literature: Does Writing Need Competition

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

May 7, 2018

By Geoff Le Pard

I entered a competition recently. A short story, up to 3000 words with a thriller theme. There was a small entry fee, offset by the promise of some critiquing come what may from a writer whose judgment I trust. Even so, I didn’t really need the critique; I had the story idea anyway; I publish a lot of short fiction on my blog. Why enter a competitive arena? Does it enhance the quality of the writing? The experience?

We are encouraged, as nascent authors, to stretch ourselves. To write, write and write. To offer our work up to publications. To seek out critiques, if not critics. In many, if not all these cases, we are competing with others, at least for attention if not some other prize: acclaim, publication, money.

Do we improve under the pressure of a competition? Does writing to a set of rules make us a better writer? Or are we after the ego boost of someone else saying, directly or indirectly that they liked our work?

In my time as a writer, I have benefited most in two arenas.

First, where I’m offered a view on my writing. A commentary on what didn’t work. What could be improved?

‘That worked’ ‘That was well done’ ‘I loved that twist.’

These are all lovely to receive, but in a sense, they merely record a past success; they don’t drive us to look to improve. The old sporting cliché You don’t change a winning team applies here. If you receive praise, you’re less likely to look to improve what you’ve done. But if the critical eye suggests something didn’t work, then you are more likely to review it and see what can be done to sharpen the prose, eradicate the padding and make it better.

The second is when there is an element of competition involved. Competitions don’t always offer critiquing. But even those that don’t show you who has won and reading them alongside your own effort can be revealing.

Of course, many times the winner is chosen for reasons of taste, genre, an indefinable something but often enough there’s a quality to it that’s lacking in my attempts. Pretty much every Friday I attempt a prompt send out under the Microcosms banner. 300 words, no more. The difference is each entry is judged. The judge gives comments.  You get to see the winners. You get to study someone else against your own attempt. Yes, you could read all the entries and for some prompts – The Carrot Ranch of course! – that can pay dividends.

However that can be a lot of entries and if time is limited, reading the winner and runner-up can be a focused use of that time.

In addition, if you’re going to be judged, there may be, at least unconsciously, a sharpening of the pencil, as it were when you submit your entry.

It’s not for everyone, this urge to compete, this willingness to put one’s ego up for polishing. But try it occasionally, and you might just surprise yourself. After all, we are all in the business of constant improvement and anything that helps that is to be embraced.

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  1. tnkerr

    I have to celebrate your success here. Your phrase “… eradicate the padding…” is very nicely turned. Thanks.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for stopping by the Ranch!

  2. Ritu

    Definitely need that critique to help us grow His Geoffleship!

    • Charli Mills

      It’s definitely a part of growth, Ritu!

      • Ritu

        Yes, and I am currently growing with the critique I’m getting!

  3. dharkanein

    You are right every now and then, if not every time, we must keep testing where we stand, atleast to justify our readers. So that critique is easy way to polish our work.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for stopping by the Ranch!

      • dharkanein

        It’s my pleasure to be a part of such an effort.

  4. Chelsea Owens

    I think competition is imperative for growth, in many areas. The only downside is repeated failure leading to one giving up, but I know that giving helpful feedback instead of just dismissing entrants helps avoid that problem.

    • TanGental

      I agree the critique needs to be constructive.

    • Charli Mills

      The kind of feedback that I find helpful guides me to make practical changes. I agree that it makes competition more meaningful.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for sharing!

  5. Charli Mills

    Competition can offer writers the opportunity to sharpen their pencils, as you say. Weekly prompts are good for maintaining the writing habit, trying new ideas or styles, and connecting with other writers in meaningful ways. Competitions allow a writers to take the next steps, learning to revise and polish a piece for a specific audience. As Anne Goodwin stated in a Raw Lit post a few weeks ago, comparison to other writers is only good if it’s for observing differences. Comparison and competitions can become negative experienced if we get so involved as to think that winning/losing is the ultimate goal. It never is. Learning out craft, learning to observe how others use the craft, and how to revise for an intended audience matters more. Thank you for staying this discussion, Geoff!

    • Annecdotist

      Thanks for the mention, Charli. Of course I agree!

      • Charli Mills

        It’s a good continuing point to make, Anne.

  6. Shallow Reflections

    I like the idea of having some constructive critique, Geoff. I will watch for opportunities. I’ve entered three contests this year and only results for one of them (so far). The judge gave me feedback but it was not helpful at all. In fact, it was brutal. Something about wishing there had been a point to my essay. I would like some tangible recommendations for improvement.

    • Charli Mills

      Ouch. That kind of feedback doesn’t construct better writing. I once had a journalism judge rip my writing to itty-bitty pieces because he did not like my style. At the time, I was writing for magazines, and the next assignment I got from the editor for whom I had written the piece that the judge shredded, I changed my style to fit the judge’s remarks. The editor asked what was wrong with my writing! When I shared the feedback her response was one I have kept ever since — “That judge doesn’t pay you to write for us.” That’s when it hit me that it is more important to know if you are on target with your audience rather than to please some curmudgeon of a judge who has no influence over your readers.

