Sigh…it does no good to write a blog post if you forget to post it. Here’s my “Monday contest advice” one day late:
Having judged not only poetry but some prose contests, I have a primary piece of advice for those entering writing contests:
Read and follow the guidelines!
It doesn’t matter how good your entry is; if you violate the guidelines, you’ll be disqualified from most contests. (I say “most” because I don’t know absolutely that every contest is strict; let’s just say the ones that matter are.)
I’ve run into this problem screening poems in the Writer’s Digest poetry competitions. Entrants simply don’t read the rules, much less take pains to follow them. It astounds me. The entry fees aren’t cheap, so why virtually flush them down the tube by entering something that will never even be considered in the contest?
The most common violation I come across when screening Writer’s Digest entries is a poem exceeding the line limit, which in this contest is 32 lines. I don’t have specific figures, but it seemed as if one out of every five poems was over 32 lines, and that may be conservative. In some cases I suspected poets tried to game the length limit by squeezing lines together, which of course is nonsense, especially in the rhyming category. Entering a screwy, awkward form just to make the poem come in under 32 lines results in getting tossed anyhow because it creates a bloated-looking, ugly poem, usually with mile-long lines. (I have to admit the poets attempting this trick usually aren’t very good anyhow.)
If a contest stipulates a limit of X number of lines, that means lines of poetry, not counting the title or spaces between stanzas. It’s important to pay attention to what seems a miniscule detail. It breaks my heart to have to disqualify potential prizewinners because the entrant was careless, especially if the poem was over by just a line or two. (And, no, a judge shouldn’t fudge it if a poem is really good otherwise. Other entrants followed the guidelines, honing their poems down to the proper length and possibly trimming them of lines they would have liked to have kept—if they’d known ahead of time the judge would arbitrarily allow some leeway.)
There are even poets who enter entire chapbook manuscripts in contests for single poems of limited length. I don’t get it; unless, besides being dense about rules, the poets think they’ll get some kind of attention for their chapbook. I wouldn’t pin my hopes on someone bothering to read such an entry, much less thinking, “Hey, this is good. I’m going to pass this on to a publisher.”
Length isn’t the only rule writers violate (I keep referring to poets and poetry because I have the most experience with poetry; however, these transgressions happen with all kinds of writing). Manuscript preparation is a prime example. Most contests are quite specific about how they want entries prepared, whether entries are short stories, poetry chapbooks, or entire books. Some of the standard criteria include: white paper only for hard copy submissions; no fancy fonts (for example, using a script font for your poem may please you aesthetically, but most contests wouldn’t appreciate it); no bound or stapled entries unless the contest calls for them; acceptable document formats for electronic entries (if a contest says it accepts only .doc or .rtf files, don’t submit a PDF). Contests may stipulate no names on the actual entries, requiring a cover sheet or an index card with the required information.
Contests may also state that previously published writing is not accepted. Whether something is considered “previously published” is a controversial topic, and I’ll cover this in another blog post. However, to be safe, if the contest doesn’t accept previously published work and, say, your poem appeared in a blog or in any print form for public consumption, consider it previously published to be safe.
I’d think maybe the Writer’s Digest contest simply attracts more inexperienced writers because it’s so widely promoted, but writers who should know better sometimes violate the rules as well. At a conference of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) several years ago, I heard a presentation by the contest coordinator in which she gave statistics about number entries, entries by states, and so forth. She noted that a surprising number of entries throughout the contest had to be disqualified because poets hadn’t followed the guidelines.
Every time you check out a writing contest, after you look over the prizes—everyone’s first concern—read through the guidelines as well, simply to train yourself. Naturally, as you prepare your entry, read the guidelines again, and even check a requirement off when you know your entry meets it. Don’t trash your entry before it’s had a chance to compete.