Lessons from running a writing contest – the good, the bad, and the ugly

About two years ago, I launched a writing contest – the Six Word Wonder contest. It’s still running today – you can enter it here.

Along the way, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons and I wanted to share them here. So these are my unvarnished lessons from running a writing contest.

10 lessons from running a writing contest

Lesson 1 – Run your contest for the love of it

I became obsessed with six word stories a few years ago. A mixture of writing block, impatience, and the urge to create led me to this tiny word form. I started writing them and I haven’t stopped.

Incidentally, I do write books longer than six words too, but I’m always irresistibly drawn back to the six word form.

Setting up a contest to find more stories seemed like a very natural progression after soaking up as many stories as I could.

But there is a huge learning curve from digital side, marketing, publication, and financial. Its not for the faint-hearted. That means tons of time, and the effort is mostly invisible so don’t expect too much credit for all your energy.

Lesson – Don’t set up a writing contest for fame, or money, set it up because you want to read the winners!

Lesson 2 – Free contests come at a price.

When I first thought about running a writing contest, I wanted the contest to be available to anyone to enter. All I ask is six words. I just want the best possible combination of six words you can come up with. And the best examples really do make me laugh, or cry, or put fear in my heart.

And so I made the contest free.

Despite that, people still have very high expectations for how the contest is run, how they are communicated with, and how they are treated.

As is entirely within their rights.

I admit, I’ve sometimes consider charging for the contest to filter out time-wasters or to compensate for some of the efforts involved. But so far, in the spirit of trying to find the best Six Word Wonders out there, I’m keeping it free.

Now, unfortunately the contest has a whole heap of costs around it (plus my time to organise it). Those costs include the website, mailing list, promotion of the contest, production of the book (cover, proof-reading, author copies etc), marketing the book (newsletters, press release, online promotion, Amazon ads), and of course the prize money. It’s not cheap.

As a quick coda, speaking of free. I do drop the price of the books to free every now and then, I once had someone email to me disgusted that when I offered one of the books for free, it required them to buy a kindle to read it on. When I pointed out that you don’t need a Kindle to read Amazon books, any laptop or browser will do, she still wasn’t happy. Eventually I emailed her a complimentary copy of the book, because I’m that nice!

Lesson – If you set up a free / no fee writing contest, don’t expect it to be free to you as the creator.

Lesson 3 – Marketing is a way of life

I had an idealised idea that if I set up this sort of writing contest, people would just appear to enter it and then buy the resulting book. This did not prove to be the case.

I’ve tried all sorts to drum up awareness. Here’s what I learned:

  • Facebook and Instagram advertising drives entries – you can target people interested in writing contest. It helps to have a hooks, like free entry, monetary prize, and publication. They aren’t as effective at selling the books.
  • Amazon ads – I’ve still not managed to make these work for me. Some people rave about them. It may be the genre I’m writing in. No doubt I’d get more sales if these were raunchy romances rather then genteel poetry. (Although you can write surprisingly romantic poems in six words.)
  • Bookbub – I used this for the new release of the third book. It really is effective at driving books off the shelf.
  • Link in the back of the book – all the Six Word Wonder books have a link to enter the new contest and find out more. I’m not aware of anyone clicking them.
  • Newsletters – various Newsletters let you promote your book, the likes of Bargain Booksy and Fussy Librarian. These seem to bump sales a little. I’m not sure if any have paid for themselves.
  • Press release – For book 3, I paid for a full blown press release that went out “one the wires” to hundreds of outlets. Since then, I’ve heard crickets.
  • Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter – I have over 10,000 followers on Instagram, 5000 on Facebook and a couple on Twitter. No seem to drive much traffic to the contest, or sell too many books. I think people on those platforms have other things on their minds.
  • The contest itself – The contest itself drives some sale. The intention was always for the shortlist to see themselves up in print, and for others to get a taste for the contest. I hope over time to find my audience who are hungry to read more six word stories.

Lesson – Experiment with different ways to market your contest – it won’t market itself.

Lesson 4 – It’s not about the money, money, money

Originally I offered a prize of $50 for entering the contest. The purpose of this was to give an incentive for people to enter. Why would they take the trouble to reach for their keyboard for no compensation was my logic.