      • Shallow Reflections

        Good example of the benefits of remaining true to your voice, Charli. I’ll not enter that contest again. I’d much rather just ‘lose’ the contest than have mean feedback piled on top of it.

    • Charli Mills

      Wise decision, Molly!

  7. denmaniacs4

    Well said, Geoff. Microcosms Flash is not only judged, its judged usually by writer of the winning entry from the week before. Complementing that adjudication is the community vote. Because the prompts are quite diverse, that is there is a fine selection of options weekly so that the individual tales can be quite different, it is an excellent proving ground I find to play with genres, to travel to parts of your brain little used. In my case at any rate…

    • Charli Mills

      That’s an interesting feedback loop, Bill. I can see how the winners become engaged in the judging and yet it’s balanced with a community vote (which, on its own can become a popularity contest).

  8. Colleen Chesebro

    Excellent advice, Geoff. Microcosms Flash sounds amazing. I will have to check this out. Thanks for the great recommendation. <3

  9. Richmond Road

    I started my whole blog based around my consistency of failure in writing competitions. I have, thus far, come near enough to dead last in every such event that I have entered. The consolation prize for failure, it seems, is really positive and encouraging feedback ….. which makes it all a bit confusing.
    Nevertheless I am hooked. I do not take failure easily.
    My observation is that the first round of these things is a bit of a lottery. All the really good stories stand out clearly and march straight into the next round, but beneath that I think the judges get swamped with the sheer volume of entries and suffer from a bit of inconsistency. I have seen some really very good submissions rejected (not mine, I hasten to add) whilst others that are barely readable squeak through (sadly, once again, not mine).
    However, I do find that the eventual winners are little gems, and a lot can be said of the value of reading them. We learn from those ahead of us on the path.
    I would be interested to hear of any good competitions that people might suggest. I am determined to get past round 1 before I die.

    • Lisa A. Listwa

      I would also be glad to know of competitions that folks here are familiar with.

      • Richmond Road

        The NYC Midnight competitions are very well organised Lisa, and very popular. And the standards are high – at least at the winning end. I commend them even though the judges have not treated me favourably

      • Lisa A. Listwa

        I actually did the NYC short story last winter. Somehow came away with an honorable mention in round one. Not bad for a first try. I did not participate this year and really wish I had. Thanks for the tip – I did think they were well organized.

    • Charli Mills

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Richmond. Having read some of your flash here, I wouldn’t call your writing failed. Contests can be a lot like dating websites — everyone is looking for an ideal match but not everyone agrees to what that is. Search for contests in genres that you like to write and look at the styles of winning entries. If they are different from what you write, keep looking. Contests are as much about making a case for your writing to fit. Here’s a link for you to check out: http://www.christopherfielden.com/short-story-tips-and-writing-advice/flash-fiction-competitions.php.

      • Richmond Road

        My problem (or one of them) I think is that the whole idea of ‘genre’ irks me a bit. It seems like something you might identify after the fact rather than before it. But more than that I find that people are more interested in the nature of ‘story’ rather than the structure by which that story is told and whilst that is fine (of course) it’s not really my focus.
        Nevertheless I will push on with the contest thing – at the end of the day I still enjoy the exercise.

        Thank you very much for the sage words of advise

      • Charli Mills

        An interesting point on genre!

  10. Lisa A. Listwa

    I do think that competition and critique (when constructive, not destructive) can be extremely helpful to growth as a writer. I have shied away from contests for quite some time after receiving some very terse and rude feedback. Do I need a thicker skin? Perhaps. But seriously it felt far too much like tearing down. And so lately I am venturing back into the competition arena – just submitted a short one last night and about to do two more this week. We shall see where such things lead…

    • Charli Mills

      Especially in certain circles (like academia or traditional lit journals), the feedback can be deconstructive because that is how literature is taught in the US. If you can look at the feedback in objective terms, it can be “easier” to take. It’s helpful, though, when you can apply the feedback to grow and that doesn’t always happen. But by putting yourself out there, you will stretch beyond your comfort zone and grow.

  11. Jules

    I’ve entered a few things… But was almost caught by vanity publishers. Those folks you need to be very wary of. They will pretty much publish anything as long as you are willing to pay for their book which can only be gotten from them which will include your work as well as a gazzillion others so they have to charge over $50 for the volume which if you want the deluxe gilded edition is more. They also tried to hawk a CD of ten poems read, including your published piece for more money as well as a plaque of your entered piece. Really?? When I said no thanks I’d wait for the publication to come out in the public eye… my piece(s) were edited out of the volume. I am not crying.

