If you are thinking about entering a writing contest, google “writing contests.” Dozens of links will pop up. When you click on the links, hundreds of contests emerge. Even when you specify a genre such as “short story,” “poetry,” or “memoirs,” you will find so many links that it seems almost impossible to wade through them.
The opportunities abound, as new contests appear every day. One way to look at writing contests is that the opportunities seem almost endless, so, surely, if you can just find the right one . . . . Or you could look at it another way and agree with the many writers who believe that the chance of winning is as remote of a possibility as the probability of winning the lottery. Entering contests requires research, which means a lot of time. The question that many writers have is: is it really worth the effort?
Pay Attention to the Details
I enter contests quite often. While I usually don’t win, I have won several. And there have been years that the prize for winning one contest more than covered the entry fees for the others I entered. So even though I’m not a big winner, I say yes — it’s worth the effort to try.
Entering writing contests helps writers prepare to follow the rules. That’s good practice for a writing career.
Contest deadlines are rigid. At the college where I teach, I tell my creative writing students that your professor may be sympathetic if you were sick and missed the due date for your story, but don’t count on that if you’re entering a contest.
Entries must comply with specific length and formatting guidelines. Exceeding the maximum word count or failing to double space or using a fancy font are sure ways to announce: I am a novice!
In order to have a chance at winning, the writer must give proper attention to revising, editing, proofreading, and polishing. A professional writer who submits proposals and manuscripts over and over again knows that deadlines must be met, guidelines must be followed, and the writing product must be the best it can be.
The (Potential) Path to Publishing
Sometimes contests can be a stepping stone to publication. Killer Nashville, an annual mystery conference that I attend, offers awards for the best unpublished manuscripts in several subgenres of mystery or thriller. The entry fee is $40 (not pocket change), but many of the winners and finalists over the past years have gone on to get their books published. Agents and editors who are guests of the conference usually invite those writers to submit their manuscripts.
The fact that a manuscript has done well in a contest doesn’t guarantee that it’s publishable, but judges, who know something about good writing, have chosen it above many others. That gets the attention of agents and editors.
Fees, Prizes, and Sponsors
The cost of entering writing contests is certainly a concern. When entering a writing contests that require book-length manuscripts, be aware that entry fees can be substantial. But if you’re submitting shorter works like short stories, poems, or memoirs, you’ll find many contests with minimal fees. Some are even free. Google “free short story contests,” for example, and you will be surprised at the number of offerings.
Another thing to consider is the prize for winning. It stands to reason that the more appealing the prize, the more competitive the contest will be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to win a $5,000 award, but your odds might be better if the first prize is only $200.
For many poetry contests, sponsoring publications only offer copies of their publications as the prize. But don’t discount the value of winning, especially if the poetry journal is one that produces quality poetry. After all, when you list the award on your resume, you don’t disclose the amount of the prize.
You’ll also want to note who’s sponsoring the contest. Some names are recognizable, like the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) contests, Writer’s Digest contest, and the Iowa Review Awards. Writers who are new to contests may be tempted to go for those big names. Just remember that the competition is stiff.
Types of Writing Contests
Many contests are designed for a specific group. Unpublished writers, veterans, writers from a certain state, writers who have published at least one book, writers under thirty — these are just a sampling of what I’ve found.
Some contests are designed around a theme. Pay attention to the blurb that describes the contest. Also, if you have access to the stories or poems that were previous winners, it’s worth reading them. Though the judges probably won’t be the same when you enter, studying winning entries can help you improve your craft.
Beware of contests that bait writers to buy something. Several students have told me that the poems they submitted to a free contest were going to be in an anthology, and they could buy the anthology for a substantial amount. Be skeptical of “deals” that sound as if they are selling books rather than putting poems through a rigorous judging process.
After entering many writing competitions, I have become very selective. Sometimes I try for a prestigious award from a national magazine or sponsor; sometimes I entered contests with no entry fee or a minimal fee ($10 or $15). I will spend $20 or $25 to enter a contest that seems a great fit for my story or story collections.
I’ve had the most success entering regional contests. I’ve won or placed several times in a particular contest for short fiction. This year, I was a finalist for two contests at the Killer Nashville conference, and I just won one of them — the Silver Falchion 2019 Award for Best Cozy. So, winning does happen!
The Benefits of Entering a Writing Contest
Winning a writing contest boosts confidence, to be sure, but consider the other benefits. They look great on your resume. They could lead to publication. They give you experience. They help you hone your craft. They teach you to meet deadlines and pay attention to guidelines. It’s worth your time and a few dollars to try a few. And who knows? You might win!
WNBA-related Writing Contests
Phyllis Gobbell (Nashville) joined WNBA when the Nashville Chapter was young. In addition to her position as Associate Professor of English at Nashville State Community College, she writes a little bit of everything. Her latest book, Treachery in Tuscany, is part of the Jordan Mayfair Mystery Series which includes Secrets and Shamrocks and Pursuit in Provence. Gobbell was a founding member of a writers’ group that has met on Tuesday nights for — yes! — nearly four decades! She has received awards in both fiction and nonfiction, including Tennessee’s Individual Artist Literary Award.
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