For the second contest, I upped this to $100. In part, because $50 didn’t feel like a sufficiently meaningful amount of money. In part, I wanted to see if I could drive more, and a better quality of entries with a higher cash incentive.

For the third contest, I’ve held the money at $100. I did consider increasing it further but a few things stopped me.

  1. The winner seemed less interested in the money than on the credit of winning the contest. In fact, I’m sure the most recent winner won’t mind me saying that they asked me to donate their winning to a deserving charity – The Marine Conservation Society. Which I happily did, and topped it up for good measure.
  2. I’ve realised that getting published is the draw for most people. At least, this is what commented on. Followed by the chance of winning. The money comes third – which for artistic people is both predictable and reassuring.
  3. Most people find the contest by searching for writing contests. Perhaps free writing contests. The money is an enticement, but I think the number of extra entrants I’d get for increasing this element of the prize is negligible.

If one day the contest starts turning a profit, I’ll look again at raising the bar.

Lesson – A cash prize can attract people to the contest but having a package of benefits for winning works best.

how to run a writing contest

Lesson 5 – You get to interact with people across the world

The contest is open to anyone. I’m British but currently live in the United States. I’m reasonably well travelled too, but the diversity of locations, backgrounds and experience of the contestants is something else.

We had entries from 57 countries in total across the world. As an English Language contest, the majority were from English speaking nations, but there was a long, long tail of other entrants.

I’ve had interactions through email, Twitter, Instagram, and on the blog.

The biggest treat is reaching out to the shortlist and finalists. Especially the finalists where I have an excuse to ask them more detailed questions about their lives. It is really touching to hear about the person behind the story.

Lesson – be prepared to encounter with the whole world unless you limit the contests reach.

Lesson 6 – Paperbacks take a lot of work

Amazon has some very useful tools for independent publishers. Their tools allow you to publish with a relatively few clicks of a mouse and keyboard. But that conceals a remarkable amount of hardwork.

For the first book I used a tool called Vellum to produce the book and produce the various formats. I’d used previously on a standard fiction type book. It works wonders on books with traditional chapters. But is very tricky when it comes to including hundreds of individual little poems. Temperamental is an understatement.

For the second book, I switched to Apple’s Pages software. It has book editing tool which allowed me to make a much prettier book. But it took about double the time, and I don’t think I had a single commenter saying it was an improvement.

For the most recent book, I’ve switched back again to Vellum. It does the job okay. The paperback looks much better than viewing it in Kindle.

I had ARC readers, a paid proof-reader, and must have gone through the book myself fifty plus times, and yet still minor edits were required even after the book was launched.

And don’t get me started on the Hardback. It is still in Beta phase because its taking Amazon over a month to send through a pre-publication copy for review.

Of course, I could have chose to simply published the winners on a website and that be that. There’s a couple of reasons I didn’t. Most importantly, a key hook for entrants is that they will “get published”. For some, including me, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing your name in print. Second, book sales go some way to supplement the costs of the content. Right now, we make a loss overall, but if we can sell enough books, there might be a way to break even. That would be good news for my bank account if nothing else.

Lesson – Only go into print if you can afford to lose money and you love the feel of paper.

Lesson 7 – There’s a lot of entries to review!

The last six word story contest had around 3300 entries across about 800 contestants. I’m predicting the 2022/23 contest will have multiple times that.

That is a lot of entries for one judge to review!

The writing contest is still just my hobby – begun during lockdown as a way to find and read more six word stories – after publishing a book with over 500 of my own six word concoctions. I’ve not yet found any volunteers to join me in the judging, and so that really is just me running through lists.

I run the judging blind, so I don’t see who’s entered the stories. Keeping my attention up to plough through so many stories is challenging, so I did it across several sittings.

The short-list is the raw material for the book. I’ve found it relatively easy so far to distinguish between a good story and a bad one. Of course, the judging is only my opinion, but I suspect I have read more six word stories than almost anyone else on the planet at this stage. A strange entry on my CV.

By far the hardest part is to narrow it down to a winner. The contest offers a $100 prize, which is probably the most money per word of any writing contest out there – and so a winner has to be found.

