In real life they're typesetters, street musicians, split ends on college football teams. But during the annual Mid- Atlantic Songwriting Contest, they're all denizens of Tin Pan Alley, hoping to get their songs heard, published or maybe even bought by an established artist.

This year marks the second annual contest, sponsored by the Songwriters' Association of Washington. By the end of the finals this Saturday, more than 215 cassette entries will have been heard in closed sessions by the dozen-plus judges. The contests have featured songs about unrequited love, ballads about cops and cub reporters, ditties about being buried in a Tupperware coffin ("If you miss me / Burp the seal"). Each entry is placed on a single cassette, and lyric sheets are passed to the judges, who listen for appealing melodies, catchy instrumental hooks, thoughtful lyrics and all the other elusive elements that go into making an interesting song.

Besides the satisfaction of knowing their songs have made an impression, the winners receive prizes of recording time at local studios and gift certificates at music stores. Winning songs are put on an album to be sold at area record stores, and last year they were also played on local radio stations and performed at a special Wolf Trap concert.

"My success with 'Willie and Me' was a direct result of the Wolf Trap performance," says Laurie Hyde of Takoma Park, whose country-flavored "Settle Down" was a winning entry last year. "Someone happened to be in the audience who knew Emmylou Harris, and he thought 'Settle Down' would be perfect for her. So I made her a cassette, and at the last minute I decided to put 'Willie and Me' on the tape, too. That's the one Emmylou wound up buying from me."

Hyde is a typesetter during the day, a musician at night. She recently formed a five-piece country rock band, and hopes to be doing the local club scene soon. But it was the songwriting contest that bolstered her confidence. "I guess I was writing songs for about two years before I ever got up the nerve to show them to anyone," she says. "But entering contests like this gives you a feeling of support. It certainly beats sitting alone in your room wondering if you're any good or not."

Judges on the panel include jazz and country musicians, members of the Navy Band, disc jockeys, pop music critics and radio programmers. "Every single judge makes his or her primary income through music, in some form or another," explains SAW contest coordinator Michael Zeiders, an employee of Studio Eight recording. "After being a part of this contest, and especially having entered it myself last year, I realize you really have to admire these people for what they do, because every time you put another tape in to listen, somebody has bared their soul for you."

Dave Allen, a pharmacist's technician from Bethany, found baring his soul particularly rewarding. Not only did his entry, "Front Page News," win first place in last year's contest; another of his tunes came in third. "It really did wonders as far as getting my name around town for bookings and what not," he says. He's written more than 200 songs since he started just a few years ago, and his first album, "Just Be Friends," was released locally late last year.

Blues musician Bill Harris, a judge on this year's panel, was so impressed by the talent he sampled that he wishes he'd thought up the contest himself. A regular weekend performer at Charlie's Georgetown and a longtime fixture of the Washington music scene, he says, "It's the kind of thing that would've helped me when I was just starting out." Harris spends a lot of time working with established musicians, and he says he'll now steer them to the contest entrants as a source of new original compositions.

"It's a terrific vehicle for people who are new at songwriting and lack self-confidence or orientation," says Zeiders. "A lot of the contestants end up joining the association because they discover that there is a songwriting community, there is support for their talents."

The album of last year's winning songs, just out, will soon be available at local stores. It's a representative sample of the variety and originality of Washington songwriters. If you've been humming to yourself a lot lately, or thinking about penning some tunes yourself, you might want to give it a listen for clues to what makes a song click. And who knows, you might even want to send in a tape of your own next year. WITH A SONG ON YOUR TAPE For information on how to enter next year's Mid-Atlantic Songwriting Contest (the fee is $8 per entry), write the Songwriters' Association of Washington, 13846 Delaney Road, Woodbridge, Virginia, or call Michael Zeiders, 703/690-2366 (long-distance from Maryland only) or Pat Smith, 628-1328.