Thursday, July 15, 2010

Some Thoughts about Poetry Book Contests

Entering poetry book contests often seems like a necessity if you want to get your manuscript published. But what an insidious process it can be. Not to mention expensive. And time-consuming. Before my first book came out in 2003, over a period of maybe six years, I entered the manuscript in dozens of contests. I spent several weeks each summer weeding out the weaker poems and substituting with what I hoped were stronger ones. I reconsidered the order of the poems. I redid the page numbering and the Table of Contests. I wrote out the checks. Then I waited months for notification.

The first time I received a semi-finalist spot was thrilling, more so the first time I received a finalist spot. But by the time I'd accumulated six of these close calls, it was getting stale. I felt stuck in place, always writing poems that could go into that book, unable to move onto the next book. Then I got lucky and found a home for my book, no contest involved. Since then my publisher has stuck with me for the following book and the forthcoming one for which I am hugely grateful. What a relief not to have to do the contest thing.

But recently I saw the process from the other side of the fence, i.e., I served as a first reader in a book contest. After reading through the pile of manuscripts, I put together some thoughts that perhaps someone out there might find useful before pulling out the next roll of stamps and the next batch of checks.

1. Do not overload the manuscript with poems. Too many is too many. I read one manuscript that had close to 100 poems! Now come on. The poet had simply failed to edit his own manuscript. Nor had he followed instructions in regards to number of pages. A collection that long has virtually no chance of being accepted anywhere.

2. I'd always heard that it was essential to have a strong first section. True! A weak first section discourages the reader from moving onto the second section. Weak first section and your goose is cooked.

3. After getting a really strong first section, make sure that the following sections are equally strong. You cannot get away with a weak section. Anywhere.

4. Be mindful of variety. This applies to subject, form, length. Too much sameness leads to boredom.

5. Work really hard on arranging the order of the poems. For many poets this is the most difficult part of putting together a manuscript. That's what friends are for. Ask a few poets whose judgment you trust to read the manuscript for order. Avoid the inclination to group similar poems together. Again, too much sameness leads to boredom. You want some kind of thread or threads running throughout, pleasing leaps from one poem to the next, surprises, and connections. Poor order was one of the main weaknesses in the manuscripts I read. You want a collection of poems, not a bunch of poems.

6. Here's another thing that separated the good from the not so hot: Diction, diction, diction. Why use boring words when there are so many good ones available? The language in the strong manuscripts immediately distinguished those collections.

7. Avoid excess baggage, e.g., accessorizing sections with numbers, plus titles, plus introductory poems, plus epigraphs. Keep it simple.

8. Don't go too highbrow with a bunch of unnecessary End Notes. Don't be pretentious. Nobody likes a stuffed shirt. If the information in the End Notes is essential, maybe it should be in the poem? or on the same page as the poem? I'm not saving never; I'm saying consider carefully the necessity. Likewise, avoid a bunch of ridiculous dedications of individual poems. I dedicate this one to Emily Dickinson, this one to my plumber, etc.

9. Remember that competence is not enough. The collection must stand out. The strong ones had something that was unique, that was special, that made them different from the others.

10. Good looks matter. Make sure your manuscript has a professional appearance. I was surprised to see manuscripts with the title uncentered, with dreadful fonts, with blurry pages. Don't crowd the pages, please! And please, in your Table of Contents, do not insert a hideous line of periods between title and page number.

Now here's the good news: If you have a good manuscript, you have a really good chance of winning. Don't send it out before it's ready, but when it's really ready, believe in it and send it out.


  1. Thanks for this great and detailed advice, and I loved hearing about your own experience with contests (similar to my own, so it was indeed a comfort).

  2. Golly, can the formatting of a Contents page arouse so much scorn? Into the out pile!

    End Notes a problem? Then even the very readable Richard Wilbur would never have made the cut.

    I agree about variety, but is not variety lacking in the work of many of the big-name poets? Same style, same diction, page after page, book after book after book. What turns you off might very well turn another official reader on.

    The contest system seems to me the death of poetry. But I'm soured. It's been the death of me.

  3. Richard Wilbur and the "big-name poets" are not entering book contests.

  4. Excuse me? Do you mean a leader, between poem title and page number in the TOC? A very useful and standard format.

    As for titles, I always flush left; I hate centered anything.

    Well, I guess you would not have liked my manuscript.

  5. Diane--I was referring to a title that was intended to be centered on a title page but ended up off-center. Flush left on poem pages is fine.

  6. Very helpful. I am just starting to attempt putting together a first collection, so any advice is good advice.


  7. Thank you for an excellent post.

  8. Thanks, Diane -- I will be quoting you during my workshop on putting together a chapbook. Excellent timing for my workshop on Monday!
    Thank you once again!

  9. Great post. I agree with you 100 percent, especially the first point. I know poets who overload their manuscripts with poems. You can’t underestimate the value of a good editor, or a trusted friend to help you make the tough choices.

  10. Thank you for the very detailed advice. This is so useful! I too will be quoting you for a workshop.

  11. Ah, I'm so glad I found this post just as I was looking at my chapbook manuscript again. Excellent info. Thanks.

  12. I appreciate wisdom that comes from experience. Thank you for this list, Diane! I have already shared it with two poetry pals of mine.

    Perfect objectivity is impossible. Subjective value judgments are just part of the contest enterprises (tempered by codes of ethics, of course). Whether I choose a book to buy, schedule a feature at an open mic, bookmark a favorite blog, or judge a contest, my "taste" comes into play.

    I would like to add that the contest sponsor needs to treat the winning manuscript with as much care as the winning poet treated his/her manuscript. If the contest sponsor produces a final publication which is mis-printed, mis-colored, or otherwise faulty, that carelessness is a breach of good faith.

  13. Therese--yes, objectivity is something we might strive for but most likely not fully achieve. And that's why I passed one of the mss that I did not like to another judge. It wasn't to my particular taste, but I suspected that it might be more agreeable to someone who likes more experimental poetry.

    Your last point is well made, and that's why I always advise poets entering contests to be sure they have read at least one book put out by the sponsoring press. Is that a press you'd want to do your book? Do they have a distributor? Will you have any say about design? You have to know what matters to you. I've known several poets who ended up very unhappy with the finished book, but to some extent they needed to hold themselves accountable for being over-anxious and failing to do their homework.

  14. Thank you for this wonderfully clear and succinct guide. I like to think that my poems are wonderful, but when I've submitted them as a group, they just don't cohere. Hot Damn! This helps a lot ... and at 73 I'm starting to wonder who wrote these things; they look to me to be the work of a younger, more clever guy.
    Sorry to get off-track: I am inspired by your advice.


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