Writer's Digest Poetry Awards: Behind the Scenes of a Writing Competition

Have you ever wondered what goes through judges’ minds when they read entries submitted to a writing competition? Now you no longer have to wonder. The judges of the Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards discuss the competition, common pitfalls, and what it takes to make your poem stand out.
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Have you ever wondered what goes through judges’ minds when they read entries submitted to a writing competition? Now you no longer have to wonder. The judges of the Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards discuss the competition, common pitfalls, and what it takes to make your poem stand out.

The Judges:

Nancy Susanna Breen is poet, writer, editor, and contest judge. She's the author of two published chapbooks as well as a self-published e-book, Nudged by Quotes: 20 Contemporary Writing Prompts Inspired by the World's Best Poetry (available on Smashwords and Etsy). She's the former editor of Poet's Market and blogs at Nudged to Write (www.nudgetowrite.com).

Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer's Digest Writing Community, which includes editing Poet's Market and writing the Poetic Asides column for Writer's Digest magazine. He's the author of Solving the World's Problems (Press 53) and can be followed on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.

What do you think is unique about the Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards? Why do you believe writers should submit?

Nancy: The name "Writer's Digest" carries a certain cache, and poets often include even an honorable mention from the contest in their author credits. The contest is legitimate and absolutely honest (I see to that from my end), and all that matters is the poem itself. Being a published or even a prize-winning poet doesn't carry any weight; a novice who writes well has as good a chance of winning as a former champion.

Robert: It's a great contest with a spotlight on writers for writers. The opportunity for a super grand prize is appealing, but I'd say the premiums writers receive for just signing up (win or lose) more than make up for the entry fee. Winning the big prizes would be icing on the cake.

What are some common mistakes entrants can avoid, either in terms of formatting or craft?

Nancy: One of the quickest reasons an entry is eliminated is that the poet didn't follow the guidelines. A surprising number of entries exceed the stated line limit. Yes, we do look and count, and yes, exceeding the length limits is grounds for disqualification. Entering online with a poem in the wrong document format can also cause elimination, especially if I'm not able to open the attachment to read it. Poets must ALWAYS read and follow the guidelines for entering. It's just a waste of money otherwise.

Certainly there are frequent pitfalls in poems. As I said earlier, so many poets write the same kind of poems about the same kind of subject matter. It's kind of heartbreaking, because I know the poet thinks he/she entered a unique, personal poem, but in truth a lot of poems sound exactly alike. Love poems rarely stand out unless exceptional and original; memory pieces that are too general (that is, they don't reflect the poet's own past but speak rather generically) don't usually compare well to better entries. Depending on key, overused terms and images isn't good (that includes clichés). In rhyming poetry, the basic a-b/a-b rhyme scheme makes it seem as if the poet isn't really trying.

Robert: The most common way a poem goes unnoticed is when it is too general. Or when there's nothing at stake in the poem. That's not to say that a poem about flowers can't be good, but then it needs to have something at stake in language. Also, a common problem is going with the easy word or phrase, instead of trying to find a more unique way of saying the same thing. Or using too many similes (that could be metaphors).

What, in your opinion, makes a submission stand out?

Nancy: First, I look for an indication that the entrant even reads poetry. So many entries, especially in rhyming categories, suggest the poets never read poetry, or haven't since grade school. After that, I look for quality and originality. Even if a poem is well written, if it's the same-old, same-old about the usual topics, it may be outclassed by a really fresh but slightly less technically proficient poem.

Besides originality and quality, a sense of professionalism. By this I don't mean the poet makes money with his or her poetry; I'm talking about an attitude of caring and polish, of understanding that presentation is part of the entire package.

Robert: Poems that take risks are usually the ones that stand out. There are any number of ways to take risks: trying to pull off a traditional form (without the form getting in the way), experimenting with language or structure, tackling difficult subject matter, or spinning things in a completely new direction. Taking risks may result in more failed poems, for sure, but the potential for something truly unique and moving is raised as well.


Want to see how your poetry stacks up against other poets? Want to gain recognition for your great work? Enter the 2015 Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards now for a chance to win cash prizes and more. Deadline: October 30, 2015!


For more information and how to submit, check out http://www.writersdigest.com/writers-digest-competitions/poetry-awards.

Chelsea Henshey is an Associate Editor for Writer’s Digest Books. Follow her on twitter @ChelseaLHenshey.

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