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Contesting Contests

One approach to resume-building for writers is writing contests. On the surface of it, entering contests sounds like a way to elbow your way to the top of your genre. It often is, but you have to be careful in what you enter. I recently received the results of a fiction contest I entered, and I'll use it as a case in point.

But first let me say I don't intend this as a rant against either MFA programs and graduates, nor against contests - I've won a couple myself. And I've come to understand that, even in those I've won, the laurels are more a shakeout of vagaries than a careful assessment of talent. Which is not to say that you don't have to have good writing skills and a compelling story to win contests - you do.


So with these caveats out of the way, let me get down to it: 

This contest had 98 entrants - an unusually large number and, paradoxically, large numbers of entrants can be a playing field-leveler. Not so in this case.

The winner, runner up, and the next couple of those mentioned in the top ten considered were MFA grads or creative writing instructors in college. Now, I've said enough about my problems with MFA programs, but they do teach the basics. However, they tend to homogenize talent in ways that don't lead to literary innovation. In general, then, writing spun out of academic settings seems to be a genre in itself - heavy on technique, which tends to minimize the  - and I hate to use this word - metaphysical, or deeper aspect of story that makes for literature.

As well, the judge was an academic. This loads the contest sharply toward MFA grads and writers who lurk in academia. And so it is with most other contests.

So my advice to those considering entering contests: look at who will be judging. Then look into this writer's (or educator's) background, what they write, what they teach. If you find a contest that's being judged by someone whose background and/or writing sensibilities are compatible with yours, then enter.  

There's a built-in bias in contests that's not based on the entrants' names or backgrounds, but in their style of writing. It's not worth it to bemoan the fact of such biases. Instead, take advantage of it where you can. Winning contests, despite their warts, are considered credentials of great esteem, and agents and editors do notice who wins them.