Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Writer Worms Have Turned

Today's blog post is brought to you in collaboration with Guy Le Jeune. It is essential reading for all writing competition organisers. Writers are invited to add their own amendments to the manifesto via the comments box below. Too long have writers suffered under the tyranny of unclear, confusing or inadequate competition rules. We have lost too many brain cells banging our heads on our desks trying to fathom where to put our names on our entries, too many nights' sleep wondering if we should have sent that attachment in docx format.

Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you:


We are writers: entrants into many competitions, winners of too few (runner-up is nice and all that, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s the winning that matters. Oh, okay, and the writing. But mostly the winning).

We are also neurotic. It’s part of the job spec. That’s why we are writing in the pluralis
modestiae. (We had to look that up on Wiki: modesty is the sister of our particular neurosis)

We spend hours and days sitting in front of glowing screens or scribbling on scraps of paper, crafting, shaping, honing. Our stories are our babies, we love them (even the ugly ones, though sometimes they have to sit on the naughty step).

So, there we are, neurotic parents of babies that only a parent could love, and what do we do? We send those babies out into the world to be judged. 

Give us a set of rules and we will agonise over every single, insignificant detail, worried that one misstep will send our beloved creation straight into the recycling bin, unread. Entry deadlines, shortlist dates and prize money pots are scribbled on sticky notes. Fridges, notice boards and laptop screens are covered in the yellow slips of potentiality and hopeful dreams. We study eligibility criteria and submission guidelines. We lick stamps, reformat entire manuscripts and pluck sentences of outstanding beauty and genius out of finished pieces, just to fit the word-limits. We trudge to the Post Office with our brown envelopes stuffed and sealed, or hit the 'submit' button on the keyboard five minutes before the deadline, our eyes swimming with word counts, font mandates, file type restrictions.

But, fellow writers, stop and think. Where would these competitions be without us and our
stories? Where would they get their entry fees, their publicity, their sponsorship? That’s right, without us, they are nothing! And it’s about time they listened to OUR rules.

And so we present to you: The Writers’ Manifesto for Consistency and Clarity in Competition Guidelines. Each and every writing competition should adhere to these guidelines or WE WON’T SUBMIT (that’ll show ‘em).

The Writing Competition Entrants’ Manifesto

1. Word Count. Pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. Different software counts words in
different ways – and some programmes count things as words that clearly aren’t (an asterisk is not a word, Word. Asterix was a Gaul, but that’s another story). Tell us which software is your gold
standard for word-count. And tell us if the title is included (here’s a hint: it isn’t).

2. Deadline. Now we can submit electronically, a date is not enough. We need a time as well. Midnight is always a good choice.

3. Filename. Just make it the title of the story. It’s how we’ve saved it anyway, but tell us too whether we need to add or omit our name. And as far as unique identifiers go, there isn’t a literary
award in the world that requires 16bit encryption so keep it short.

4. Format. Doc, docx, pdf, rtf, blt, whatever. Just be specific. Pick one and stick with it. And if you are going to upload any of the entries anonymously, please ensure that you check the properties tab to make sure that any inquisitive right-clickers can’t see our name, address, email and telephone number.

5. Cover sheets: if you must insist on us having a cover sheet, does it go in the story document or is it a separate attachment? No, seriously, we can lose a good half-hour worrying about things like this. If you want it in the one document and you want the pages numbered, do we really have to wrestle with trying to take the number off the cover sheet and get the numbers to start at number 1 on the second page when computer says no? *contemplates applying Tippex to computer screen because that would totally solve the problem*

6. Exactly where can we put our names? Polite answers only, please.

7. Long-lists, what are they good for? Absolutely nothing.

8. Short-lists. Okay, we like short-lists, that’s a credit we can take to bank. But here’s the thing: sometimes a short-list is a list of people who might still win; sometimes it’s a list of people who nearly won, but here’s the names of the people who already did. Sometimes the people on the short-list are told before it’s published, sometimes seeing their name on the screen is the first they know about it. Follow a few writers on Twitter and you will see how we agonise about short-lists. Has anybody heard anything yet? Will the short-listed people get an email first? Anyone stalking the judges on Facebook? Has the deadline been extended? HAS ANYBODY HEARD ANYTHING YET?

For the sake of our sanity, state when the short-list will be published, and tell us if the writers on the list will be emailed first. Simple. Of course, that won’t stop us believing the email got lost in the ether, and scanning the lists just in case. But that’s our problem, not yours.

