Sunday 4 October 2009

Writing Competitions - Do You Dare?

I’ve thought long and hard about posting this. I’m not keen on ruffling feathers, but I’ve put this by several people who feel as I do so here goes.

Generally speaking writers are a supportive bunch.

But occasionally writers can be a writer’s worst enemy.

How so?

Well I’ve been doing a bit of lurking again and there’s a lot of knocking of people goes on through the medium of the internet. No one is immune.

Successful, popular novelists are tongue (or keyboard) lashed for not being literary. Literary writers are sneered at for not being popular. I have no problem with that. We are all entitled to our points of view.

When I am looking at books on Amazon for example I value the opinions of other readers, good and bad.

Unless I can say something good, I tend to keep my opinions to myself, but I’m going to stick my neck out today about something that really bothers me.

Of course successful, published writers want their work to be enjoyed and I reckon even people like J K Rowling feel it when people slag their writing off – but they can look at what they’ve done and know that it doesn’t matter that some people don’t like their books, but hey that’s life. They don’t have to prove anything – they are successful.

Now I know very well that a forum is a place for open discussion and message boards are for messages, but all too often people are driven or excluded from such places because their opinions don’t fit in with the current ruling clique. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What concerns me is the criticism of competition winners.

I’ve only been in for a couple of writing competitions – one was to write a novel, the other was the Bridport (yes I know, I had delusions of talent!) and I know how scary it is to send in an entry.

For a good many people it requires a lot of courage to submit work. I know a number of very good writers who simply will not send anything off. You know who you are and if you’re reading this, I really wish you’d do it.

But let’s get back to our competition entrant.

Here you have someone who loves to write. They enter competitions with a shred of hope and the expectation of disappointment, or maybe they are supremely confident who knows, but for the sake of argument let’s assume this is someone who lacks confidence and is wary about entering their work.

They read books and magazines about writing and visit several of the many forums and discussion boards online where others can be so encouraging and supportive – which generally speaking they are.

They work hard on a story, polish it to a gleaming shine, sweat blood over it and hesitate before posting it off only to hear it land at the bottom of the post box just as they think of something that would have made that opening line so much better.

They go home, gnaw their fingernails to bloody stumps, hit the bottle and . . . oh sorry I’m exaggerating here.

But here’s something that could happen. They win.

The judges have seen something in the work that appeals.

Our writer is over the moon, they start to believe in themselves and then . . . up pops a message somewhere saying the judges were wrong. How could they choose something that had spelling errors or a clumsy paragraph or didn’t have a very satisfactory ending?

Others join in, maybe just one or two but they end up swarming round the winning story like flies round a corpse. To me this is a form of cyber bullying. They pick holes and find fault and our winning writer trips over these comments and a budding talent is squashed.

Sometimes they name the person they think has won unfairly. The owner of one winning name in particular must have savagely burning ears.

And now I’m not exaggerating. I know we have to develop thick skins as writers, but truthfully speaking mine is still pretty thin and if I was new to all this and saw my first published piece being torn to shreds I may well give up or at least put writing aside for a few years.

Some people will shrug off this kind of criticism as sour grapes, but some won’t and that is what worries me. I know that if you offer your work for public consumption then you have to be prepared for feedback, but if it must be done then shouldn’t it be constructive particularly in the case of people in the infancy of their craft?

Rather than being mean spirited and critical of competition winners, why can’t they look for the positives that made the story a winner in the first place?

The kind of criticism I’ve been reading doesn’t really reflect on the competition winner and it may bring the critics a small glimmer of satisfaction that their forum friends have jumped on their bandwagon, but looking at it as an observer the only ones who look bad are the ones doing the complaining.

And the only one being hurt is the competition winner.

So if you are a competition winner or a runner up or you’ve had your first story published in an anthology or a magazine and someone out here in the ether has made some spiteful comment, then please ignore it.

Your work has touched the people that matter.

That’s what counts.

So do you dare enter writing competitions? Yes you do – go for it and if you win then good for you, hold your head up high, be proud of yourself and keep writing.


  1. Hi, Teresa, I know what you mean. There seems to be an element of 'writers' out there who revel in tearing other writer's work apart.

