Writing Competitions: What’s the point?

I was asked to adjudicate the Edinburgh Writers Club’s short story competition, and I said ‘yes’.

The task was simple: read all the stories, provide feedback for each one, and choose a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd winner. I spent several weekends reading the stories, and I truly enjoyed the experience. They were well written pieces, with clean and vibrant language, that ranged across the genres. Judging these stories was not just a delight but also difficult. In fact, I had several stories in mind for honourable mentions, but I had to limit my choices.

Then came the truly difficult task, I had to say ‘a few words’ at the prize ceremony, with a suggested topic of ‘the writing process’. I wrote notes, scratched them out, wrote some different notes, threw those pages out. What do I tell a group of people about writing, when they’re already dedicated to their craft?

Although, one criticism I did find in several of their stories was the ‘big story in a little space’ problem. I’ve seen this issue in the work of so many students over the years, and I am guilty if it myself. A ‘big story in a little space’ is when an author tries to put the plot, back story, twists and turns of a novel into a short story. Yes, short stories can be complicated, but multiple plot-lines is problematic. Compare it to the difference between a film and a television series. Part of the problem with a ‘big story in a little space’ is that parts of the story can read more like an outline than a story. In fact, often, the short story is there–in tact and well written–and the last few pages are an expository. When this is the case, there are two options: cut the outline or consider turning the piece into a novella or novel.

Last Monday at the prize ceremony, I worked this issue into my little talk. I said the problem with competitions is that you’re forced to write to a word limit that may not be best for your story. For example, you need to adhere to a 2000 word limit but your story is naturally 3500 words (after cutting unnecessary words and limiting unneeded sentences). It’s that old ‘how long is a piece of string?’ conundrum.

I then went on to state that an author should spend quite a lot of time working on their pieces. Put it in a drawer for months, even years, before giving it another pass. I argued that the key to writing was patience, time, and finding the right home for your story, rather than trying to force your story to fit the competition.

Then one very astute member asked, ‘If that’s the case, should we even bother entering competitions?’ And, she had a good point.

I had to back peddle with my answer. ‘Yes, you should write for and enter competitions,’ I said. I then explained that competitions encourage writing, and that’s never bad. Enter the competitions but, if you don’t win, don’t forget about the story. Pull it out of the drawer from time to time. Work on the piece, redraft, and edit. Then, once you feel that the story at it’s best, wait some more. Eventually a competition will come along with criteria that fits your story, and, I guarantee, you will have an excellent chance of winning.

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