You’ve just finished polishing your story, essay, or poem. The contest deadline is just a few days away. You’ve reread the guidelines and double-checked your manuscript to make sure you’ve followed them perfectly. After paying the twenty-five-dollar entry fee, you click Submit and feel the familiar rush of accomplishment, nervousness, and hope. The long submission period will close; the even longer wait for results will begin.
In a moment of cynicism you wonder if the deadline was extended for that extra few hundred dollars in entry fees the magazine will surely receive, widening the applicant pool and, as a result, making it harder for you to win.
But no sooner have you joined the magazine’s mailing list than you receive an e-mail from the editors: “Good news!” the message begins, followed by a gleeful announcement that the deadline has been extended. “Two more weeks to submit! So get those submissions in!” Perhaps you don’t share the editors’ enthusiasm. Maybe you even feel a little burned. You begin to second-guess your decision to not work on that other, longer story, the one you were excited about but likely would have taken until midnight of the (original) deadline day to get into shape. You followed every guideline; you played by the rules, as you always do. You did the work, submitted your best writing, and were prepared to accept your losses. In a moment of cynicism you wonder if the deadline was extended for that extra few hundred dollars in entry fees the magazine will surely receive, widening the applicant pool and, as a result, making it harder for you to win. “If the contest itself doesn’t stick to its own assigned deadline,” you think, “why should I?”
Admittedly, the above scenario had never occurred to me, a writer who oscillates between abject inattention and extension zeal. An extra week, you say? Great! Now I can definitely submit! Sometimes I’ll capitalize on the almost-missed opportunity. Most times, as the extended deadline comes and goes without my submission, I gather those ribbonless poems to submit to an open reading period instead. But to writer and visual artist David Colosi, the practice of deadline extensions is a thorny issue. In a letter to the editor, printed in the January/February 2018 issue of this magazine and appropriately titled “Rejecting Extensions,” Colosi asked a simple question: “Why do writing contests extend their deadlines?” Were too few submissions received? Was the quality or diversity of the submissions subpar? Did the publication fall short of its financial goals? Did the editors just want to make more money? With seemingly more and more contests extending deadlines, typically without explanation, writers like Colosi are left to speculate.
Whatever the reason a sponsor might extend a deadline—whether for a contest, a reading period, or a fellowship—one can hardly imagine a room full of suited, greedy editors or administrators laughing raucously as the twenty-five-dollar fees roll in. The reality is that no one in their right mind goes into small-press publishing or nonprofit administration for financial gain; most publications operate on budgets incommensurate with the vital work they do to support writers, and nonprofits are, well, not profiting by serving a mission rather than a bottom line. Still, the lack of transparency that often accompanies deadline extensions can leave the motivations of a contest sponsor up to the writer’s imagination. “They wrote the rules, so they should stick to them,” wrote Colosi in his letter. “If I had any power in saying so, I would reject their extensions. If a publication fails to get enough submissions, money, or variety, it should accept its own failures.”
To better understand the rationale behind deadline extensions, I contacted more than a dozen editors and prize administrators whose contest deadlines were recently extended. My inbox was not exactly flooded with responses. After my initial requests, and a round of follow-up e-mails, I began to feel like a literary Typhoid Mary, deliberately ignored or politely turned away because of what I was told were busy editorial schedules. “I think from our perspective, a little mystery is not a bad thing,” added one editor who declined an interview.
“There are two sides to it,” says Ander Monson, editor and publisher of DIAGRAM, which sponsors a yearly chapbook contest. “One wants the contest to be robust so it makes sense financially for the press, which also makes it feasible to run and award the prize to the winner, and extending a deadline occasionally may help with that. The flip side is that it might be read by some as not fair to those who did the work to get their manuscripts in by the original deadline, at the expense of whatever other obligations in their lives. This is why DIAGRAM won’t accept late entries, for instance.”