9. Each and every competition shall submit the rules and guidelines to a consultant writer before advertising the competition. That writer shall go through the process as if they were submitting. Nine of ten times they’ll ask you for clarification. Better one writer emailing you before the competition starts than hundreds a day before the deadline.

10. And remember, always, that without us, there is no competition.

Thank you for your attention and we hope we can assume that all competitions will one day
abide by these simple suggestions.

You can view this manifesto in spiffy pdf format by clicking here.


  1. Until Utopia arrives, I'll use my simple 5 point plan.

    1. Read the rules
    2. Follow the rules
    3. Don't question the rules, don't invent things to worry about or bring in stuff that other competitions do
    4. If the organiser cocks up, then lots of other people will have done the same as you. That's their problem to sort out not yours.
    5. Relax

    p.s. I don't mind longlists as long as it's not another 3 months to get to a shortlist!

  2. Replies
    1. Sometimes a lack of imagination can be an asset;-) Seriously it can be a pain and I'd love there to be a standard set of rules. It would save a lot of time, printing off the rules and ticking them off to get it right! I've entered three competitions this week and they've all had completely different rules for formatting and submission.

  3. Brilliant. I haven't done many story comps yet (mostly poetry) but intend to change that soon. We can all wear green tights & climb trees in Nottingham until our demands are met. That'll work, deffo.
    [Isabel Rogers @isabelwriter - added that because when I previewed it thought I was anonymous]

    1. Well, if you're planning to enter some competitions, you should probably also read the post before this one. (If I can't plug my blog on my own blog, there's no justice in the world).

  4. The words 'chance' and 'fat' spring nimbly to mind but you have to start somewhere and I agree, competition organisers do need to develop and adhere to some common standards. My only addition to yours would be time zone for #2. The number of times I have to ask whose 5pm we're talking about is beginning to exceed the number of times I'm willing to do so! More power to your manifesto :)
    Now let's see if this thing will let me in ...

    1. It all gets very confusing when parts of the US have gone to Summer Time and we haven't and then it's four hours, but wait, has it gone back to five? Is it EST or PST? Or have I just got a bad case of PMS?

  5. Very interesting - and it helps me with a project I'm working on just now :)
    I agree: rules should be clear and comprehensive and a lo of thought should go into them.
    Great post x

    1. Thanks for reading, and good luck with your project!

  6. Dear Competition Organiser: Please don't write to me telling me you've been inundated with entries for your competition and if I don't hear from you further you wish me the best of luck next time. If you can only afford one postage stamp, let it be on the notification that tells me I'm now free to submit my baby elsewhere or at least when it will be safe to do so.

  7. Oooh, I have one more. PLEASE send an acknowledgment, automatic will do, that the entry/entries have been received. I'm surprised and disgruntled that some competitions don't think it's important. I want to know that you have my money and I'm in the running!

    ps. Not having Word myself, I appreciate alternative formats being available.

  8. Re deadlines... never ever let yourself wait until the deadline. Times on deadline dates... even worse. Why? Because every other manwriter womanwriter catwriter and dogwriter sends their stories in exactly then, and clog up the server, the printer, the office, the postbag. (yes, some writers don't use email... some still use manual typewriters. Yes, they do. Take it from me...I've read the results...)

    Always send your story ahead of the deadline. Always. Think about it - if you are judging, or reading to filter, you will be far more relaxed and able to focus with equanimity on a few stories each day, as opposed to the 2000 that pile in on that last moment.

    Re Wordcount. If it says 5000 upper limit, WHY do writers send in stories of 4,999 wds? Its nuts. Almost always, those 'almost on the dot' stories are badly edited... shouldn't we edit for sense and rhythm and story, not solely to get a wordcount below a particular thousand?

    I'll go away now. :)

    1. Ladies and gentlemen, we've been infiltrated by the other side! But seriously, those are very good points, Vanessa. I know a few competitions where the judge waited for all the entries before reading, but most don't. It's great advice to submit early, although worrying for Last-Minute-Larrys like me who never start writing the story until the deadline is looming, sticking out its tongue and generally mocking me.

      I've been guilty of shaving a few hundred words out of a story to slide it under the word count. Heavier edits than that always show. It only happens when I have failed to write something new (again) and rather than miss the deadline, trawl my writing bottom drawer for something to submit. It's never a good idea.

