Contest Caveats: Tips to Keep You From Tilting at Windmills

As February marches inexorably toward the lions and lambs of March, we approach that time of year in which our honest and earnest Año Nuevo resolutions hit a wall and one of two things happens: we abandon our best intentions or, less often, we somehow find the strength to buckle down and redouble our efforts at self-improvement. If you happen to be just such a redoubler and you find yourself committed to finding homes for the fruits of your long season of cabin fever, contests loom large as lucrative submitting options for writers. And why not? If there’s a chance at monetary reward in addition to seeing one’s words in print, so much the better, no?

Well, perhaps. Like the proverbial low-hanging fruit, temptation in the form of cash, prizes, free copies, and/or the burdens of sudden writerly fame can be hard to resist—particularly for those of us who are still working steadily, feverishly, or even frantically toward a wider degree of success on the printed page. Fortunately, we live and work in the age of the Internet, a tremendous resource for bringing writers and readers together. Unfortunately, we live and work in the age of the Internet, a tremendous resource for bringing writers to the electronic doorstep of the odd duplicitous scam.

As a matter of course, I routinely tell my students to beware of Internet resources because it’s as true today as it was when I began using the Internet for research in the 1990s: any idiot with a modem and a monitor can hook up a keyboard and publish anything they want. They often do. Similarly, any idiot’s conniving cousin can post a call for submissions. How does the emerging writer sift through the chaff to get to the wheat? After all, there’s quite a bit to sift through these days. A quick Google search turns up 48 million pages that mention “writing contests” and that number oddly triples when the search is for “writing contest” (singular). A quick glance at Newpages.com’s contest link shows upwards of 30-50 contests per month over the coming year. Poets & Writers magazine shows a bit more restraint in listing only 112 contests on its website. The myriad options and offerings makes for a veritable minefield of decisions for those of us working to find new audiences for our craft. How to choose?

It’s good to have a strategy. At the forefront of that strategy should be a firm commitment to being smart. Do your homework. Inform yourself with a healthy dose of research into reputable and reliable sources of contest listings. Newpages.com and Poets & Writers are safe bets as is a site’s implementation of Submittable.com for taking your submissions. Additionally, word of mouth is a resource one should depend on from his or her writing peers on social media (yes, you should be engaged in social media and no, you can’t live and write in a vacuum and still expect to be successful). Ask former classmates, professors, and competitors for their input on sources of good information. (As an aside, I’d honestly be shocked if any of them ever led you astray; all the writing communities I’ve encountered are competitors, sure, but at the end of the day we’re all in this together and success can sometimes be contagious. Try it!)

Finally, don’t be afraid to be a skeptic. To help you with this, I’ve gotten permission from an experienced writer here in my own community to use what he calls “The Fisher Scale” (available here). Jim Fisher is a former FBI agent and professor of criminal investigation and forensic science at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He is also the author of eight books, including Crimson Stain, a true crime account of the only Amish man ever convicted of murder, as well as two books on the craft of writing: The Writer’s Quotebook: 500 Authors on Creativity, Craft, and the Writing Life and Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of the Literary Agent from Hell. Fisher created “The Fisher Scale” after compiling horror stories from writers regarding their experiences with unscrupulous agents and scam artists. It is primarily a quick and dirty assessment tool to help you ferret out potentially bad agents, but the questions can be adapted easily to cover some of the main premises of contest scams. In a series of 8 questions, The Fisher Scale assigns point values to red flag warning signs. Anything over 8 points, Jim Fisher says, is something to avoid.

With the proliferation of Internet sites for everything from one-off poetry contests (such as the one I organized last summer) to extremely prestigious poetry prizes that will garner you publication, big cash, and maybe even a residency somewhere, the possibilities for budding poets and writers have never been so overwhelming. Factor in for-profit sites that run pseudo-contests as a way of luring in less-talented, less-sophisticated, and less-informed writers LIKE SOME OF MY OWN HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS THAT I TEACH AND LOVE LIKE MY OWN KIDS, the Internet’s benefits almost get smothered by its pitfalls. Almost. I firmly believe that a little knowledge goes a long way and common sense is paramount to avoiding those pitfalls.

As writers, our time is as precious as anyone’s, and as purveyors/promoters of our own products it is our responsibility to maximize our rewards while minimizing our risks. Otherwise we’re just tilting fruitlessly at windmills of our own deception. Shooting for the Drew Sterrett Poetry Prize? Awesome! Good choice. I’m guessing you’ve done your homework. But if you find yourself filling out envelopes and writing checks for entry fees to “Barney’s UltraMegaBigtime Poetry Bash” or “The Xanadu Review Poetry Prize for Outstanding Tanka” or somesuch because you spent twenty minutes rolling through the first three pages of a Google search for “poem contest”… shame on you. You deserve to get snookered. As with anything, if it’s easy, it probably isn’t good. Remember, caveat emptor isn’t just for shopping—not when you’re a writer shopping your work. Be careful out there!

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