Writing contests offer more than just the joy of being published. They offer not only the sense of being accepted, but the sense of having won. They are the ultimate affirmation of one's ability as a writer. But what does it take to be a winner? Every year, thousands of writers enter competitions -- but only a small percentage of those entrants have a chance of winning. Wanting to win isn't enough. You must take steps to elevate your submission above the rest.
Before you ask what you should submit, ask whether you should submit. Your first step in creating a winning contest entry is determining what contests to enter. While many seem similar, every contest looks for different things, and offers different benefits. Before you pop that entry (and that fee) into the mail, do a little background research. Here are some things to find out:
1) Is the competition reputable?
Often, a good clue to a contest's "reputability" is its longevity. While there's nothing wrong with a "first annual" contest, such a title suggests that the competition may have some growing pains to get through before it becomes established. (Many never become "second annuals.") If a contest has been around for ten years, however, or twenty, or fifty, that's a good indication that it knows what it's doing. Further, no competition is likely to survive for decades if it has a reputation, for example, of failing to pay its winners.
Longevity isn't the only factor, however. Check WinningWriters.com to see if a competition is "recommended," and why (or why not). This site comments on such issues as whether contest organizers respond to questions or provide lists of previous years' winners, or whether a competition is more suited to emerging or advanced writers. Preditors and Editors is another good site to check for warnings about unethical contests.
2) Does the competition match your interests and style?
There is no point in entering a competition for material that you would not normally write -- or read. If, for example, you have no interest in literary fiction or poetry, never read it, and have never written it, don't waste time (or money) entering a literary competition. Conversely, if you've never read a science fiction story in your life, don't enter a speculative fiction contest. Never assume that "you can do better" in a category of writing that you scorn.
3) Is the competition suited to your level of expertise?
While some competitions are open only to either (a) writers with no previous publications or (b) writers with a specific number of publication credentials, most competitions are open to "all writers." However, don't assume that all competitions are created equal. Some are more suited for emerging writers; others, for writers with significant experience and a history of publications.
Since most competitions don't actually state whether they are more suited to beginners or experienced writers, one way to find out what type of writer has the best chance of winning is to look at the previous years' winners. If bios are provided, check to see whether previous winners are already noted in their field, with multiple publication credits -- or whether this is their first "win" or publication. If bios are not provided, try looking up the winners' names; chances are, at least some will have their own author sites or blogs, where you may be able to learn more about their credentials.
As a more general rule, the more established and "big-ticket" a competition, the more likely it is to attract (and therefore favor) more experienced writers. A good place for the newer writer to break in and start getting some "wins" under the belt is sites that offer monthly or bimonthly competitions (see the "Recurring Contests" sections). These usually have low entry fees and are aimed much more toward the beginning writer. Many such sites offer memberships, which provide a discount on entry fees (and in some cases, you have to be a member to participate).
4) What type of material has won the competition in the past?
Many competitions post the winning entries on their websites. Indeed, for a vast number of competitions, "publication" is included as part of the winner's package. Other competitions post a PDF file of the year's winning entries. So whenever possible, take a moment to browse through last year's winning entries for any contest that interests you. Do you find yourself thinking, "I would never in a million years write something this _____" (fill in the blank)? Then move on. Or, do you find yourself thinking, "I can do better than this"? Then go for it!
5) What interests the judges?
I owe this tip to John Howard Reid, author of Write Ways to Win Writing Contests, a book I highly recommend for anyone serious about entering (and winning) writing competitions. It would never have occurred to me to study the credentials of the judges of a competition, but as Reid points out, their interests are going to be the deciding factor in who wins and who doesn't. Reid makes an excellent case for the argument that just because a contest claims to be open to "any subject or theme," that doesn't mean it really is. If a judge despises speculative fiction, even though speculative fiction stories may be "accepted" into the competition, you can be certain they're not going to win. Similarly, if a judge loathes rhymed poetry, or has a history of publishing nothing but verse so "free" it can barely tolerate the limits of a printed page, your traditional sonnets aren't going to get far in an "open" competition, no matter how unrestricted the guidelines.
