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Should You Enter A Writing Contest?

October 1, 2013


Contest season is upon us. If you write poems or flash, short stories or creative nonfiction (personal essays or stand-alone pieces of memoir), then you may be thinking about entering a few of the many writing contests coming up. For first-timers, that means it’s time for worrying about whether or not your writing is up to snuff and second-guessing yourself over which piece has the best chance of winning–not to mention endless kvetching about where to hazard your chances, such as they are.

I may review particular contests in a later blog. At the end of this one, I’ll provide links to viable contests. But for now, let’s linger over an even more important issue: how do you know when you’re ready to enter a contest?

This may come as a shock to you, but I think this post could be proof positive that you are ready. If you are reading this and you are a writer, chances are very good that you are exactly the type of person who should be entering a writing contest. For now, let’s stop thinking of entering as the equivalent of winning. There’s a lot for budding writers to learn by going through the process of selecting, revising, and submitting their work to a contest. That’s the ultimate pay off — experience.

But experience is not free. And I would rather encourage writers to spend fifteen or twenty dollars on a major writing contest that they’ll probably lose then pay two or three dollars on a very minor contest that won’t earn them any significant prestige or experience even if they win. The reason is because many of the major contests are organized by the same editors who run major journals that many poets and writers are trying to break into. If you’re going to pay money, gambling with your chances, I’d suggest you play for meaningful stakes.

The payoff in sending to a major conference is that the editors who run them may recognize your name and your work. You become more familiar to them as a prospective contributor. Maybe not for the internationally acclaimed flagship journal they manage for the contest, but for the smaller, hip, up-and-coming journal they run themselves. Also, many contests include a year’s subscription to their journal as part of the entry fee.

And the best reason by far: even if you do not win, there may be a chance that you’ll be selected as a finalist. Some contests list as many as ten finalists thus increasing your chances. Take it from me, when you’re an emerging writer, being able to say that you’ve been recognized as a finalist in a major contest is almost as good as a win.

One of my short stories, “Flood Savings,” was selected by fiction phenom Matt Bell, editor of the Collagist, as a finalist for the 2012 William Richey Fiction Contest run by the Yemassee. When it got shortlisted here, I was over the moon. I eventually placed that story in a print journal, The Columbia College Literary Review, and now it has been reprinted here in the online journal the Pantheon. One contest-entry resulted in two publications, one badge of honor as a finalist, and a few very friendly exchanges by email and in person at the AWP with a major editor.

All of that good stuff seems funny to me looking back.  When I entered, I thought I had no chance. In fact, my story was mediocre weeks before entering, nothing like the form it’s in now. Knowing that I was considering it for a contest lit a fire under me. I remember being very serious about not looking at it for a week, then returning to it with fresh eyes. After that revision, I thought the story was perfect. That’s where my usual process stopped.

But because this story was for a contest, I sent it around to a few writer friends and got feedback. They helped me see what needed fine-tuning. I ejected an entire character who added little to the central tension and intensified some of the dreamy memory sequences my main character experiences. It was invaluable advice and precious experience.

If you’re feeling convinced, then here are some upcoming contests you should investigate:

The Tampa Review November 1 deadline

The Mid American Review November 1 deadline

The Briar Cliff Review November 1 deadline

Willow Springs November 15 deadline

From → writing tips

  1. Michael, thanks for the info. You’re the best!

  2. Nice article, and thanks for the links. 🙂

  3. Great advice, thanks!

  4. Reblogged this on The Path – J. Collyer's Writing Blog and commented:
    Some really good advice around writing contests: make the experience worth it for you

  5. Michael Andreoni permalink

    I totally agree with your advice to plump for the higher fee to enter a major contest. If you win the Ipswich Review Writing Prize–what then? Apologies if there’s actually an Ipswich Review out there somewhere. I’m sure you and your contest are awesome.

    • That’s right. And I know too many writers who have minor and less-than-minor contest wins under their belt–and I mean way under!–who don’t ever mention them on their bios for fear that meager wins make them look bad. While I don’t condone that behavior (shame-driven activity is rarely good for the soul), I certainly do understand it. Some contests are sponsored by journals that may not exist two or three years from now. These are to be avoided for obvious reasons.

  6. Thanks for this good information. I looked at the publications you suggested and even read the winning short story from the Willow Springs 2013 contest. It was good, The Man with the Nightmare Gun. If you haven’t read it, you should. I love the narrator’s voice, it really pulled me in.

    • I do know that story, having done the exact thing you did upon investigating the journal. That’s one of the joys of being a writer, I think, sharing great work. Check out Foreman’s book about the objects his dead aunt left behind, We’re All Dealers in Used Furniture.

  7. currankentucky permalink

    Thanks for the links, Mid American Review… here I come!! LOL

    • That’s a great journal. The Bowling Green grad students who run it are definitely up-and-comers. Even a non-winning entry could make an impression, paying off on your investment in unseen ways down the road.

      • currankentucky permalink

        Jeepers, you should be a paid motivational speaker – if you’re already not – Thanks again!

      • currankentucky permalink

        Good to hear, otherwise it would be a wasted talent!!

  8. Great information. I’ve been struggling to find contests that I know are legit. It’s really hard to tell unless you know someone who is familiar with them. Thanks.

    • No problem, Billy. There are lots of signs indicating a contest to be merely self-serving. But it’s probably easier to just focus on signs of legitimacy.
      * Is the conference sponsored by a reputable journal? Reputable journals have been around for a while. Many, but not all, are housed within established creative writing programs at universities or colleges. If not, check to see if the journal is run by poets and writers who are reputable. Can you find their work elsewhere on line and do you admire it? If not, then take your money run as Steve Miller would say.