  9. Great idea, Rachael. I'd like to add another clause, if I may?

    How exactly do they define 'published', when they say it mustn't be? Near enough every competition I enter, I have to enquire.
    Do they mean printed? By you? By someone else? Received money for?
    Would it include a story where you've workshopped it online on a writers' forum, or where you've adapted a blog post that went down rather well?
    Does 'published on-line' only include occasions where someone else has made an editorial decision to 'publish' it? i.e. it's been independently chosen? Or does that include instances where you've whacked up a draft to see what people think?
    If the comp says it mustn't have been 'published' on-line, but you have put an earlier incarnation somewhere on the web, received feedback and subsequently edited it, is this then a 'different' story which then qualifies as an unpublished entry? How 'different' does it need to be?
    Some say it's OK if the website is members only, others don't mind, yet more cringe at the thought of any entry that's been anywhere near the internet.
    I've often asked individual comps this, and mostly received replies I understand and can work with. That's fine. Sometimes, however, the answer is so woolly that I'm none the wiser.
    I accept that the web makes 'publishing' difficult to define, but it's an issue that won't go away. And how can you insist on rules that you can't define? Clarity is (nearly) everything.

    1. That's a really good point, Whisks. With more competitions starting up all the time, and the online world expanding for writers, it seems like this is an area where things are still very unclear. There is no one answer. I would say, though, that the bigger competitions are getting better at being very specific about what they mean by published online. Many say even publishing it on your blog counts. I think they do this to simplify matters. It's easier to draw the line right there, even though in the grand scheme of things that isn't really publishing, is it? But as you say, clarity is important, and having a blanket ban on having the story posted online makes the line easier to draw,

      I tend to take a pragmatic approach to this. If a story of mine was online but no longer is, in a discussion forum or some such, and has been rewritten or edited since, I treat it as unpublished. I will check first that I can't find it anywhere online, by searching for the title or a significant chunk of text (it's good to do that anyway on occasion to make sure no one has plagiarised your work).

  10. Sorry, me again. I'm on a roll.
    And another thing. Does the 'published' state expire? I'm thinking of a case where I won third place in a comp, and my story was on the comp's website for about six or nine months, and now isn't. Is that story now freed up to be entered elsewhere? Or is it 'spent'?

    Does removal of a story from the web make it now 'unpublished' for comp purposes?

    1. Another good question.

      If you won third place in a competition, I'd say that story is now 'used'. Most competitions stipulate that you can't submit a story that has won or been placed in another competition. So even leaving aside the issue of online publishing, that story would probably not be eligible.

      In terms of you being able to publish it elsewhere (not for competitions), in my personal experience, publishing rights have reverted to me after a year. I don't know if this is industry standard, though.

  11. Great post, Rachel. I have recently launched a short story comp ( would like to think my rules aren't too onerous. I will now be adding the timezone to the deadline though! For me unpublished means not published online as part of another competition, or whole on a blog, or in print - but workshopping online is fine. I'll also make this clearer. I'm on a learning curve so its great to get feedback and any other comments people want to make on the comp rules will be most welcome. Rules aside though I wanted to give writers a chance to get published in an anthology and hopefully make some money from it.

    1. Thanks for reading, Amanda. I've heard good things about the Retreat West competition - you might even get an entry from me in the future! It's great to get this conversation going between writers and organisers (although lots of organisers are writers too, of course). With so many new competitions out there, developing goodwill is essential to a comp's success. I think the Bath Short Story Award have done an excellent job with engaging writers and being very organised and responsive. In the past I've been afraid to ask comps for clarification of the rules, thinking I shouldn't be bothering them!

      I like your last comment about hoping writers can make money from being in your anthology. Too often the 'prize' for runners-up is to be published on-line, which to me is quite the opposite of a prize. It doesn't give you a publishing credit and effectively prevents that story being used again. So the writer gets nothing, but the organisers get to fill their web pages. Print anthologies are better, as you get a publishing credit. But again, writers usually get nothing from the sales of the anthology (although to be fair, the publishers usually make little either). And what if the anthology is effectively self-published by the comp organiser? Does that give the writer a credit or not?

  12. I'm glad the comp is getting a good reputation already! I will be e-publishing the anthology but under the RW name rather than my own and all winners will get profit share. The hope is that it will make them some money, although prob not enough to retire on! Re publishing credit - I think the fact that it's a competition run by an organisation and judged by published authors would mean that was a yes. What do you think?

    1. I think you'll get different answers depending on the context. If a competition is only for published writers (like BBC Short Story Award) they are very specific that this means having something published by a 'proper' publisher or magazine. The publisher must publish books with ISBNs, publish a range of authors and sell their books through a variety of physical as well as online retail outlets. In other words they set the bar high because that's where they want it.

