How Do I Count Thee? Let Me Count the Ways!

by Becky Alexander


I enjoy submitting work to various poetry contests: this is a way of ‘getting my work out there’, and also gives me the opportunity to win a bit of glory, and maybe even some cash! One thing I have learned is to check how the poem lines in such contest entries are counted.

The usual standard is that the actual lines in the body of the poem are the ones counted: the title and the space underneath are not usually considered in the line total. But sometimes they do! Some contests count the spaces between lines as well, and some contests do not.

I recently prepared work for a poetry contest of which I was not familiar. The rules stated ’25 line max.’ per category. But did that include the title, the space underneath the title, and stanza line breaks? There was no clarification for this, so I emailed the contest chair and asked directly. In this case, the lines in the actual body of the poem were the only ones counted.

Entering contests is an interesting and worthwhile activity for poets, but if your line count is wrong, your poem will be turfed, no matter how good it is. The first and foremost rule that all contest judges are asked to first check is that all rules were followed. I have judged many poetry contests in North America, and I can tell you firsthand that there is nothing harder than having to disqualify a brilliant piece of work because the lines were not counted correctly.

So do your homework. If the rules for a potential contest do not directly state how that group or society counts lines for its contests, find out, before you send.

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer. Her work has been published in five countries, and has won hundreds of awards. She runs Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.

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