Do you know hundreds of writing contests are held every year? Some contests award cash prizes, some publication of your entry and many promote winners through ceremonies, media and social media. And all come with opportunities for winners to network with judges and other writers.
The pros of entering contests:
Confidence: Winning gives you confidence; winning money makes your day!
Contacts: Making the short-list puts your work in front of influencers: editors, publishers, and important authors. Glimmer Train publishes the long and short lists from its monthly contests.
Discipline: Learning to meet deadlines is a plus in the publishing world. Also taking time away from your novel while you research and enter contests gives you fresh eyes for revision when you get back.
Prestige: If you win a prestigious contest it goes a long way to helping you get noticed in your query letter.
Publication: Having your entry published in a magazine, anthology, blog website or book may be a benefit for finalists and winners.
The Cons of entering contests:
Fees: If your contest isn’t prestigious, the risk may cost too much. The good news, most entry fees are low.
Exclusivity: Often while the work is being judged, you can’t submit it anywhere else.
No prestige: Little known contests may pay a small prize but won’t offer you a leg up in your career.
Rejection: Just because your piece didn’t place doesn’t make you a loser! It might have been short-listed and not announced. Believe that the work will eventually win or publish. It’s a numbers game.
I’m all for entering contests. If you’re just starting out writing, shifting to a new genre, or kicking-up a stalled writing career, contests can be a real boon. They’re a place to test the waters of your work. If you do your homework and become familiar with the editorial slants of the contest sponsors and judges, you’ll learn about new journals, new books, new poets, etc., which may benefit you in the future. Think of this strategy as your long game. You’ll never know when you’ll have a win unless you try it.
In a 2015 Poets and Writers article on contests, staff writers interviewed nine popular judges including Dinty W. Moore and the Glimmer Train team: Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda Swanson-Davies asking what they look for in entries and what advice they had for entrants.
What Judges look for:
Stories that are absorbing—that make the reader want to read them straight through.
Work that shines—work that’s had the throat clearing edited out, as well as the flabby over-inflated sentences—especially in the hook.
A distinctive voice.
Work that catches the reader up into John Gardner’s waking dream.
Original work, not emulations of other writers.
Poetry that doesn’t include cliches, clumsy metaphors or shallow emotional or intellectual engagement.
Work that demonstrates the mission of the specific sponsoring press.
Work that is error free.
Heightened, textural language.
Works that are unusual in ambition and execution—fresh
If you plan to enter contests heed the judges’ advice:
Write good work.
Submit only your best, well-edited work.
Research your contests. Who is sponsoring and what do they look for? Read several issues of the publications before submitting. You can increase your odds by making sure you know what a magazine or press might take.
Get to know the judges for the same reasons. What did they write? While judges’ taste isn’t predictable, you can use the contest to get your work in front of writers you admire and possibly start a longer kind of dialog.
Read the work of the prior year winners.
Submit work that is written in a typescript easy on the eyes.
It isn’t always just about winning—other benefits might surface such as making important connections.
Don’t aim too high: work your way up as your writing improves. Literary careers are built in increments.
You’re not going to win if you don’t enter.
Look for contests where judges critique your entry. Learn from your mistakes.
What have you got to lose?