Guideline Rules for Poetry Competitions

It is not desirable to standardise poetry competitions because it risks a curious beast known as a poetry competition winning poem developing in isolation from trends in poetry magazines and poetry criticism.

In fact most poetry competition judges start judging the same way: they read the poems, sift out a shortlist and re-read the poems. Most poetry competition judges would probably pick out the same shortlist too. What differentiates one competition from another is which poems are selected as winners.

Drawing up the rules can be problematic, especially with regard to copyright, so below are guidelines to creating rules for a poetry competition. These allow organisers to cover all bases whilst allowing flexibility. Not all points will be relevant to every competition and there is a summary checklist too.

Poem Entries

  • Typewritten entries eliminate the risk of a judge misinterpreting a poet’s handwriting. Some competitions specify a font and point size
  • Although not particularly environmentally-friendly, keeping entries single-sided eliminates the risk of a judge not noticing the poem has continued on the back of the sheet
  • Keeping any identifying marks off the poems themselves eliminates any accusations of favouritism/ nepotism from non winning entrants and hence reduces any potential negative publicity about the competition
  • If no identifying marks are to be put on the poem, should entrants enclose a covering sheet with poem title and name and address or use an entry form?
  • As a minimum you will need entrants to list their name (including courtesy title), postal address (particularly if offering a local prize or restricting entry to a geographical location), phone number or email address for notifying winners, titles of poems entered, entry fee sent
  • If you insist entrants use an entry form, how do they obtain one?
  • If you allow email entries, what document format will you use (copy and pasting a poem into an email may lose formatting, which will corrupt the poem and disadvantage the entry)
  • If you use a web form for entry, can entrants attach a document (in what format?) to the entry form or will the web form retain the poet’s formatting?
  • Poetry magazines generally limit the length of poems to 40 lines. Putting a limit on the number of lines helps the judge avoid having to judge the merits of a haiku against a 6000 line epic
  • Consider if you will require entrants or prize winners to participate in publicity for the competition or attend any prize-winning events (insisting on attendance at prize-winning events may restrict your entries unless you can offer travel expenses). Outline any publicity participation requirements on the entry form so potential entrants know what is expected and do not withdraw their entries later as they did not appreciate they would have to do any publicity
  • Make it clear that no correspondence regarding the results will be entered into.

Translations

  • Even bilingual judges would struggle to judge entries in more than one language – even Shakespeare changed the rules for sonnets because Italian has more rhyming words than English, so unless you are judging translations, it’s simpler to stick to judging entries in one language only
  • If you do allow translations, ensure the entrant is responsible for any subsequent copyright disputes
  • Where a poet has translated their own work, both pieces are their own work so there are no copyright or rights issues
  • Will any prizes be for the translation alone or be split between translator and original poet?

Entry Fees and Prizes

  • The entry fee should be relative to the prizes on offer so charging £10 per entry but only offering £100 first prize will attract few, if any, entries
  • If the prizes on offer are a percentage of the total entry fees, the level of entries should be externally adjudicated
  • Consider offering more than one prize, some competitions have a local category for people living in a certain postcode(s), others might have a themed category, others offer first, second and third prizes plus runners-up or highly commended prizes. If separate categories are used, are entrants expected to send in one copy for each category entered (eg one copy for the main competition and a separate copy for the local prize). Will there be separate judges for each category or one overall judge for all categories?
  • For entrants the offer of feedback and publication is also valuable so a £100 first prize plus publication in an anthology and feedback from the judge is more attractive than just a £100 prize. Entrants can be charged an extra fee for a copy of the anthology
  • If feedback is offered, will this be just a judge’s report or will the judge provide a tick-box critique or in-depth critique? Entrants may pay extra fees for critiques with the level of fee determined to the depth of the critique.
  • Consider limiting prizes so that any one entrant can only win one prize – if an entrant sends in five poems and the judge is a big fan of the entrant’s work and wants to award first, second, third and other prizes to the entrant, the other entrants are unlikely to perceive this as fair. In this scenario, award the first prize to the entrant and allow the judge to name the remaining four poems as commended but award the remaining prizes to different poets
  • How do entrants pay an entry fee and in what currency? Can entrants pay on-line or should they send a cheque? If entrants are restricted by geographical location, a cheque is simplest to administer. If you wish to attract international entries than an on-line payment system such as PayPal or Google checkout makes it easier for entrants to pay in the right currency and avoids bank charges.

