Writing competitions: the good, the bad and the ugly

The best way for many aspiring authors to get the attention of publishing houses and literary agents is to win competitions. First, second or third place in a prestigious competition goes some way to proving a writer’s calibre. The problem is that some competitions are more prestigious than others, and some are downright dodgy. The last thing a struggling writer needs it to be taken for a ride.

Fortunately there are ways to tell if a competition is on the up-and-up. According to Writer Beware, which is part of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Committee on Writing Scams, an important thing to watch out for is a “catch”. For instance, prizes could include literary agency representation, but winners have to pay for secondary (vital) services, like editing. Some publishers also operate below the ethical radar with prizes that include book contracts, also with miscellaneous fees, like publicity campaigns.

Contest mills and awards mills charge high entry fees but advertise lucrative cash prizes. The catch is in the small print which could stipulate that prize money is contingent on the number of entries.

Then there are vanity competitions, those that practically guarantee publication, provided entrants buy said publication, which is seldom marketed beyond the circle of contributing writers. Fees can be high but the writer’s joy of seeing his or her name in print is short-lived as no publishers or agents take the books seriously.


A few more things to look out for include:

  • Outrageous entry fees. As a rule of thumb, if it’s over $50 it’s too much. But consider who is running the competition. If it’s a well-known and incredibly respected organisation then the fee might just be worth it.
  • No entry fees. This is tricky because some reputable competitions don’t charge entry fees. Your clue lies on the small print. Will you have to pay editing costs, will you be bound to purchase the publication, will you have to pay an agency fee, and will you have to pay publicity costs?
    Always, but always read the terms and conditions.
  • Clearly stated guidelines. If anything is vague or obscure and there are no contact details to help you get clarity the chances are good that the competition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
  • How many people are on the judging panel and what are their credentials? Small judging panels don’t necessarily equal dodgy competitions but bigger panels are generally better. The judges should also have clear literary backgrounds.
  • How niche is the competition? Does it include everything under the sun, e.g. poetry, non-fiction, screenplays, scripts, fiction, short stories, essays, etc? Generally, competitions focus on only one category, a wide spectrum combined with hefty entry fees could indicate that the competition is for profit rather than anything else.
  • Will you be getting feedback? Reputable competitions tend to include some critique of your work and you don’t have to pay extra for it.
  • Will you be signing away your copy rights? It’s never a good sign if the competition requires that you give them exclusive rights to your work.

There may be many bad apples in the various barrels of writing competitions, but there are plenty of good ones too.

Prestigious writing competitions include:

  • The William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition is for previously unpublished work, which will appeal to aspiring authors. There are seven categories: novel, novella, novel-in-progress, short story, essay, poetry and short story by a high school student.
  • The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is for unpublished manuscripts by authors younger than 35 years old. The competition has launched the careers of some of Australia’s most prominent and successful authors. Only Australian residents are eligible.
  • The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is presented by the Commonwealth Foundation and Macquarie Group Foundation. It’s awarded to new (Best First Book) and established (Best Book) writers within the Commonwealth countries.
  • The International Essay Competition is open for anyone between the ages of 18 and 25. There are two categories: essay and video, only one entry per category is allowed. Entries are only facilitated online.
  • The South African Writers’ College Annual Short Story Award is for unpublished South African writers only.
  • The Maskew Miller Longman Literature Awards presents awards to South African writers across the 11 official languages. Judges include South African writers who are award winners themselves.
  • L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest is for new writers in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. There are quarterly prizes as well as an annual grand prize.
  • The European Prize for Literature. The competition is funded by the Culture Programme of the European Union, which aims to promote cross-cultural interest in European literature. Qualified juries from participating countries are responsible for selecting a winning author from each of the 12 participating countries. To qualify writers must already have between two and four books published within the five years immediately preceding the year of nomination.
  • The Franz Kafka Prize is an annual competition hosted by the Franz Kafka Society and the city of Prague. A jury made up of literary science history luminaries nominates candidates. It’s primarily for Czech writers, although international writers that have had books translated into Czech are also considered.
  • The Hans Christian Andersen Award is given to authors and illustrators who have made significant contributions to children’s literature. It’s awarded by the International Board on Books for Young People.
  • The Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement honour horror writers. It’s presented by the Horror Writer’s Association. Books are not chosen by a jury, instead books are recommended for consideration by the association’s members. Categories include: novel, first novel, short fiction, fiction collection, poetry collection, anthology and non-fiction.
  • The Orwell Prize for political writing. Books can be entered by authors themselves or by publishers, editors, agents, journalists and bloggers.
  • The National Book Award is presented by the National Book Foundation in the USA. A panel of 25 judges considers the nominations, which must be put forward by publishers – not authors. It’s available for US residents only.
  • The Carnegie Medal is for children’s authors and is presented by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals.

Many local magazines, newspapers, radio stations and TV channels run their own writing competitions. Keep an eye out for advertisements or subscribe to relevant websites to keep up to date on competition information.


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