Jen Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, similarly remarks on the possible benefits and drawbacks of extensions and how better administrative practices might produce better outcomes. “In the past the Academy of American Poets has extended the submission deadlines of some of our prizes to ensure that as healthy a number of applications as possible were received,” she says. “We’ve stopped doing that, though, in fairness to the poets who worked hard to meet the original deadline posted. Instead we’ve learned to pay closer attention to the pace at which submissions come in—knowing that the vast majority almost always arrive on the last day—and to work harder to promote the upcoming deadline.”
In responding to Colosi’s letter, Poets & Writers Magazine editor in chief Kevin Larimer reminded readers that not all presses and magazines make money on contests (see “101 Free Contests” on page 48), and indeed, the cost of running a contest often extends far beyond paying winners to include the judges’ fees, readers’ fees, advertising, marketing and promotion, and so on.
Poets & Writers, Inc., the nonprofit organization that publishes this magazine, sponsors two annual writing contests that invite submissions: the Amy Award, for women poets under the age of thirty, and the Writers Exchange (WEX) Award, which offers emerging poets and fiction writers a trip to New York City to meet with publishing professionals and to give a reading. The deadlines for both contests, neither of which charges an entry fee, have been extended in the past. “When we’ve done this, it has been based on only the number of submissions received, not their quality,” says Poets & Writers executive director Elliot Figman, noting that submissions are not read until the application window is closed. “Particularly with the WEX Award, which each year invites writers from a different state to apply, reaching interested writers can sometimes be challenging. We may have to get more familiar with the chosen state’s literary community in order to identify which organizations or platforms can help us get the word out to eligible writers. Moreover, because most submissions come in really close to the deadline, it can be hard to gauge whether or not our outreach was effective until just before the announced deadline. If the number of applications is significantly lower than in prior years, we have sometimes wanted to do another round of outreach. We don’t have anything to gain by extending a deadline; rather, we want to be sure that as many eligible writers as possible have an opportunity to participate.”
Similarly, contests that attract a large international audience can face unexpected delays that require short deadline extensions. Donald Singer, cofounder of the U.K.–based Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine (which sponsors a £1,000 poetry prize with a £7 entry fee) explains the challenges of managing an international competition. “We have entries from around the world—from thirty-seven countries this year alone—and from over sixty countries since the prize was launched. We have often extended our deadline for a few days. Our preferred method of submission is online, and many participants enter very close to the deadline; a short extension allows the minority of entrants who may have technical problems to resolve such issues. It also allows entrants from less developed countries—where infrastructure problems may lead to delays in making a planned entry—more opportunity to enter.”
Late last year the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, for the first time in the history of its residency program, extended the deadline for its fellowship competition, which has a $50 application fee, by two days. “Traditionally our deadline for writing fellowship applications is December 1,” says Sophia Starmack, the program’s writing coordinator. “This year December 1 fell on a Friday. We thought that it would help our applicants to have the cushion of the weekend to finish preparing their samples. Most emerging writers are juggling day jobs, gigging, classes, and multiple projects. We [thought we] could offer a few extra days when writers might have a little more breathing room to prepare or finalize their applications.”
Meanwhile, Ricardo Maldonado, a poet and translator and the managing director of the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in Manhattan, which sponsors the annual Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Contest (a prize that includes $500, publication, and a two-night residency at the Ace Hotel in New York City and has a $15 entry fee), will consider an extension of a day or two for writers who encounter a problem meeting the deadline and request extra time. Rather than extend the deadline, he instead allows for a small window of leniency at the end of each entry period. “I frequently juggle deadlines and other commitments,” Maldonado says. “I have to administer prizes with the understanding that applicants might seek an extension after having tried to meet requirements by a set time and are unable to because of extenuating circumstances. In general a deadline of Friday at 5 PM perhaps means Saturday evening or Monday.”
“As for my own experience as a writer,” he adds, “an extension means an extra chance to dot the i’s, an extra hour or so to think about what I want to say.”
The vast majority of writers will likely agree that the occasional extension is understandable, and excusable—and, indeed, most of the writers I spoke with while writing this story had, like me, never really considered the issue and had little or no problem with it; several assumed that writers who do take issue are, simply put, those who might be looking for someone to blame when they don’t win. But once extensions become a regular occurrence, a certain degree of skepticism is only natural. “The occasional deadline extension can be beneficial to all parties,” Monson says, “but it can also be an indication of an underlying issue. It’s okay to extend a deadline one year, but if you do it the next year, too, then something [may be] wrong structurally with your contest or the way it’s managed or publicized.”
