Ian McMillan: Literary competitions won’t make you rich, but they might just make you a writer

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan

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Lots of people ask me how they should get into writing, and apart from the obvious answer, which is “buy a notebook and start writing in it”, I reckon that one thing new writers could do is have a go at entering writing competitions, but always with the proviso that you’re not going to win.

Let me explain: the chances of your poem or story winning a competition are pretty slim and if it’s prize money you’re after you should buy a lottery ticket, but the one thing that entering the competition makes you do is, it forces you to write something.

They make you say things in 40 lines or fifteen hundred words and it doesn’t matter if your forty-first line was going to be a cracker, it simply has to be screwed up and flown to the bin like a paper glider

All competitions have deadlines, which is good; if you don’t write the poem or the story by the appointed time then you can’t enter, and it’s as simple as that. So make sure you write your entry in plenty of time. Most competitions have restrictions in length, too: for example many poetry competitions often state that the entry can’t be longer than 40 lines. Restrictions are good: they concentrate the mind wonderfully. They make you say things in 40 lines or fifteen hundred words and it doesn’t matter if your forty-first line was going to be a cracker, it simply has to be screwed up and flown to the bin like a paper glider.

Competitions have judges and these judges are human beings with ideas and opinions and, if they’re writers themselves (and they normally are) they will have personal styles of writing; I’ve judged loads myself and I’ve entered loads and I think it’s always good to have a look at who the judges are, and then pretend they’ve commissioned you to write something that has a vague echo of their style. I’m not condoning plagiarism here but I think it’s good to research the work of the judge or judges and try to write something that has vague rippling echoes of a mash-up of their styles. They will recognise something of themselves in the work, I’m sure. I know I’ve done that myself, as a judge.

And let’s face it: after a while the judge will be jaded. The judge will have read hundreds of poems or stories and with the best will in the world they can’t give poem number 564 the same attention that they gave poem number 31, no matter how hard they try and the position of your entry in the pile will be out of your hands so my advice to you is: excite the jaded judge! By this I don’t mean you should Sellotape flowers to the writing or decorate the margins with crayon drawings; these will simply make the judge sigh and tut. Try a snappy title that will jerk them out of their torpor and will make their (metaphorical) hat flip up and down on their head.

Have a go, even if you’ve not written anything before. There are many, many writing competitions advertised online. Just bear in mind that it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the making art.

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