Writing Contest? Duh, WINNING!

Most of you may not know this, but writing can translate into a few pecuniary benefits. Sometimes even monetary. You really don’t have to do it for free. But outside of cashing in on wordspew, the next best thing you can wing is winning. Contests, limerick slams, plein air poetry airing, whatever. People compete with this business, breaking out the arsenal and making communication a written race-to-the-top.

But does the best writing always win? Nope.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

There’s a writing contest I want to enter. 250-word minimum, and I really want to win! HELP!

—Daphne Green, Fairmont, W.Va.

Didn’t we just get over this contest thing?

That’s not a question.

In a perfect world, I could say, “Write your best,” and that would do it. Cartographic psychoholic thriller? Should be a surefire winner. Borgesian short story with a metaphoric denouement? Hand over that store-bought trophy. A perfect world. Not happening on today’s planet.

No, the contest is rigged with more wires, catches, and detonations than a maniacal professor’s Bomb Diffusement 405 final project. It’s a trapdoor that trips under the weight of greatness. If you write well, then you’re cheating. Contests are meant to reward the mediocre, not herald anything worth reading or writing. So how do you win without coming at it like a natural dunce with a swell of dumb luck?

Know the contest.

Not just rules. They publish rules. Know the people, know who’s judging, know the contest creators. If this is Highlights for Toddlers you’re writing to, keep the meth-strung, zoo-liberating, black-caped unicorn out of the narrative. The Student Siren? Nothing profound. Won’t wake most from a booze-soaked stupor. Go for the flashbang in the wrought-iron pan.

Know the judges.

Make them smile or cry. They’ve got to smile or cry. That’s the sad part about appeasing these flighty judges. The best writing should be a combination of scalpel and machete, writing so good it cuts into your innards and works surgical voodoo. Writing so good it makes a clean chop through brush, crop, and limb. A “whoa, that’s one heck of a blade omigod where’s my arm?” kind of strike. In a perfect world, I want to be maimed by deft writing, wounded. Or I want that scalpel cutting new pathways into my cerebrum, leaving me more room to think when I’m no longer under the literary ether. Judges? No. Make them think too hard and that five-pack of two-dollar blue ribbon goes elsewhere. To the cheeky entry that got an “Oh, that’s cute, I like this” or an “Oh wow, that’s so special I wanted to cry” out of them.

Know thyself.

Every subjective contest (writing, cooking, ice dancing, interpretive sleepwalking, etc.) ends up being a popularity contest. It just makes sense to continue awarding those whom most people like. If you’re the popular kid in class, then just submit something without any glaring errors, and you’ve got yourself a winner. The key to winning is winning the hearts, minds, and fickle affections of your peers, judges, and by proxy, the contest arbiters.

If your worthy writing entry falls ever short to those of Suzie Perfect and Eric Awesome, let it slide. Popularity is fleeting. Art is forever. Winning everything isn’t the only thing.

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com), followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong), and voted in Women’s Digest’s annual “Write Me A Man Made Like How You Like Your Coffee” contest.


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