Hunger Mountain, which like many publications relies on revenue from contests to cover operating expenses (paying writers, printing costs, and so on), extended the most recent deadline for its contest series in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and young adult and children’s writing, each charging a twenty-dollar entry fee—from March 1 to March 15. “We are a very small, dedicated staff,” says editor Miciah Gault. “We were late announcing our judges for the contest this year, so we thought it was only fair to extend the contest deadline once we’d finally announced those names. We have to leave enough time after announcing the judges to get a ton of entrants, so we know—and our readers know—that the winners really deserve that honor. This year, since the AWP conference fell in early March, we also felt that a March 1 deadline would be a missed opportunity for broadening our range of submissions.” Last year Hunger Mountain extended its contest deadline for the same reason, a late judges announcement, but only by one week. In both years the contest opened for entries on October 1 of the previous year, allowing for a five-month window for submissions.
“It’s not that we’re looking for any particular number of entries,” Gault says, “but if we see that the number is significantly lower than in previous years, we assume that we’ve done a poor job of promoting the prize, and we extend the deadline to redouble our efforts to promote.”
While it’s true that deadline extensions may benefit writers who missed the original entry period, for Colosi, who holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and has received awards for his visual artwork, the contest sponsors are ultimately the ones who win. “A deadline sets the terms that everyone agrees to play by,” he says. “When editors extend it, the advantage is only theirs and, I suppose, that of the late submitters. The punctual submitters lose. Just as my overlooking a typo or forgetting the word count or using Arial instead of Times New Roman would be a sign that I wasn’t organized or didn’t read the directions, so too does the sponsor appear disorganized when they extend the deadline. They can disqualify me for my error, but I can’t disqualify them for changing the terms.”
Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), the organization responsible for creating the CLMP Code of Ethics in 2005, defends the practice of extending deadlines. “Deadlines are extended routinely to allow greater participation,” he says. “I don’t think it’s unethical. If a deadline was extended many times over a long period, then one might question the ethics. I think writers should see this as a benefit. If it seems unfair, then I have to question the writer. Why is it unfair? Because the pool is larger? One has to believe in one’s own work. Whoever else applied doesn’t matter. As long as a work is awarded, and as long as guidelines are held to, then there’s nothing unethical about extending a deadline. I would see it as a gift to those who missed the deadline.”
The question then is whether contest sponsors have an obligation to be more transparent about the possibility that a deadline may be extended. After all, CLMP’s Code of Ethics states, in part, “We believe that intent to act ethically, clarity of guidelines, and transparency of process form the foundation of an ethical contest.” Disclaimers of the sponsors’ right to extend deadlines, however, are notably absent from the majority of contests’ fine print. “Ideally a publisher might state as part of their guidelines that they reserve the right to extend the deadline,” says Lependorf. “Greater transparency should always be a goal of contest guidelines. Ultimately the greatest beneficiaries of a contest should be writers, and writers should be provided with clear and appropriate information to allow them to make a reasoned, informed decision about participating or not.”
In the end it’s unlikely such measures would change the minds of writers like Colosi. “The bottom line is that when a deadline is extended, it increases my chances of losing,” he says. “And my goal in following all of the requirements is to increase my chances of winning.” To contest sponsors considering a deadline extension, Colosi offers this advice: “Take what you have and find the magic in it. Fix the problem next year. Until then, embrace a new winner that you probably never would have seen in a bigger crowd.”
Editor’s note: Let us know what you think. Are deadline extensions just a natural part of writing contests and this issue much ado about nothing? Or should sponsors stick to the deadline, just as they ask entrants to do? At the very least, should sponsors be more transparent about their reasons for extending a deadline? Send an e-mail to email@example.com and share your opinion.
Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017) and You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave (New Michigan Press, 2018). Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.