Are Writing Contests Valuable?

blueribbonLast Sunday, I attended the awards ceremony for Vermont’s Scholastic Art & Writing Contest at the Brattleboro Art and Museum Center.

The art and writing on display was fantastic; no wonder The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are considered “the most prestigious recognition program for creative teens in grades 7 – 12.” These kids have talent!

The museum was buzzing with teenage energy as kids and their parents from all over the state saw their work hanging on the museum walls or read award-winning writing published in binders for all to read.

At noon, the crowd sat for the ceremony, which included exhortations from both Danny Lichtenfeld, the museum director, and from Roberto Lugo, a potter, social activist, spoken word poet and educator. Each in his own way, they told the kids to keep breaking the rules and fixing social and global problems they’re inheriting from us.

Vermont Scholastic Awards

Roberto Lugo

Lugo’s remarks were, well, remarkable: In a combination of rap, poetry and prose, he conveyed the story of his trajectory from urban poverty to academic and artistic achievement in language bordering on song – and received a standing ovation. Truly inspirational.

Then came the awards. Those earning Honorable mention were asked to stand; then the Silver Key winners; finally, the Gold Key winners came forward for a group photo.

This is where the event went sour for me. I wished all three groups had a photo op.

I attended the awards ceremony because this was the second year I’ve been a writing judge. Even though judges are given guidelines, which are very helpful, the process is still, ultimately, subjective. But more than that, I wanted the Honorable Mentions and Silver Keys to stand in front of the audience and have their photos taken in acknowledgement of their efforts. I didn’t want the awards to be quite so stratifying.

This has brought the entire enterprise of contests for artistic creation to a head for me. Even though my first novel won a prestigious award, I’m suspect of contests turning literature and visual arts into a kind of artistic World Series.

Scholastic Awards

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive.

Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive. And while the Scholastic Awards are meant to acknowledge excellence and encourage youthful talent, I fear that the way in which we do so will backfire, on both the developing artists and writers and on the very essence of artistic expression, which creates its own rules, shows us a new way of seeing, and tells its own story.

Is making art its own reward? What do you think about writing contests and awards?

Deborah headshotDeborah Lee Luskin posts an essay every Wednesday at

27 thoughts on “Are Writing Contests Valuable?

  1. I understand what you’re saying here. Art for art’s sake is important to remember. It’s all wonderful. But contests and awards are important too, I think. Winning one is another achievement to put on a writer’s resume, so to speak, to get her work out there, to be seen and heard. Isn’t that what we all want? But I agree with you in that ALL the winners should have had their photo taken and acknowledged at your event.

    • Hi Tina, Thanks for your comments. I agree that awards can be good for building a resume – or I used to think that. Now I’m less certain. I think anything we do to encourage creativity and craft is good. I’m just so aware of how subjective judging for a contest is, that I’m suddenly not sure that winning one is as important as I once thought.
      This is a tough one for me, and I’m still not clear about it.
      Always nice to hear from you, ~Deborah.

      • It is a very subjective area. Just look at any kind of creative competition-music awards, film awards, etc. Just because a movie wins Best Picture, doesn’t mean everyone will like it. Go figure.

  2. At the beginning, I was against your opinion of ALL the winners having a photo op. But when I reached “Artistic expression is not a horserace; it’s neither limited nor competitive”, I realised the truth of your argument. It is something to really think about.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree: this is something to think about; I’m not sure there’s a clear answer one way or another – for or against all contests. But “all that glitters is not gold” either.

    • “Writing to the contest” is exactly the outcome I fear. I think we need to encourage creativity, and I’m not sure writing “least inspired” work is a good sign. Thanks for sharing your experience and opinion.

      • Once wrote a short story based on my Fae Roairse story universe,for a reading festival compilation, the editor advised me to ‘dramatize’ the bullying the main character went through.
        Which I personally didn’t agree on, often its the subtleties of bullying that is most damaging to the psyche than the dramatic.

