At some point in our writing careers, most of us consider submitting our work to contests. With entry fees as low as five dollars, the temptation to win some money, garner some attention, or even get published can be attractive.
Writing contests are usually sponsored by publications, publishers, or organizations who invite entries from the general public. For a small fee (ostensibly to cover the costs of holding the contest, but on some rare occasions for profit), writers are invited to submit a piece that meets specific guidelines for formatting, word count, and topic or genre. A deadline is set, and the entry fee is collected. The contest sponsor then reviews the work, often through guests judges who are not only familiar in the genre but are likely to have some experience in publishing, writing, or reviewing. The winner is announced and receives some combination of the following: money, publication, services, prizes, recognition, and—of course—bragging rights. Even those who don’t win have a new piece of work to show for their efforts—not the worst thing, as we’ll get to in a moment.
So if you’re interested in entering a writing contest, where do you start?
“Look for contests sponsored by nonprofit literary groups, established publications, reputable publishing houses, colleges, and universities,” suggests Amy Cook in The Truth About Writing Contests. “Some small presses run contests simply to find books to publish. While this can be legitimate, be wary of any that have said in past years that they didn’t find anything publishable—yet they kept the entry money. Annual contests should provide, either on their website or upon request, a list of past winners.”
That’s not all you should look for. According to Cook, there are other ways to ascertain a contest’s credibility and authenticity. “Make sure the contest rules state the following: deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes, circumstances in which prizes will or won’t be awarded, judging, and what rights, if any, you’re granting.”
The question of rights is probably one of the stickiest aspects of writing competitions, and it’s one that often catches authors by surprise. Imagine, for instance, you have written an incredible essay—easily some of your best writing—and you won $100 in a contest. But what if that means the publisher gets to keep the rights to that essay? You’d not only never be able to publish it elsewhere (including in any kind of book), but those who ran the contest now have the full rights to your work. They can publish it in their magazine, on their website, or even in a book. Suddenly that $100 prize doesn’t feel so satisfying, does it?
Many years ago, I was on the contest bandwagon. I wasn’t looking to win money so much as opportunities, such as attending a writing retreat or writing for coveted publications. So I entered a contest held by a travel guide publication. The winning prize was a most-of-your-expenses-paid trip to Europe as a travel writer. I didn’t win, but my entry—a short piece about Bear River, a tiny arts enclave in Nova Scotia—remains on the travel guide’s website. I paid them to enter the contest, and they got free travel content from me. Win-win for them, lose-lose for me.
“Check if they’re doing a sneaky rights-grab,” warns Cook. “For instance, there are some contests where the main prize is the publication of your book. One such contest’s rules state that, although the winner keeps the copyright, the sponsor takes an ‘irrevocable, exclusive, royalty-free, time-unlimited, and world-wide right to use the work in whole or part for any and all purposes related to the commercial exploitation of the work.’” Cook recommends you ensure you’re not giving all your rights away but are just licensing them; once you sign the rights away, you usually can’t get them back.
Even knowing the caveats, entering writing contests can potentially be a great source of motivation and recognition for authors. If you’re having a kind of crisis of motivation, entering a contest can be a really great way to compel yourself to keep working, create hard deadlines, and get the work finished. If you don’t win, you have a spanking new piece of writing to shop somewhere else, or even enter in another contest. Contests can also be a direct line to industry folks who might be interested in working with you or promoting your work.
When you’re looking for and entering a writing contest, keep your purpose in mind. Why do you want to enter a writing contest? Is it the sweet, sweet cash that you’re after, the recognition, or just the achievement of having completed a new piece of work?
“Before you submit your work anywhere, sit back and think: What are my goals with this piece? What matters about writing to you? Why are you writing? What do you want to achieve? What’s your end-game scenario?” writes Holly Lyn Walrath in Are Writing Contests Worth Entering? After all, she points out, contests aren’t the only way to get published. “I’ve been a finalist and winner in several contests, but my best luck at publishing has been from places that don’t even charge a submission fee and instead focus on paying their writers.”
If you decide to go for it and enter a contest, follow these important pieces of advice:
First, familiarize yourself with the kinds of writing the publication endorses. Check out the winners, and look to see what kinds of voices appeal to the publication or even the judges (if you know who they are). This is also a great way to assess if the contest is a good fit.
Second, read the contest requirements and follow them to the letter. This piece of advice is both the most obvious and the most overlooked. “Be particularly aware of word restrictions, manuscript formatting preferences, and whether or not your contact information should appear on the manuscript,” warns Suzannah Windsor Freeman in The Pros and Cons of Entering Writing Contests. “Contests that are ‘judged blind’ often ask that you remove your name and contact details from the piece so as not to bias judges’ opinions. I submitted an entry to such a contest earlier this year, only to discover afterward that I’d removed my contact details from the upper corner of the piece, but left my full name right below the title. It’s entirely possible that my piece was disqualified for this, and my entry fee wasted.”
Third, approach each contest with a sense of adventure. Try submitting to multiple contests, and whenever you can, avoid getting too emotionally invested in the results. As Walrath says, “The best advice I can offer to writers interested in being a professional writer is to look at your career from a wider view. Submit as much as you can and to as many markets as you can. Aim high and have faith in your work…Getting hung up on one submission or one contest derails you from writing the next great thing.”