Well, on Friday I was visiting the Writing Buddies in Southampton for their fortnightly meeting, although this one was slightly unusual - it was an awards ceremony!
They'd organised an internal competition, with categories as diverse as article writing, fillers, short stories, flash fiction, drama and poetry. I'd judged the article and filler categories. The winners from each category will have their entries printed in the first Writing Buddies anthology. The poor souls though, had to endure having their photos taken with me as I presented them with their winning certificates (hence why I'm now hiding at the back of this picture here, because by this stage I was all photographed out!).
Many of the entrants were surprised at their own achievements, and this demonstrates the importance of competitions. When we sit in our writing garrets alone, we're unaware of the standard of writing around us. As writers, we tend to think that everyone else is better than us, despite there often being no evidence for this! Competitions can help to put that into perspective.
If you enter a competition, the judge will be assessing your entry blindly. He or she will not know who wrote the entry, they will merely judge the writing. And it was a point I mentioned at the Writing Buddies meeting. Their competition had been judged externally. Every category of entries had been judged by someone who wasn't a member of the group. As judges, we weren't offering them a prize because we wanted to be nice to them, or because we didn't want to offend anyone. This competition was judged by people who did not know their writing. So it was their writing, and their writing alone, that led to their success.
In some ways, this has parallels with getting published. Whenever you send anything off to a publication, whether it be a short story, article, poem, novel or a serial, it's like entering a competition. The judge (editor) probably doesn't know you - and they certainly don't owe you any favours. But you also need to remember that your submission is 'competing' with the other submissions the editor is receiving. 'Hobby' writers are competing with other 'hobby' writers, who are also competing with 'professional' writers, who are also competing with other 'professional' writers. A magazine has a set number of pages to fill in each issue. A publisher has so many books it can publish in a year. Your work, is therefore competing for a limited resource.
So, remember when you send your work out there into the big wide world, you may not be technically entering a competition, but your words are competing with the words of other writers. And the editor's decision, just like the judge's decision, is final. Remember that you are competing with other professionals, so be professional with your submission.
Of course, one way to ensure that you don't isolate yourself in your writer's garret and have no knowledge of the standard of writing out there, is not to read anything. Alex Gazzola's post the other week, http://mistakeswritersmake.blogspot.com/2010/08/mistake-no-25-not-reading.html, explains why writers should be voracious readers. If nothing else, reading gives you an idea of the standard of writing you are up against.
I didn't start writing short stories until I'd judged a couple of short story competitions. It wasn't a market that I read, so I knew nothing about the standard of writing. But when I did read it, I felt I could write stories that were just as good, if not better. Reading other writer's work also teaches you. You learn from another writer's mistake, which is what I did and have now seen my stories published in the UK, Ireland and Australia.
Competitions offer an opportunity to practise your writing. They also give you a deadline. In some ways, the world of publication is one continuous competition. If you want to win and be published, you've got to be 'in it to win it'. People who don't enter competitions, don't win them.