    I have entered some material in chap books, but the editors that have specific ideas or themes, also offering editing services, tended to say reject my offerings when I felt the small pieces I did enter didn’t need their paid services. I also don’t see entering a contest for and outrageous fee and a small payout just so they can publish their own magazine. But that’s just me?

    I did come in as an honorable mention to a contest I entered but could never find the listing of who did win. I did get a poetic volume as a runner up type prize. So that was cool.

    With shorter pieces I myself do not want extra critique or critics. I generally like what I write and often only edit as I am writing. I am not one to hold onto the same piece and rewrite it forty seven times.

    Entering competitions and contests one needs to be careful – And understand that editors have their own agendas. Most often they may not be on the same page of what you are offering. But we all learn from our experiences.

    Time is valuable. And we can’t always read everything our friends write, but we can try. Thanks for your contribution to Raw Literature Geoff.

    • Charli Mills

      Certainly, there are predators out there that writers need to be wary of. A good rule of thumb is to search the contest (or publication) for reviews or complaints. Look to reputable sources for contests or recommendations, such as what Geoff offered. Some lit journals follow a business model that generates income from submissions. But if the fee is outrageous in comparison to the prize, best to walk on by! A good question to ask is what will you gain from entering, and does that further your own writing goals. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Jules!

  12. Annecdotist

    Interesting perspective, Geoff. In my experience of submitting for publication rejections abound so the compliments are always welcome. And although I have entered competitions (and won some), it’s a strange thing to compete at as there is no objective measure of what makes one contribution better than another. In fact, I’ve had stories that have won competitions (and fairly decent ones at that) later turned down by other magazines. But good luck with yours!

    • Charli Mills

      That’s an interesting point to make about the shifting objectivity, Anne. You win one contest but then get rejected for publication with the same piece. How long have you been entering contests and submitting to lit journals? I’m curious if you think it’s helped your craft, career or both?

      • Annecdotist

        My first fiction success was winning a writing competition in 2006 and I’d probably been submitting for a couple of years before then. But I was very naive about what that meant – thinking it would be easy from then on!
        I think I was fixated on publication too early to the detriment of honing my craft. At that time, I wasn’t aware of as many outlets for short fiction publication as there seem to be now. So competitions seemed the right route. But after a while I felt I was throwing my money away in entry fees and discovered other outlets. I now have over eighty short story publications but submit to competitions sporadically with a couple of wins in 2016.
        Having publications to my name has built my confidence as a writer. But I think what’s most helped me improve is working alongside an editor who really likes my work and has ideas about making it better. I had that in a small way with some short story publications, although they’re not always edited, but the biggest boost has been working on my novels. I haven’t agreed with every one with my publisher’s suggestions, but her input has pushed me to look at my work more objectively. And she has a nice balance between pointing out what’s wrong as well as what’s right which really works for me.

      • Charli Mills

        Thank you for sharing your experiences with submissions and contests, Anne. I think your path is one that builds both confidence and credibility. It’s a strong statement you can make to say that over 80 outlets have published your writing. But I agree that the greatest growth can come from working alongside an editor who appreciates your writing but can make it better. I’m glad you have found that, and perhaps the entries helped you prepare for that kind of relationship.

      • Annecdotist

        I should clarify that it’s not eighty different outlets but eighty different stories: in my submissions, I’ve tried to strike a balance between exploring new opportunities and resubmitting to magazines from which I’ve had a previous acceptance to increase my chances of a yes.

      • Charli Mills

        That’s a smart strategy, Anne. I used to do the same when I freelanced. If an editor liked my work, then I’d pitch more articles.

  13. robbiesinspiration

    A fabulous post, Geoff. I also entered Dan’s competition and I got great feedback. It was my first attempt at a really dark story and the feedback has helped me a lot. I also read some of the winning pieces and that is very a useful learning curve as your suggest and lots of fun too.

    • Charli Mills

      That’s good to read the other winning pieces, too Robbie. It helps to gain more insight.

  14. dgkaye

    Excellent post Geoff. I think a good challenge is good for everyone, it keeps us on our toes and to stay sharp. 🙂

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Debby! I think we do need to look for ways to stay sharp.

      • dgkaye

        Absolutely Charli 🙂

  15. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    All valid questions asked in this essay. And:
    There are two outcomes in competition. Would you have written this essay had you not won that competition? (Would I have joined this friendly community, shared my writing, had I not gotten validation and encouragement from placing in a couple of competitions way (way, way) back when?) Maybe not.

    I have skied, biked, and, more recently, rodeoed with competitives and then left them to their contests; I don’t like pinning a bib. While I do enjoy skiing, biking, and writing with people who bring my game up, for me these are ultimately solo sports where I keep my own score cards. No one but me appreciates my knack for floating a front wheel in soft sand, or knows if I make it through that patch without dabbing a foot or not. (But if I don’t, know I will revise the effort)
    I guess I am just not into competition. Being in a group of people practicing the same skills is competition enough. In each situation I haven’t needed to compete to receive encouragement and camaraderie, and some schooling, which enhances my solo as well as group experiences.
    Either that or I am chicken-shit.