      From the other side, I've seen competitions where they are looking for UNpublished authors, and having one story in one anthology will also not count as published. Again, being 'published' means a track record with an established publisher.

      Beyond the world of competitions, though, if I was published in one of your anthologies, I would definitely list it as a credit, and would emphasis that it was not-self-publishing and that the judging constituted an editorial process.

  13. I've just remembered another insidious clause that's creeping in to comp rules, here and there.
    Along the lines of: 'By entering, you grant xxx the non-exclusive right to reproduce your story for any purpose in connection with the competition at any time in any media without compensation.'

    Just by *entering*? Really? This seems punitive. Fair enough that the organisers want to reserve the story for the duration of the competition, and fair enough if the writer has won or been placed; at least they'll have something for their efforts. But JUST BY ENTERING? It means in effect, that you give away your story for nothing, in perpetuity. And if you haven't won, then they're unlikely to do anything with it, aren't they? But the fact still remains that you can never use that story again, for anything, since the threat - and only the threat - of publication will hang over it forever.
    I did query this clause with a big comp recently, and received assurances that they did really mean to reserve the stories only for the duration of the comp and thereafter, only the winning entries; they said that they would amend their T&Cs for next year. So it was worth querying it.
    I've just read the T&Cs for another comp I'm considering and that clause is there too. Have sent them an email to clarify, but if they don't reassure me, I won't enter.
    Statistically at least, each of us is extremely unlikely to win any competition, so it's a very harsh clause.

    1. Another excellent point, Whisks. I've seen that clause and assumed it meant for the duration of the contest and only if you were a winner or runner-up. I never thought it meant 'in perpetuity'. Do the same contests allow simultaneous submissions? If so, the two rules are in direct conflict with each other. I don't think any competition organiser would be in a position to enforce this. If your story wasn't one of the winners, it's doubtful that they've held on to a copy. How would they know you'd published elsewhere? But I agree, it's an invidious clause that need to be specific about how and when it expires. Keep fighting the good fight!

      It really does pay to read the small print. I entered a competition not realising that only the winner got a prize. The runners-up are 'published' online and in an app. Users of the app pay a subscription. So the writers are giving away their story for free, while the app owners charge people to read the stories. I don't think the app owners are out to cheat anyone - the subscription is very low and probably just covers what they have to pay to Apple. But it's still doesn't feel right.

  14. Indeed, Rachael. Since the T&Cs form a legal contract, then they should be clear what they mean - beware assumptions! The best time to argue the details of a contract, is before you've entered into it. Everyone has the right to make a bad contract, and once you're in it, you're in it.
    I'm sorry if this sounds too anal - the result of one career as a researcher and a subsequent one as an analyst. I like details :)

    I agree that unless the organisers intend to fill out their webpages with free content (as in your example), they're unlikely to use your story unless you're placed. That's why I worried about the 'threat' of publication, rather than actual publication. Because most other comps state that the story shouldn't have been accepted for publication elsewhere - and if someone else has the option to publish your tale (whether or not they actually do), then you can't truthfully enter it anywhere, ever again.
    Shutting up, now :)

  15. Where will the shortlist appear? (i) On the website competition page, (ii) on another page (iii) email (iv) Facebook, amid a mass of blue links (v) only in an issue of a magazine that you have to pay for? Just asking because (v) is depressing.

    And just to note... one year, the longlist will be 50 stories and the shortlist 12, the following year, the longlist will be 350 and the shortlist 112. Because judges have different number of fingers.

  16. I have just entered the Worcestershire literary festival flash comp. Having just sent them 3 stories, I am too tired to write out all the rules, but you can read them here:

    I'm particularly fond of the following rules:it must be in Times New Roman 12, single spacing, attached document must be in .doc, email must be headed bla bla. Sorry, as I said, just too exhausted. Oh, and just when you think you've finished with the rules they want you to send a circa 50 word bio.

  17. Hi Rachael - as you know, I take part in the banter about comp rules on Twitter with a combination of amusement and frustration. I love your and Guy's manifesto and really hope competition organisers have seen it.

    Hate to say it, but I think novel competition rules are even worse! I've just checked the rules for 3 novel or First Chapter comps I hope to enter and here's a handful of dilemmas for a start: completed or incomplete? (I have one of each) - you might think this detail worth mentioning! How long should the synopsis be and is it included in wordcount? First chapter only, or can up submit the maximum wordcount (important if your first chapter is only 1,500, say, and someone else's is the max. 5,000) I could go on. And on. It's such a waste of time and energy. BUT all power to the comps who get it right and THANK YOU!