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.