    (P. S. It’s Teacher Appreciation Day today; certain teachers put me into competitions way back and gave other encouragements. You?)

    • Charli Mills

      Happy Teacher Appreciation Day (a few days, lagging), D.! I think we all have a decent idea of what feeds our growth. One thing I do like about (occasional) contests is the opportunity to look more objectively at something I’ve written to find ways to make it shine. Or to test it for response. But as I’ve mentioned, the best feedback is practical and helpful and contests don’t always offer such. I think you are brave and bold. That’s not chicken-shit. You don’t have to be competitive to grow; just willing to go outside your comfort zone.

  16. Colleen Chesebro

    Reblogged this on Colleen Chesebro ~ The Fairy Whisperer and commented:
    Do we improve under the pressure of a competition? Does writing to a set of rules make us a better writer? Or are we after the ego boost of someone else saying, directly or indirectly that they liked our work? Here’s what Geoff LePard says. <3

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for sharing, Colleen!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for sharing!

  17. Robert Kirkendall

    I compete against myself, that’s the only way I can improve as a writer.

    • Charli Mills

      Ultimately, that’s true, Robert.

  18. Norah

    Other than the Carrot Ranch Rodeo, I haven’t entered a writing competition for yonks. That is only if you don’t don’t consider vying for a little slice of the audience pie competition. I think with every word we publish we are competing for readers and appreciation. While I agree that not all appreciation stretches us to improve, it is useful to know what we did well and what works. That way we can do more of that, just as we can do less of what doesn’t. I’m only after a little piece of pie but it’s difficult to wrest it away from the big fish. How do we do that? One nibble at a time and never giving up. Congratulations on all your writing wins, Geoff, and thanks for sharing your thought on competition.

    • Charli Mills

      You’ve taught me a new word, Norah — yonks! I never really got into the literary contests after college because I needed to work, not win. But after many years in my profession, I did enter an annual contest for marketing communications. Eventually, I became the chair for that contest but judging professional works of writing differs from judging literary art. And you are right — as writers, we do compete for readers and appreciation with every word we publish. I shared a story about how I learned to shift my focus to satisfying the audience I wrote for over the opinion of a judge. I also learned in recent years that open mic events are great proving grounds for what we write creatively. You can’t miss the connection you make with an audience when reading aloud. It might not win a prize, but the responsiveness can’t be faked. Keep going after your nibbles! You are a big fish to me!

      • Norah

        Ha! Yonks – I had to check that it was actually included in the dictionary. I didn’t even give it a thought when I wrote it.
        Thanks for sharing your experiences with competitions. You have done some great learning along the way. I appreciate that you share it with us.
        Still nibbling away. 🙂

  19. Marje @ Kyrosmagica

    Great advice Geoff. You certainly can learn a lot from reading other entries and from listening to helpful advice whether online or in person at a critique group.

    • Charli Mills

      I agree, Marje. We can be open-minded and learn along the way when we listen for feedback.

  20. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    an interesting discussion. I have entered a few competitions and intend to enter more. I have learnt however that there are some definite musts when entering a competition. Make very sure that you follow to the letter their formatting and submission criteria, research the previous winners of the competition and see the style and type of content the judges are after and write to that and be aware that reading is an individual pursuit that the reader comes to with their own world view and experiences. You simply aren’t going to appeal to everybody. I found this interesting in the Carrot Ranch competition where I was one of three judges. My favourite story was another judges least favourite. Don’t become disheartened but keep on trying. I know I’m going to.

    • Charli Mills

      Good advice from what you have learned about entering contests, Irene. Sometimes I think we get so excited to enter a story we forget to carefully consider all the details. Just as with editing, it’s good to set aside the rules and instructions for entering, and then return to them again before we actually enter. With a clearer head, we might see we overlooked important details. Yes! It’s telling once you have experienced being a judge how subjective the responses to who is the winner can be.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        I would probably have never thought of those finer points on entering a competition had we not been told to enter a competition whilst at uni regarding death with the prize being given by the funeral directors. Reading previous winners it was quite clear what type of narrative was sought and my black humour was never going to win the day with this comp. Yes being on the judging end was an eye opener indeed and it is partially subjective and partially technique but the subjective part of your brain is very hard to put on hold to become objective.

      • Charli Mills

        You learned a good lesson (and I’m laughing, knowing all too well your dark humor). As writers we can approach competitions two ways — we can see how our writing is different and change it to better fit, or we can look for contests that better suit our writing strengths. A third option is to wing it and hope for a lucky outcome!


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