    I don't know why they feel they need to do it to winning stories and their authors - what are they hoping to gain? Is it jealousy and 'sour grapes' as you put it? Are they so annoyed that the judges failed to see the excellent quality of their work that they are compelled to take the fact that they didn't win out on the winner?!

    I have entered competitions but never got anywhere. I just read the winning stories, learn from them, shrug and move on. Having now judged two local short story writing comps I have seen it from the otherside of the coin and know how hard it is to select a winner. Whatever decision you make, it's not going to popular for everyone.

    I think people who carp about not winning the writing comps and who snipe at the winning stories should stop their negative and destructive behaviour and would do better to be positive and channel their energy into improving the quality of their writing. This will give them a much better chance of winning next time than whinging and whining about losing!

    It says a lot more about the whinger than the winner!

    For me, it's the writing process that's important and not the winning. As long as you enjoy writing it will show in your work.If you don't win, no matter, just get back to the writing and enjoy it!

    That's what I think, anyway!

    Julie xx

  2. You just have to read comments on the online Daily Mail pages to see what a nasty horrid demographic of people are out there; the ones that have success envy eating away at their very core. It sickens me to see how people, and yes I agree they are cyber bullies, who hide behind a keyboard and screen and let their vitriol out. These people would run a mile if they were confronted face to face because all bullies are cowards. But being part of a community of aspiring writers is a great thing overall as so many are supportive, happy to see a fellow writer achieve success and perhaps suffer at worst a longing to be published too and wistful that they ‘haven’t made it just yet’.

    This is a great post and a great reminder to keep going when belief in your wiring talent falters. No wonder you achieve such good success with your short stories Teresa, you write so very well and with honesty and compassion.

    Oh and I laughed my head off about you saying you’d hope I’d beat Mrs fullofherself around the head with my book when it got published! Himself and I had a good old chuckle just picturing it!

  3. A very thought provoking post, Teresa. You're right, the behaviour you describe is cyber bullying. It must be soul destroying to be on the receiving end of such a campaign.

    Thankfully, this type of behaviour is only evident in a minority of web users. I've found the majority of writers in cyberspace to be lovely and quick to offer support and advice.


  4. Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves. - Brendan Behan

    But even better;

    Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain and most fools do. - Benjamin Franklin

  5. And I agree with MOB, there is a element of our society that finds success in others a terrible thing.

  6. Julie – that’s an interesting question “What are they hoping to gain?” The way some of these comments are worded I think they’re hoping the judges/organisers will read them and have second thoughts about their choice of winner and choose them instead!!
    I’ve never judged a writing comp but I know quite a few people that have and they say the same as you, Julie – it isn’t easy.

    MOB – I know exactly what you mean about the comments on the DM site.
    I should have said in my rant that while lurking I saw a lot of very supportive, very helpful and generous writers out there who wouldn’t dream of putting anyone down. And I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind comments – you made my day. Keep picturing yourself with that book in your hand.

    Yes Suzanne – the majority are lovely. I think as in life the noisy minority are often the ones who are listened to. I picture them huddled in a dark corner whispering amongst themselves wondering who to pick on next.

    I love those quotes Mavvi.

  7. I've never understood why people feel the need to be destructively critical of other people's writing. I tend to stick to private forums and on-line groups where I know I'll get constructive criticism and support.

  8. I don't really understand why they are like that either, Helen.

  9. I'm with you, Teresa, if I can't be nice then I don't say anything but even in an imperfect piece of writing (and who amongst us can produce that every time anyway?) there will be something to praise. A little constructive criticism can help but it must be delivered in a supportive context before the receiver can trust it. Confidence is such a delicate, subjective thing that I'd never consciously do anything to damage it.

    Besides, if something won a competition and I couldn't understand why, I'd be more inclined to think it was me being stupid rather than the judges!

  10. Beautifully put, Tam - thank you.

  11. Wow what an interesting post. I never understand why certain people seem to take pleasure in hurting others feelings. it doesn't make their efforts and less of a success. I hope people who have won these competitions are proud of themselves and don’t listen to the sour grapes brigade.
    Kate x