Battle of Words: Do Contests Make Better Writers?

When I was younger, I was one of the most competitive dorks around. In fact, my love of literature was a by-product of simply wanting to win a reading program called Accelerated Reader. The idea was the more I read (and the more advanced books I read), the more points I earned. I finished as AR champ of my elementary school. (I was subsequently teased for this throughout middle school).

That same competitive drive led me to win a few essay-writing contests as a young student as well. Both earned me word nerd bragging rights, but one earned me a little money as well. Then, as a high schooler, I wrote my way to funding my entire college education through scholarships that required an essay. So did competition make me a better writer in the long run?

Simply put, contests led me to read and write across broader topics and in greater depth.

For me, the prospect of being named the best was a huge motivator. At the same time, I wasn’t motivated by the prospect of winning with absolutely everything I did. For instance, as a member of the top choir group in my high school, I was required to compete in certain singing contests every year. I hated this. I didn’t mind competing as a group, but I hated doing it as a soloist.

I was good; I was trained by a professional opera singer, and I had a solid voice that could easily stand on its own. But still, I hated being subjected to contests, even if I was only judged independently.

I sang because it was fun and made me feel good, and turning it into something to be judged made it less enjoyable work for me. I didn’t have aspirations of attending music school or winning American Idol; I just wanted to be able to belt it in the shower.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these two experiences because, like singing, I get a lot of inherent enjoyment from writing. I’m not the only one with this sense of tension.

One of my writers recently vented some frustration about these contests. He was irritated that it seemed that he had to have some short story publications (isn’t that really just a contest?) under his belt before literary agents would consider representing his novel. Since the two forms are drastically different, he found it absurd that the former credential was linked to the latter potential.

So it is: when I read through the slush pile as a lowly editorial intern, I was trained to look for credentials accompanying author submission cover letters. And those who had been published before were considered more seriously.

Unfortunately, I think this reveals a typical human tendency: the domino effect of credentials. The first to buy into an idea is the critical tipping point, and each successive validation makes the next all the more likely.

But that doesn’t make it good writing.

Just because a piece is published or praised doesn’t mean it’s actually worth its salt; it just means someone bought in. Many times it means they bought in purely because they knew others would too (i.e. the market potential of writing).

Likewise, just because a piece of writing is rejected doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it’s not the right fit. Or won’t sell. Or comes at the wrong time. Or the acquisitions editor was having a shitty day. None of those factors have anything to do with the actual quality of the writing, and yet they often determine how many pairs of eyes ever read it.

Thus, with the exception of purely peer-reviewed contests, I generally think the main purpose of writing competitions is merely that of discipline for the all too often unstructured writing life. Writers should look for contests that stretch their skills in form, topic, deadline.

(And why the hell have I never come across an editing competition?! I’ve taken editing tests, and I think they’re fun – someone should put up some prize money for that!)

Bottom line: If you win a contest or publication, put the accolade in your encouragement folder and the money in your dwindling bank account, then sit down and write something better.

If you’re feeling particularly ballsy, hop into the fray that is the 80th annual Writer’s Digest contest. The deadline is June 1 and the top prize is $3,000 and a trip to their conference in NYC (read: one-on-one time with editors and agents).