Thursday 18 July 2013

How to win Poetry Competitions - top 10 tips

As a regular entrant to (and occasional winner of) writing competitions it was eye-opening to be administrator of a poetry competition recently and see the process from 'the other side' with 356 entries, both online and by post.

First, what doesn't work: an A4 'do not bend' envelope, first class post, two months prior to deadline and posh paper make no difference at all if the poem's poor. A better poem triple folded, second class, last minute is still far more likely to win. (Someone even attached a full CV - entirely superfluous as decent competitions are judged anonymously based solely on the poem.)

Taking entry fees off some poets felt like taking sweets from babies and I worry about unscrupulous competitions whose aim is solely to make money - especially beware of ones where the entry fee is big and the prizes small. (Winning Writers lists contests to avoid).

I was only the admin, but I looked at the entries with interest and, as I've been placed a few times in competitions myself, began to get an idea of what judges are looking for. So here are my top ten tips on getting placed in competitions:

1. Read the instructions!  I received entries with no cheque, no contact details, in file formats I couldn't open etc. Many poets put their names on the poem itself - despite instructions not to! - or double spaced their poems so they spread onto two sheets when the rules clearly said one sheet only!

2. Don't write everything in capital letters. The rules may not state this, but just don't. See Capital Idea

3. Check for mistakes in spelling and puncutation 

4. Pay attention to detail - edit carefully, make sure every word is the right word and has earned its place in the poem. Get someone to look it over for you if you can.

5. A strong opening grabs the attention - pay special attention to the first few lines... and the last few.

6. A strong voice or character engages the reader more than abstract content

7. It has to stand out from the competition - so send poems with surprising and interesting subject matter

8. The same is true of titles. Spend time thinking of a title that adds to the poem

9. Read it aloud - judges will often do this and there may be the odd awkward rhythm, or phrase that jars

10. I'm a chronic deadline-hugger. I've still been placed in competitions despite only entering a day or two before the deadline. However half the entries I received were in the last week, and I couldn't help thinking it might be better to arrive before the rush - if only to ensure the postal service and computer systems don't thwart you at the last minute! Just a thought.

Ready to win? these are my favourite sites with up to date details of poetry competitions in the UK and beyond:

Good luck!  And remember - it's all subjective. What one judge puts aside another may love.

p.s. If you're new to the blog and wondering what my credentials are, check out this list on my (rather out of date) website. 


  1. Thanks for that great advice. I'm trying to get comp entries in before the last minute these days!

  2. I think you win the 'Most Helpful Post of the Week on the Internet' prize. And I really enjoyed looking at the pages on your website. How did I not know this existed? Good luck with the poetry book launch.