So take a moment to read the bios of the judges for a competition, if available. Find out what they've written. Find out what their interests are. I noted, for example, that a judge in one of the contests listed herein has a special interest in archaeology; since I'm interested in archaeology as well, if I were to enter that contest, I'd certainly take that into consideration when crafting my entry.
6) How is the competition judged?
Competitions are judged in many different ways. Some competitions seek out "big names" in the field to serve as judges, as such names add prestige to the contest. Others are judged by editors, publishers or agents in the field. Still others are judged by readers. Each approach has its pros and cons.
Big-name judges, for example, provide prestige not only to the competition, but to the winners they select. It's great to be able to declare that your entry was chosen as a winner by someone admired and respected in the field. However, such judging can be highly variable; what one judge loves, another may loathe.
Editors and agents focus on the type of material they themselves would consider for publication (particularly if the winning entries are to be published by the sponsoring organization). Thus, any material that would not normally be published by the sponsor is unlikely to win such a competition.
Judging by readership uses the "popular vote" method. It's most often used by competition sites that host regular monthly contests (though not all such sites use this method!). Unfortunately, such a method doesn't necessarily signify that your entry was of high quality; it could simply mean that it was considered the least awful of the available options.
The method of judging is also important. Ideally, each entry should be judged on its own merits, rather than in comparison to other entries. In other words, judging should not be simply a matter of comparing entries and choosing a favorite (which is the definition of the readership "popularity vote" method). In many competitions, judges are provided with guidelines or a scoresheet that assigns point values to various aspects of an entry, such as theme, voice, originality, technical ability (e.g., grammar, punctuation, spelling), presentation, appropriateness, etc. Each entry is tallied individually, and if more than one judge is involved, the tallies are then totalled to provide the winning scores. This method helps ensure that all the judges involved are more or less "on the same sheet of music" with respect to what to look for in determining a winning entry.
7) What does the competition offer, and what does it require?
Prize money is nice, but is often only part of the contest picture. If you win, what else will you gain? Will your work be published in a reputable journal or magazine? Will it be published online or in print? Will the award be an asset to your reputation and publication history?
If the contest is for a book-length manuscript and part of the "prize" is a publication contract, evaluate the publishing company and its contract carefully before submitting. How will your book be published? How will it be distributed? Will you receive a cash award that is equivalent to a commercial advance? Does the contract include future royalty payments? Most important, is this a publisher you would choose for this book, if you weren't entering a contest?
Some competitions offer critiques in addition to prizes, often for an additional fee. This year, I've noticed several competitions offering a choice between a "checklist" critique and a detailed, written critique (the former for a lower fee, of course). This can be helpful to an emerging writer, but before you shell out the fee, be sure that the feedback will be provided by someone qualified to evaluated and comment upon your material. Keep in mind as well that all feedback is subjective, regardless of who offers it; you may not always agree with it. Regardless of how you feel about the evaluation you receive, however, always remain polite and professional. Never argue, complain, or challenge the judges' decisions. (It's also a good idea to send a polite thank-you note to the judge and/or critiquer; many judges have commented on what a good impression this rare gesture makes.)
In addition to asking what you will gain from a contest, you should also determine what you stand to lose. What rights will you give up if you win the award? If the material is published, will you lose the right to submit it elsewhere? Will the sponsor also tie up potential anthology rights? Some competitions state that all submissions will be considered for publication, though only the winning entries will receive payment. Are you willing to risk having your material published for free just for a chance at a prize?
7) Why is the competition being held?
The "ideal" purpose for any writing competition is to recognize and reward good writing. Many competitions exist to do precisely that, and only that. For the majority of literary magazines and small presses, entry fees are simply a means of funding that recognition through cash awards. In most cases, judges and contest organizers receive no fees for their services.
Since the goal of most literary publications and small literary presses is to publish material that they consider of high literary merit but that has, to be blunt, little commercial appeal, many such organizations also rely upon contest entry fees to support their operations throughout the year. In this case, your entry fees are helping fund the publication of writesr who might not otherwise be able to get into print. Many small and university presses also use competitions to select and fund the publication of an annual or biannual chapbook of literary poetry, short fiction or creative nonfiction.
