Preparing your work for awards and competitions

Posted by Michael Lee Richardson

When you’re preparing your work for awards and competitions, the most important part, and the part that sometimes gets lost in the mix when you’re really focused on getting your writing out into the world is: you have to do the work!

Writers write, and the difference between a writer and someone who calls themselves a writer is getting that writing done.

Do whatever works for you, whether that’s writing for twenty minutes or half an hour on your lunch break every day, or writing long into the night once a week when your other half is taking care of the kids.

I used to head into work early every day and sit writing (and thinking about writing, which also counts!) for an hour in a coffee shop beside the office before I started at my day job. Especially when my day job was something I wasn’t really passionate about, it was important for me to have that hour a day that was mine, that was devoted to the thing I really wanted to be doing.

Sometimes competitions and awards can ask you to submit writing on a specific theme or respond to a specific brief or prompt – there are opportunities like BBC Writersroom’s Newsjack, for instance, that ask you to write topical sketches and one-liners based on that week’s news – so you’ll want to make sure you give yourself the time and space you need to do that work (which isn’t always easy, I know!)

But, more often than not, they will just want to see your best work, so it can be really useful to have a few things ready to go. Most of my work is in screenwriting, so I usually have a fresh drama script and a fresh comedy script ready to show people.

Do the research

There are lots of schemes and awards and competitions for new writers, and I know from first-hand experience that, when you first start researching places to send your writing, it can be a little bit daunting knowing where to start!

If you have the time, it can help to think about what you’ve got and what you want beforehand. You can’t apply for everything, so you want to look at things that might help you narrow it down.

Do you have lots of stories in a specific genre, or with a specific audience in mind?

Are you looking for a mentor to help you take your work to the next level, or is it more about focusing on your career as a writer?

When you don’t have a lot of time, it can be tempting to put all your focus on the really big awards and competitions, with the really big prizes.

But, while you’re doing your research, don’t discount the smaller awards or competitions, too.

Often they have a much smaller pool of people entering, and having a few smaller awards to your name might really make your application stand out the next time you apply for a bigger one.

Likewise, there might be awards and competitions that ask for similar things in their submissions, and there’s nothing wrong with using the same pieces a few times, in a few different places.

It’s always worth reading the small print, though – some awards and competitions will be looking for pieces that have never been published, or never been submitted anywhere else before.

Do the thinking time

If you’re applying for an award, there’s sometimes a place on the application form to explain what impact it might have on you and your work if you win.

It’s absolutely okay to say you want the kudos of winning an award – having your work validated can be a huge motivation! – but it’s worth thinking about why you want that kudos: will it help you reach a bigger platform or readership? Will winning the award give you the encouragement you need to believe in your writing?

I think, for a long time, when I was applying for things like mentoring or support for new writers, I would treat it like a job application, and focus on putting my best foot forward.

I think that’s a good starting point – it’s important not to downplay any of your achievements – but if you’re applying for mentoring or support, it’s important to articulate why you want or need those things!

Sometimes, the panel are looking for a bit more about what makes you, you.

You don’t have to give them your life story and you should never feel like you have to disclose something that you’re not comfortable with a stranger knowing, but you might want to spend some time thinking about some of the things that make your own voice or your own story unique.

I’m from a rural working-class background – I grew up in an ex-mining town in Northumberland – and when I started out as a writer I would often feel self conscious about the fact that my experiences were radically different to people working in publishing or production (which can both – still – feel like very middle class worlds).

More and more recently, I’ve come to value how unique some of those experiences are, and how valuable that perspective can be.

Keep doing the work

If you made it past the finish line and won the award or competition you were submitting to, great!

But what happens if you don’t win the award or competition you’re applying for?

Remember, some of the bigger awards and competitions will have hundreds – sometimes thousands! – of entries.

If you got a piece of writing done and got your application in, you’re already doing something for you and your work. And that’s further than some people ever get.

If you’re offered feedback or you feel confident asking for it, it’s always worth a try, although remember that yours might have been one of hundreds of entries, so don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response. Often, people want to provide thoughtful, personal feedback to people who send them work, but sometimes organisations just aren’t set up for that – if they provided the kind of response they wanted to to everyone, they would never stop sending emails!

There are other ways to get feedback, however, whether that’s a supportive friend, or a local writer’s group. Sometimes, after an award or competition, the organisation will send out an email with some generic advice, too, based on all the entries they received – why not spend some time with that, and see if any of it applies to your own work?

Make sure you keep a list somewhere of all the competitions and awards you’re submitting to, too. I like to have two or three things out at a time, so that at least if I get a knock back from one thing, I know there are other things on the way!

Writing – like most things – is a long game; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s as much about learning your craft, celebrating your work.

Good luck!