Your mother was right. When she forced you to write torturous thank you letters to grandma, Uncle Bob, and everybody else who ever gave you a present, she was beating a skill into your head that's very useful in the world of grownups: The Thank-You Note.
Why? A thank-you note leaves a great impression. A contest win or an invitation to a conference to read your work is a gift. Treat it as such. Write a thank-you note for it, just like your mother taught you.
People enjoy getting thank-you notes, and few people think to send them. The poet who pens a thank-you note after they carry home the first prize stands out from the crowd. The author who sends a card to the store that hosted their signing will have a smoother time booking another event. A thank-you note shows that you care.
My fantasy short story "Sidruthain and the Boy" won second place in the Chistell Writing Contest, and when I received the check, I sent out a thank-you note. Here is the e-mail I received in response:
I returned home from vacation today. What a joy to receive a 'thank you' card from you for the Chistell writing contest!! Patricia, you are the very first person in 10 years to send a 'thank you' card! I appreciate what you did tremendously. Your card is sitting on my writing desk.
Thank you again! Keep writing!"
Is that an incredible response or what? The organizer of that contest is going to remember me forever. If I ever create something that's just perfect for her publishing company, she will be happy to look at it, because I am the writer whose note is on her desk.
I'd like to highlight the part of the e-mail where she says, "you are the very first person in 10 years to send a "thank you" card!" Before I sent the card, I was one of ten second place winners. Twenty, actually, because the contest also has a poetry category. That's not very special. After I sent the card, I was unique. Thank-you notes are rare, so you set yourself apart by sending them.
Have you ever noticed how many publishers run contests? If you win a contest and send a little thank-you note, won't that publisher be glad to see your future submissions? Or perhaps they will recommend you to their publisher friends. It's a small world, so you will probably encounter these people again.
Now, do you have to send a thank-you card out for every rejection letter you receive and every contest you lose? No. That would get ridiculous and expensive. It would clog the mailboxes of the very agents and publishers you are trying to please, and they don't like unnecessary mail. However, if your work is a finalist or they asked to see more of it before they said no, you might consider sending a note.
A thank-you card can also open the door for further correspondence. If you meet someone at a conference or convention and you enjoy talking to them or think they might be a valuable business connection, send them a thank-you card! You can e-mail it if you don't have their mailing address, but physical mail doesn't get caught in spam filters. Everyone likes getting envelopes that don't contain rejection letters.
Cute thank-you cards can be found wherever stationary is sold, and even in some bizarre places you wouldn't think to look. For example, I've seen them in the UPS store, at Walmart, most grocery stores, pharmacies, and, of course, specialty card stores. Some come in packs, and these are the most cost-effective. When you see a card you like, buy it. Heck, buy a few of them. You never know when you'll need them.
There are about forty gazillion varieties of thank-you cards, so express yourself! You can even have different cards for different occasions. I have a stately black and white card for times when I want to present myself as a serious poet. I have a couple of bright cards that are fun for play festivals and such. The thank-you card you send to the comedic poetry competition is probably not the same design you would send to the contest for stories of personal loss. Or it might be. It's up to you.
If you can't afford a bunch of fancy cards, write a letter on a sheet of paper. Since you're a writer, you probably have envelopes and paper lying around.
All you have to do is write between two and ten sentences about how thankful you are for whatever opportunity the recipient has presented to you. The cards tend not to be very large, so there's not a lot of room to get wordy unless your handwriting is tiny. Since you're a writer, this should be easy.
If you get stuck on what to write, stick to the basics. Say thank you and specify what you are thankful for. Say something like, "Thank you for providing me the opportunity to enter [name of contest here]." Tell them it has been a pleasure working with or interacting with them if it is even remotely true.
Give the card a personal touch. If you know the recipient's name, use it and spell it correctly (just like a query letter). If you happen to know their favorite color is blue, write in blue pen. Specify why you are thankful. Perhaps the contest inspired you, or you were glad to discover the organization. Maybe you learned something valuable. Let them know you appreciate them and look forward to working with them in the future.
It takes just a few minutes and a stamp to leave an incredible impression. So why not? Your mother will be proud.