  3. I never liked writing contests, but I never thought of it this way. It left a sour taste in my mouth and I couldn’t pinpoint why. Thanks for sharing! Now I think I can more specifically voice my dislike 🙂

    • It’s a slippery problem, and I’m so glad to have so many different opinions to help me clarify my thinking. Thanks for joining the conversation with yours.

  4. Art is a difficult thing to have as a competitive sport. Each creation can be different, but each just as valuable. I do get that we need to encourage and celebrate the creative efforts and aspirations of our youth. My problem with art awards is that the art/writing I find valuable and well done rarely wins awards. I generally don’t submit works to contests as I never win such things, but yet am inspired to keep creating what I feel is true to my creative self. It has great value to me, even if the judges can’t see that.

    • Andrew, you are that rare bird who truly listens and dances to his own drum. This cannot be rewarded with a ribbon or medal; the life well lived is its own reward. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Speaking only for myself as a person who is developing a writer’s life much later than most, I heartily support literary contests, and other artistic competitions as well. I am going out on a limb and say that in my view, all forms of art must be completed before they can be considered art. I don’t consider a ream of blank paper a work of writing. I don’t consider a blank canvas a painting. For people like myself whose life is littered with unfinished artistic endeavors, there is huge value in competitions simply because it requires submission of a completed work at a certain time. Once can’t faff around with it indefinitely. Literary competition also demands a certain standard of sentence structure, a certain standard of grammar, of spelling and punctuation. Yes, there are a few great writers who deliberately break those standards; but they do it deliberately to achieve a certain purpose. I worked for e.e. cummings. IMHO it didn’t work so well for Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.” As for art, I don’t spell it with a capital A. I have no objection to comparing it to a horse race. George Bernard Shaw kept one eye on the remuneration he received for his plays; yet, he wrote by his own rules. His plays were long and covered topics that the audiences of his day found shocking. Shakespeare churned out plays for money and his stuff is still around in spite of the fact some Victorians weren’t too keen. Life in itself is a competition. We win some, we lose some; the trick is to keep pushing on regardless of the outcome.

    • Thanks for your comment. I can certainly see the value of contests as providing a format and a deadline. It is hard always to be self-motivating. Writing for pay is a different issue, I think, than winning a contest. Lots of writers earn money from writing without entering contests.
      As for life as competition: that’s one model. Since learning about restorative practices, I’m discovering that there are others that rely more on encouragement and collaboration.

    • I realize that I’m much older than most bloggers, and age does change my perspective on things. When I was young and starting out, I defined “success” conventionally and caused myself a great deal of disappointment and suffered from a chronic sense of inadequacy. What I experienced on Sunday was a sense that I may have participated in perpetuating the highway toward conventional success when I know from my own experience there are many paths that are far more rewarding.

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  7. Age and life experience does tend to change a person’s perspective. Doesn’t make you right or wrong. My mother just loves The Great British Bake off. Shes always sorry for the young contestants when they are eliminated. They are so creative, she wants everyone to win, she doesn’t want anybody’s feelings to be hurt. I have to explain that the point of this competition i is there should only be one person left at the end. Are the judges subjective? Sure. Maybe that’s why it’s good to have more than one judge to talk it out. Maybe there’s a bit of experience to go along with that. Competitions are for striving.

    • I love this story about your mother! And I agree that competitions are for striving. What I’m concerned about – especially when it comes to young people and the arts – is how easily something as arbitrary as a competition can backfire, and discourage further effort and experimentation. On the other hand, because artistic creativity is often marginalized, maybe it’s good for these teens to start getting used to it. I honestly don’t know, so I’m very grateful for all these different perspectives. Thanks for sharing yours.

  8. Writing as an old cynic, I believe that some (not all) writing contests are just money-making schemes. However, there are some good competitions to enter so it’s not all about grabbing authors’ hard-earned cash, but I say just be careful about which ones you enter.

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