For years, I've always been uncertain about whether to apply to writing competitions. Most of them cost something to enter, whether it be £5 for a poem or £25 for a novel or poetry collection samples. I've always disliked paying as the chances of winning are pretty slim. While I don't begrudge the magazine or publisher using competitions to top up their limited incomes as I know how difficult it is to keep on top of the bills these days, I also have to think of my own bank balance. I don't pay to submit my work to magazines either. So I've tended to enter no fee ones or competitions that allow 2 or more poems for one small fee.
I have never known what type of poems to submit to competitions. What are the judges looking for, how do I know if my poems are competition material? They say read the previous winners, but judges change yearly with most competitions, so it's kind of impossible. I've basically decided not to entry single poem competitions unless they're free.
However, I've been entering more expensive competitions lately for my finished novel or for pamphlet or poetry collection competitions. With my novel, I figure the more people I can get to read it the better, as word of mouth is important in the publishing world, getting your name out there. But also winning or being short-listed for a competition, even for the first chapter or a section would help getting it published. I've been aiming for competitions that are connected to agencies or publishers and include being published or given a free critical feedback of my novel as a prize.
Publication for my poetry collection is also my aim. Pamphlets are harder as I'm again never sure what kind of pamphlet will grab the judges, but I occasionally submit to them. In the past two years I've applied to 11 competitions for my novel and poetry and have had my novel long-listed for two competitions which is encouraging, but I've never come any closer to winning.
I've also recently applied to a couple of awards which instead of giving prizes based solely on your writing they focus on your need or situation. I've applied for one for artists who are also parents and one for a grant to help pay for a place at a writer's retreat. Both are closed now, but Aerogramme Studio is a good place to find more these awards. These are not something I've ever considered applying for, but part of my push back into the writing world is to jump at new opportunities in order to get my work seen.
The application process for these awards is often complicated; long applications, finding referees and prepping your work to their specifications. It's good practice even if you don't think you have a chance to win. If you apply for grants for projects or awards from Arts Councils the procedure is similar, luckily I have some experience with them.
I find the challenge of finding an appropriate poem or novel section is a good practice for looking critically at your work and to consider yourself as more than a closet scribbler. Get your work and name out there. And you never know you might win something. Good luck.