Copyright

  • Do not remove copyright from the entrants, but reserve the right to use entries in publicity for a set period, eg 12 months after closing date, instead. Only winning entrants will receive prizes so competition organisers who insist on having copyright transferred to them are effectively removing the ability of unsuccessful entrants to earn from their poems elsewhere and expecting entrants to pay for privilege and discouraging professional or semi-professional poets from entering
  • Ensure your rules state that entrants can only enter their own work or are responsible for seeking relevant permissions from the copyright owner if entries are translations or another’s work
  • Be clear about what rights you are reserving – typically these are to use entries for publicity purposes and/or publish selected entries in an anthology or on a website
  • If you are allowing entries that have been previously published, ensure the responsibility for seeking any relevant permissions lies with the entrant (if entries are restricted to previously unpublished original poems not submitted for publication or entered into another competition, then copyright rests with the entrant).

Pre-Competition Publicity

Consider

  • Print leaflets/entry forms and distribute locally in libraries or similar venues and through local writers’ groups
  • Approach poetry magazines and asking editors to insert a leaflet with the next issue (there will probably be a cost involved)
  • Approach local literature development officers, readers’ groups or arts administrators to let them know about the competition
  • Create a website or blog or update an existing website or blog with competition details
  • If the competition is sponsored or local organisations are providing prizes, get them involved in publicising the competition
  • Press releases to local media
  • Encourage word of mouth and consider social media
  • Do a ‘still time to enter’ press release.

Closing Date for Entries

  • Discuss the closing date with the competition judge(s) – there needs to be a reasonable period of time between the judges receiving the entries and when the results are expected. There also needs to be time between the competition’s launch and closing date for entries to give as many poets chance to enter as possible
  • Allow time to collate and gather the entries together – you may consider keeping photocopies if sending the entries to the judge via the post
  • Consider how you expect to get the entries to the judge and how the judge will get the results to you: two weeks might seem generous but if the judge has to wait five days (Royal Mail only guarantees first class post will arrive by the fifth working day) for the poems and then has to allow five working days to post the results back, that leaves a weekend to read and judge the entries
  • Be aware of public holidays and traditional holiday periods – if you are expecting schools to send entries from pupils, check term dates as a closing date during school holidays effectively puts schools under pressure to send entries by the end of term regardless of the actual closing date
  • Be clear about whether you expect entries to be actually received by the closing date or postmarked before the closing date, in the latter case allow time for postmarked entries to be received
  • Ensure the closing date is on the entry form and all publicity
  • Be strict: allowing a few days for entries postmarked before the closing date is fine, but allowing entries postmarked after the closing date may be seen as unfair by entrants who did manage to get their entries in before the deadline. In the real world, writers work to deadlines.

Competition Administration

  • Ensure that by entering the competition, entrants have agreed to comply with ALL competition rules. This avoids any disputes or misunderstandings later
  • Poetry competition entries follow the same pattern: a dribble as the competition is announced and then 90% of entries will be received in the days just before the closing date
  • From an entrant’s viewpoint it is easier to have one point of contact for entry – eg one email address and/or one postal address. Whichever address is used, ensure the competition administrator has access to collect entries throughout the duration of the competition
  • If entries are anonymous, use a numbering system to identify each poem (some poems may have the same or similar titles)
  • Incorporate a system for indicating where poems are by the same poet, eg allocate a number to each poet and a letter to each poem by that poet so 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d, are different poems by the same poet but 2a is a poem by a different poet
  • Allow for different poems by the same poet to arrive at separate times – some poets may send in an entry early on and then make a second entry of poems nearer the closing date
  • If a font is not specified, entrants may send in poems typed in different fonts, particularly if they send in more than one entry
  • Ensure the competition administrator has time to comply with the time scale for getting entries (or copies of entries) to the judge(s) and who will discard entries that don’t comply with the competition rules
  • Plan how prize-winning entrants will learn of the results – will there be a prize-giving ceremony or will the prize-winners be notified by post or will you simply post results on a website with publicity being sent to the media?
  • How will entrants find out about results – if they enclose an SAE or send an email address, will they receive individual notification? The competition administrator will need a system to record which entrant should be notified of results and how
  • If the judge is providing feedback or critiques, how will these be sent to the relevant entrants? The competition administrator will need to have a system of flagging which entrant is expecting what level of critique
  • If producing a competition anthology, decide in advance whether the anthology will just include prize-winning poems or prize-winning and shortlisted entries and whether it will include a judge’s report along with an introduction about the competition and how many entries there were. If producing an anthology, factor in production times to the competition timescale.