      • Would it be too much to ask for a review on my latest flash, Two More Shots on I have grown to respect your critique and knowledge, especially in flash. A simple thumbs up or down or whatever would be greatly appreciated. 😊

      • I’ll give it a look.

  9. I feel like I don’t submit to contests because I have it in my head that most of them are just money-grabs for whoever’s running the contest. Probably just paranoia/procrastination on my part…

    • That’s not such a far off thought. Some of them are nothing more than money-grabs. The best ones, in my view, are basically free. Sure you pay the contest entry fee, but if you get a year’s subscription to a top flight literary journal, then there’s a real incentive. A better way to think of it is that you pay for the subscription and get to enter a contest for free when you do.

  10. Oh, and love your Thunderdome nod.

  11. Thank you for the good advice. Do you know if any of this contests would be open to non-native English writers?(or if they will accept a text translated into English from another language)?

    • Some of them do accept translations. Although for that issue, I would suggest prowling around the sites and pages of magazines that actively seek a global audience–Guernica comes to mind.

      • Thank you! I am completely new to this global world of lit mag, as I told you before. Without your blog, I would still be in the dark 🙂 I am looking at Guernica right now and looks amazing. xx

      • There are other mags, too, that specialize in international writing and that regularly use translations–Prism International, Cerise (French/English), Fiction International, lots of others. You might try a google search using key terms and your particular language focus– punch in “Submissions” “literary magazine” etc. and your language interests. That should do it.

  12. yes indeed,
    most sincere thanks for the words,
    for the knowledge.
    Does your little bag,
    my friend behind the curtain,
    contain any courage,
    or a heart,
    laying ‘neath this brain
    that you share?

    I would appreciate
    “the nerve”,
    and perhaps,
    perhaps you have lent it.
    We shall see.

    • If you don’t have the nerve right now to enter, sneak up on yourself. That’s what worked for the cowardly lion. He didn’t know how courageous he really was. I’d say, prepare a whole document to send off for a contest you’re curious about. Then sleep on it. Let the stress of it wear away. Then WHAM! send it off when you least suspect what’s happening! Nerve will come easily after that.

  13. Thanks for the link to the Willow Springs contest. We’re actually going to be moving our contest to spring this year, but haven’t picked the date yet.

    I’ve sometimes agonized over the ethics surrounding contests — because I don’t want to take money from people to read their work. The way we deal with that issue at Willow Springs is to give every contest entrant a one year subscription to the magazine.

    Another thing to consider about contests: Your odds of being published in a particular journal are often better through the contest than through a normal submission, simply because there’s less competition. At least that’s the case at Willow Springs, where we typically publish about one story per thousand submissions. With the contest, the odds are more like 1 in 300.

    One final thing to consider: I’m usually approached by at least one agent a year who’s read and loved our contest winning story and wants contact information for the writer.

    These are some reasons to consider entering a contest. But you also don’t need to enter a contest. They cost money, so you have to choose the journals that really matter to you — where you really want your work to appear.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    Sam Ligon
    Editor, Willow Springs

  14. Rachael Charmley permalink

    An informative post. I’ve been entering competitions for a few years now, and have learnt one or two things, Some of which you have mentioned:

    1. Don’t bother entering competitions you haven’t heard of.
    2. Stick to the big guys – they’re the ones that count in the big wide world.
    3. It’s a lottery. Look at the competition’s history. Look at who/what has been shortlisted in the past. If you write literary fiction and they like sci-fi, don’t bother. Obvious perhaps, but then…
    4. It’s not about winning – it’s really about being short listed and getting your name out there.
    5. Competitions are about upping your profile.

    Keep it coming!

  15. Thanks for the nod to the Mid-American Review contests!

    I love our contests because it’s a chance for us to see new writers, people who maybe haven’t submitted to a lit journal before. Sometimes experimental and unusual work emerges for contests, work we wouldn’t otherwise see. Robert Long Foreman’s “On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines” is a great example—a finalist for last year’s Sherwood Anderson that we printed as the runner-up/Editors’ Choice selection. It has graphs in it, and a highly unusual, almost voyeuristic approach on someone’s dreams. Sure, it didn’t win the prize, but we printed it, and it now has a lot of eyes on it! I also got to meet Robert at AWP, which was fun. We always print a few finalists from the contests, so that’s a plus.

    You’re absolutely right, Michael, about name recognition, and we have established a lot of writer-editor relationships this way; we look forward to seeing work from some of the folks we “met” via the contests. Contests can be career launchers.

    Everyone who enters MAR contests gets the issue with the winners/finalists, and that’s a great way for us to get our journal into more hands. Jumping off from what Sam said, contests—and journals/subscriptions—cost money. Sending contest entries to places that put out a product you like is a great way to support them and yourself at the same time.

    On a practical level, the reality for a reputable journal contest is that contests help fund the next issue. They make it possible to print and distribute. This is why I support sending contest entries to journals you like/admire—as I said, you’re supporting your career and supporting the journal’s distribution of great literature. At the same time—well, as I said, I love reading contest entries. They’re exciting. present new writers, and give our editorial staff a break from regular submissions.

    On a personal note, I’ve rarely been successful at writing competitions myself. But when I had a book to try to publish, I plunged right in. I paid special attention to who was judging—if my manuscript went to the semis or final round, would my work resonate with that judge? Of course, I also sent to presses whose books I really liked—good writers, good products, good support for the writers. I think the same advice applies to regular contests!

    Happy Entering,
    Abigail Cloud
    Editor-in-Chief, Mid-American Review

  16. Reblogged this on The Bard's Tale – A K Hinchey's Writing Blog and commented:
    A fantastic post originally reblogged by my wonderful friend Jex. It contains great advice on how to become better known in the literary circles. It also promotes wonderful creativity and the experience of entering competitions; revising, editing and submitting your work. Enjoy 🙂

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