I received an email this week from a writer who had entered a contest conducted by my MFA’s alumni association. The Emerging Writers Getaway Contest was a little different from most writing contests in several respects, and the email writer thanked us for our efforts to communicate with all entrants, at every step of the way.
Since this was our first contest, and since there are hundreds of other, established events out there, we knew we had to find room for improvement so writers would enter. As a fledgling organization, though, we didn’t even have a cash stake to offer as a prize. Fortunately, our President, Kobbie Alamo (an excellent writer too, by the way), had a cabin in the Smoky Mountains she would offer for a week as first prize. We added some smaller cash awards, figuring the entries would cover them. And we were able to cajole Pulitzer Prize winning author Bill Dietrich to be final judge, and agent Andrea Hurst to look over the top three manuscripts.
But as writers ourselves, the contest committee members wanted more. We’d all entered contests ourselves, and experienced the same contest process, which goes something like this:
- Read boilerplate contest copy: The <name> contest for <genre> offers <money> and publication in <journal>. Judged by <judge>. Fee is <fee>. Optional: get subscription to <journal> with entry.
- Pay fee, get thank you email
- Hear nothing for 3-6 months
- Receive email saying you didn’t win, or receive no notification at all*
- Optional: receive copy of journal, but not always, even if they promised.
Essentially, it turns writing contests into a kind of literary lottery—you pay money, hear nothing and get nothing. We thought we could improve that process, and thanks to the technology behind Submittable, we did. Here’s our contest process:
- Announce contest. Our web page included photos of the cabin along with detailed rules.
- Pay fee, get thank you email that includes info on the rest of the judging process
- When semifinalists are chosen, get personalized email notifying semifinalists AND all others describing the process completed and the one to come
- Same process when finalists are chosen
- Ten finalists receive two detailed critiques each, prepared by judging panelists
- All finalists receive Final Judge Bill Dietrich’s comments, explaining his selections of the three winners.
Our first contest was a success, both in terms of entries and money for association programs, including my personal favorite, scholarships. Just as successful, in my opinion, were the responses as expressed in that email and several others we received during the contest. People—writers especially—love communication. They appreciate knowing what’s going on with their work and their money. They like knowing how their fees will be used.
I understand the thinking behind the lack of communication in contests (or the submission process): it’s a lot of work; we don’t have the time to do more; if we communicate too much info we will be inundated with responses from crazed, frustrated writers who will try to engage us in tedious email conversations. It’s not worth the trouble.
But I don’t fully appreciate that approach. Here’s what my committee members and I believe: Treat writers with respect, make the process as transparent as possible, and they will understand it, and the chance of unpleasant incidents goes way down. Although our next contest is months away, we are already at work trying to improve that process further.
* I was actually named a finalist in one contest in 2011, and they still didn’t bother to notify me. Guess who’ll never enter that one again.