Other competitions, however, seem to exist solely as a means of harvesting reading fees for their general submissions. This is often the case if all entries are considered for publication, or if the "contest" is a means of soliciting submissions for an anthology, where everyone must pay to be considered but only a handful will be paid for inclusion. Be wary of publishers or individuals engaged in commercial (for-profit) publishing who expect you to pay for the privilege of being considered for publication, and who pay their contributors in the form of "awards" rather than flat rates.
Finally, avoid at all costs those so-called "contests" whose only goal is to entice you to buy the publication in which your "winning entry" appears. In this type of contest, everyone is a "winner" -- no matter how dreadful your entry, you'll receive a nice, almost-personal letter praising it to the skies and asking your permission to include it in the next anthology, which you can purchase for just $45 (or $65 if you'd like the deluxe leather-bound edition). Fortunately, the most notorious of these contests, the International Library of Poetry, has ceased operation. (Its website, Poetry.com, is now owned by Lulu.com, a print-on-demand publishing firm.)
Before you read further, it's important to understand one thing: There is absolutely nothing, no magic formula or "insider secret," that can guarantee a contest win. The only way to improve your chances is to do your best -- and hope that it's better than everyone else's "best."
Keep in mind that failing to win a contest is not the same thing as losing. If a competition offers three prizes, then only three entrants can win. This does not make the remaining entrants "losers." Those entries (and yours) may indeed have been every bit as good as the winning entries -- but only three prizes will be given, even if 100 entries were worthy of those prizes. And many competitions attract not just a hundred entries, but several hundred.
There are, however, some foolproof ways to lose a contest: By submitting poor work, inappropriate work, or work that does not meet the contest requirements. Your first goal, therefore, is not so much to attempt to win as to ensure that your entry isn't disqualified before it ever reaches a judge.
1) Read the contest guidelines carefully.
The first and most important step you must take is to read everything the contest organizers want you to know. In some cases, this may not seem like a great deal ("send us your best story" -- duh!). In other cases, the guidelines may specify format requirements (including font face and font size), eligibility restrictions and other details that can go on for pages. The guidelines will also tell you exactly where to send your submission, how many copies to send, where to submit payment, and any other technical details you need to know.
These guidelines are a test -- and the first thing organizers will look for is evidence that you have passed. It only takes a single deviation from the rules -- putting your name on a submission, using a 10-point font when the guidelines specify 12-point, single-spacing your story, or offering 510 words when 500 is the limit -- to have your entry disqualified. If you fail to conform to even one of the contest requirements, your entry will never even get read -- and your fee will not be refunded. Disqualified entries are simply discarded, end of story.
2) Send exactly what, and only what, the competition requests.
If a contest says "no genre fiction," don't send your vampire romance. If it says "1000 words," don't send 1200 and hope no one will notice. If it says "poetry to 60 lines," don't write 61 (and remember that stanza breaks count as lines). If it says that entries must be printed in 12-point Courier, don't send a manuscript in 10-point Times. The very fact that so many contests specify that entries must be typed on white paper suggests that there are, even now, people who send in handwritten entries on pink stationery. Don't be one of them!
3) Submit your material on time.
Make sure that you know whether the contest deadline is a postmark deadline or an "in-hand" deadline. Many contests require entries to be received by the deadline, rather than simply mailed. If the entry deadline falls upon a weekend or holiday, mail it early enough to be postmarked prior to that date. Keep in mind as well that many competitions have a "start date" prior to which no entries will be accepted. Submitting an entry too early can be just as bad as submitting it too late; if it arrives at the wrong time, it will simply be discarded.
4) Send only your best work.
One might think this goes without saying, and yet... There are many writers who simply send whatever they happen to have handy or that seems to meet the contest criteria. Some send the same entries to contest after contest. In a competition that I regularly judged over nearly two decades, there were no limits on the number of entries a writer could submit -- and I'd see 20 or 30 submissions from the same writer. This always struck me as sheer laziness: It suggests a writer who can't or won't choose his or her "best" work and simply hopes that one of these multiple entries will "rise to the top." Instead of flooding a contest with material and hoping for the best, you'll do a much better job of impressing a judge by choosing, or crafting, a piece that has the best chance of rising to the top.
Again, nothing can guarantee that your submission will win. By taking steps to choose the right contests and send them the right material, however, you'll be putting your entry far ahead of those that fail to follow these simple rules. If you do, you can't "lose."
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