Judging

  • Ensure the judge or judges know what is expected of them before they agree to judge, ie:
    • The timescale of the competition
    • The absolute deadline for getting results back to the competition administrator
    • How many prizes to award and whether prizes are restricted to one per poet
    • Whether there are any separate categories to judge
    • When they will receive the entries
    • Whether they will receive all the entries or just a shortlist
    • Whether they will be expected to write a judge’s report
    • Will they be expected to write critiques on the entries
    • Payment for judging (do not expect judges to provide their services for free or for the privilege of judging your competition)
    • The competition rules and whether the judge is expected to weed out any disqualified entries or whether the competition administrator is expected to discard any entries that do not comply with the rules before sending entries to the judge
    • Whether they will be expected to attend any prize-giving events and whether there is a separate payment and what expenses (travel, overnight stay, etc) are available and if so when and where the prize-giving will be and whether they themselves will be handing prizes to the prize-winning poets or a representative of the administrators will do so
  • Will there be a filter judge or panel drawing up a shortlist. Discuss with the judge, some judges will prefer to read all entries, some prefer to have a shortlist of best entries drawn up. Ensure this is included in publicity and mentioned on any entry forms
  • Do not contact the judge in the period between confirming the judge has received the entries and the agreed deadline for delivering the results. The judge is likely to be doing other work and will not appreciate the interruption.

Results and Post Competition Publicity

  • Double check the names of prize-winners are correct before making any announcements – especially any live announcements at a prize-giving event
  • Ensure entrants who applied to be send the results get the results before any publicity is done
  • Let prize-winners (who may not have applied to be sent the results) know before any publicity is done. It is courteous and saves embarrassment and misunderstandings if prize-winners know before any publicity events
  • Check prize-winners can attend the prize-giving event (if there is one) and have a plan in place in case they can’t. Let prize-winners know if any expenses are available for travelling and accommodation (depending on how far they are travelling) and how formal an event it will be. Consider letting the prize-winners know they have won something (even if not which prize they have won) – they are not professional actors waiting to see if they have won a gold statuette but poets unaccustomed to goldfish bowls
  • When sending out invitations to any entrants, let them know whether they have won a prize or are just being invited – you don’t want to be mobbed at the event by entrants who thought because they were invited they’d won something only to discover they weren’t a prize-winner
  • Publicise the results
  • If there are any publications linked to the competition, publicise and distribute them.

Summary Checklist

  • Decide approximate timescale for publicising entry to competition, receiving entries, getting entries to the judge, getting results from the judge, getting results to entrants and post-competition publicity
  • Draw up a To Do list for the judge, approach potential judge(s) and agree both time scale and expectations
  • Draw up entry rules, including format of entries, fees, how fees are to be paid, copyright and rights, publicity expected, how results will be announced and create entry form if an entry form is to be used
  • Decide on Prizes and how prizes will be funded – by competition organisers or sponsors or as a percentage of entry fees paid
  • Appoint administrator and clarify how they should receive entries, competition rules, contact with judge and what to do with the results
  • Publicise competition
  • Expect 90% of entries in the final days, log entries and forward to judge
  • Do not contact the judge between confirmation of receipt of entries and deadline for passing back the results
  • Ensure entrants (especially prize-winners) get the results before post-competition publicity is done. Let any prize-winners know in advance of any prize-giving event.

Remember if entrants perceive the competition was run fairly and efficiently and they were treated with courtesy, they will be more likely to enter any subsequent competition.

If entrants perceive the competition was not run fairly, was inefficient, did not meet their expectations, they found the rules confusing, thought that an invitation to the prize-giving meant they had won a prize when they weren’t a prize-winner, thought the competition anthology would contain all entries and not just the shortlist or prize-winners, found out the results on social media ten days before receiving official notification from the competition administrator or discover their entry was disqualified because the judge had misinterpreted the rules, not only will the entrant not enter any subsequent competitions, they will tell friends, neighbours, family and anyone who will listen not to enter your competition either.

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