The Real Gains of Literary Competitions

Any talk about literary prizes invariably leads to a discussion about money. US$10,000 is given for the Pulitzer Prize, £30,000 for the Orange, and Booker Prize winners are almost always asked what they will do with the money even before they take home the £50,000 cheque. However while a monetary reward is sufficient motivation for most writers, there are other (although perhaps not as obvious) benefits of literary competitions, particularly for those entrants with less experience.

All writers struggle at times to fill the blank page, but for many emerging writers battling problems of writer’s block comes second to fears of having someone else read their work. They are often hesitant to enter competitions, fearful that their work will not be able to meet the high standard required. Yet for many writers who have taken the plunge and entered a literary competition, the gains to be had from having an objective and a qualified person read their work can be far more valuable than any prize money. ‘It was the first time that I’d shown any of my writing to anyone else,’ says Jess Baikie, one of the winners of the John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers last year, ‘and it gave me the confidence to share it with others and improve it’.

Initiatives such as the John Marsden Prize, run by Express Media, serve as an ideal window of opportunity for young writers to gain experience in presenting their work to an audience. As Express Media’s Artistic Director Bel Schenk explains, ‘young writers often feel they’re competing with the big guns of the industry. The John Marsden Prize helps to narrow the field and is a great place for young writers to feel as though they’re being taken seriously’.

Being taken seriously and having confidence when writing is undoubtedly a crucial element for writers to progress and develop their skills. Writing may not involve cliff-jumping or skydiving, but it is nevertheless a job that demands a lot of nerve. Writers are required to put themselves out there and feel comfortable enough to have others interpret and critique their work. By entering into literary competitions, entrants can gain confidence in their ideas and decisions. ‘Writing and creating alone can be daunting and intimidating,’ explains 2007 John Marsden winner Erin Kelly, ‘[but] the competition gave me assurance in my writing and also myself as an artist’.

In its fifth year, the John Marsden Prize has proved to be successful in not only helping young writers take their own work seriously, but has also assisted many entrants in having their work reach a wider audience. Previous winner Geoff Lemon recently launched his first book Sunblind and is currently the poetry editor of the literary magazine Harvest. Many other entrants and place-getters have gone on to have their work published, such as poets Ella Holcombe, Josephine Rowe and Holly Sievers, who was just eleven years old when her debut collection, Waiting for the Doors to Open, was released.

However, success from entering a literary competition should not only be measured by publication or by gaining a place. As Erin Kelly assures, ‘entering into the competition gave me the confidence to keep writing and sending my work around’. Jess Baikie agrees stating, ‘even if you don’t win, polishing your work can only be a good thing. I encourage anybody to have a go in this competition.’