INTERN got a very thoughtful and pleasant e-mail from a reader yesterday, asking INTERN's opinion of writing contests. It boiled down to this: "are there any contests within the reach of a novice writer that are also impressive enough to catch an agent's attention?"
INTERN's answer was pretty much "no, unless you're a novice writer who wins the O. Henry prize."
In INTERN's (limited and certainly not authoritative) experience, most of the writing contests writers cite on their query letters are not impressive and, at worst, make the writer in question look like a small fish. If Jack Kerouac was writing a query letter, would he list "2nd place Boonsville Writer's Association Flash Fiction Contest 1951" as a credit? Would Harper Lee have been better off if a promising but incomplete first draft of "To Kill a Mockingbird" had won a prize at a writing conference?
Maybe it's an outdated and romantic notion, but INTERN believes it's better to toil and toil and toil and revise and edit and moan and spend years in obscurity and create something truly world-exploding than it is to toil a little bit, then get a little prize, then toil a little more, then get another little glimmer (perhaps a false one) of non-obscurity, and inadvertently build up a sense of (INTERN fears) complacency.
Ask yourself: will this contest will really challenge me? Will this contest will really be of value to my development as a writer? Will anyone besides the judges actually read and be moved by my story/poem? If the answer is "no," then it's better to keep on toiling, contest-free, until the right one comes along. It's the difference between investing in one sturdy, well-made can opener like your grandma used to have versus buying a dozen flimsy inexpensive ones that work for a few months but have no lasting value: it's worth keeping an eye on Quality.
Not that contests don't have value. In many cases, the funds raised from writing contest entry fees help keep small literary journals afloat. And for lots of people, a contest deadline is an incentive to actually finish a story or poem. Participating in contests can give you a sense of urgency and belonging, and winning can provide much-needed encouragement to keep going. At the same time, flattery is dangerous, and those contest deadlines can make otherwise thorough writers submit work that hasn't yet reached its full potential.
In other words...............it takes a very level-headed and insightful person to reap the benefits of contests without being mislead, flattered, or injured by their hidden downsides. So maybe what's in order isn't a wholesale rejection of contests, but a discerning and realistic approach.
INTERN so serious this afternoon!
Good day, sirs and ladies! You look fantastic!
>Update: Thanks everyone who commented with very good points about the value of contests! INTERN doesn't mean to say that there are no meaningful contests or that you shouldn't list good, respectable contests as writing credits...just that not all contests are created equal, and that they can have downsides.