Should You Enter A Writing Contest?
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