I have considered moving away from having a single winner. This year, I named Best Poem, Best Story, Best Memoir, and Best Joke – and selected one of these. I’m delighted with all those selected, and there were plenty of other Wonders that could have taken the title. In the end, there’s no perfect measure for what makes great literature – it has to be a feeling.

Lesson – Be prepared to invest a significant amount of time in selecting the judging.

Lesson 8 – Automate the contest as much as possible

I’ve learned that when running a writing contest, it’s vital to have some level of automation around the capture of contest entries. When I started out, entries were literally landing in an email inbox which made the whole thing very tricky.

After a few experiments, I’ve found that a simple mailer form does the job adequately in that it allows me to collect the entries and all the critical information in one place for one contest. And to ensure people have opted in, agree to the T&Cs, and are able to unsubscribe when they like.

It also allows me to past and present contest entrants know about the short list and when new books are coming out etc.

I have not worked out how to have multiple contests running through one list, which means people who enter multiple contest years are likely to get multiple emails from me. It’s also making the contest less manageable and less automated than intended because I’m jumping between multiple mailing services. I need to find a way to bring these cohorts into one place.

I’d like to find a way to give out free gifts to entrants in future. That will take another wave of automation.

Sadly, or perhaps happily, the actual entries can’t be judged by a computer. Six Word Wonders are often incredibly nuanced given how few tools are available to write them. If someone builds an AI bot that can judge all those entries, I for one would be very interested. I once built a tool to generate six word stories – and its not great – although it is sometimes unintentionally funny.

Lesson – its vital to have a customer management system to manage large volumes of contest entrants

lessons from the six word wonder contest

Lesson 9 – Book reviews are tricky

Book reviews are tricky.

When I launched the contest, I had in mind that people would learn about the contest, consider buying the anthology book, and potentially leave honest reviews.

Reviews are important because they give other readers some insight into the content and quality of the book, which in turn should encourage more people to buy.

I also invite previous entrants to receive an ARC copy. There’s no requirement to leave a review from the ARC, but I think many people choose to read advanced review copies so they can share their views.

Amazon seems to have other ideas. Right now, there are 28 reviewer ratings on GoodReads but only 7 on Amazon. I believe, based on feedback I’ve had, that Amazon has been blocking some of the ARC reviewers (especially some of the most positive reviewers). I know they have a policy that you can’t give ARC’s in exchange for a review – but I didn’t think they blocked ARCs full stop.

I now recommend ARC readers consider buying a copy of the book while its own sale – it’s only a dollar during the launch period.

As a little aside, I thought I’d share the least complimentary reviews one of the Six Word Wonder books received. Someone with the handle “Raider Girl” said, “This is a book of nothing. I expected 6 words strung together in some creative, or informative or entertaining manner.” That one was harsh – bare in mind there were over 500 hundred six word stories in that book. She found nothing…

Lesson – ask ARC readers to consider buying the book (at a discount) before reviewing.

Lesson 10 – When it comes to running a writing contest, the Haters Gonna Hate

There have been some not so enjoyable parts about running a writing contest. To be honest, I hadn’t quite anticipated some of the less kind things people will say when you enter this kind of endeavour.

One shortlister got irritated because they received an email about the launch of the book – getting published in the book being a core part of the reward for being a shortlister. To save their blushes, I won’t name the individual, but they went so far as to describe me directly as a “parasite” for telling him about the book his six word story had been included in!

Now, I understand the individual doesn’t see the 100+ man hours that go into the contest, or the costs involved in marketing the contest and the subsequent book, but a message like that really stings.

Another user objected to be added to the mailing list as part of their entry. I explained that the only way I can keep people aware of whether they have been shortlisted, if they are a winner, how to get hold of the book that includes their winning story, or hear about special offers, is through being on the mailing list. That didn’t stop some unpleasant direct comments.

I always try to listen to constructive feedback. I wonder if perhaps people forget they are talking to another human being. I’m certain they wouldn’t say things to my face that they write to me.

Lesson – the real lesson, I guess, is that you can’t please all the people all the time. As Taylor Swift says, the haters gonna hate.

So that’s what I’ve learned from running a writing contest. What next?

Another thing you could do, if you are interested in writing contests, is to enter one!

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