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Three years ago, I was a winner of the W H Smith Young Writers' Competition. It was the first indication from the Real World that I could maybe, just maybe, think about writing for a living. There's nothing like a panel of total strangers for giving you the audacity to hope.

This year, that panel includes Michael Baldwin, Edward Blishen, Andrew Davies, Janni Howker, Jan Mark and Kit Wright, chaired by Ted Hughes. Some past winners are Shena MacKay and Marina Warner, the novelists, Neil Bartlett, the playwright and director, Hermione Lee, the literary critic, Duncan Forbes, the poet, and journalist Dina Rabinovich. Of course, winners don't absolutely have to go on to be writers. Look at Helena Bonham-Carter (above) and Kate Beckinsale.

Over 36 years, the competition has been entered by more than a million children. It started as the Daily Mirror Children's Literary Competition and W H Smith took it over in 1977. Last year, there were 30,000 entries.

The age categories are 13-16, 9-12 and (producing the most glorious submissions of all) 8- and-under, with 10 cash prizes awarded in each group. There are three special awards of pounds 150 in the oldest group, 27 prizes of pounds 150 to schools submitting work of consistent merit and up to three special awards of pounds 300 each to schools submitting work of outstanding quality. The winning entries will be announced in July and published in paperback next year.

The deadline for entries is Saturday 26 February 1994. Hurry]Emma Forrest

For further information, contact your local W H Smith or Lois Beeson, W H Smith Group PLC, Strand House, 7 Holbein Place, London SW1W 8NR. Tel 071-730 1200; fax 071-730 0195