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Contesting: Why and How
by Kathryn Lay

Return to Tips to Winning Writing Contests · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I won my first writing contest when I was in high school. I had been writing for many years, but with the busyness and activity of high school, time with friends and family, I put away my writing. And then the contest was announced. My biggest fan, my mother, encouraged me to enter, so I wrote and entered a thriller short story. The judges were professors from the local college. I believed I had no chance to win. But as I sat in class one afternoon, the announcements were made over the loud speaker. My writer's heart leapt when my name was called and a girl from the creative writing club came into the room, placing a beautiful engraved First Place plaque into my hands.

Since that time, I've placed over 100 times in various writing contests. Contests are profitable (in more than one way), encouraging, a chance for learning and preparation, and motivating. Opportunities abound for entering prose and poetry in contests, whether through local writer's groups, magazines, online sites, or book publishers. There are many ways that entering contests can be beneficial to your writing.

Learning manuscript preparation

You won't win a contest with a sloppy, ill prepared, hard-to-read manuscript. As a contest entrant, I've seen how manuscripts sent in a hurry kept me from winning at all. Sometimes after studying the scoring points or judge's comments, I found that my 3rd Place or Honorable Mention would have placed higher if I had been more careful checking my spelling, making sure the my ink wasn't too light, and making sure to follow every rule. As a contest judge, I've often had to choose between one or another well-written entry as final winner. Sometimes, the manuscript mechanics becomes the final decision. If it's bad enough, it is weeded out right away for the same reason. By making sure your manuscript is in the best shape for a contest, you'll be ready to send it on to an editor. And by taking the time to carefully read and follow the rules of a contest, I've learned to be more careful about reading guidelines for publishers.

As a judge, I've seen plagiarized entries, or manuscripts that were sloppy with typos, strange margins, a light ribbon or dot matrix printer, single spacing, etc. These were placed in a separate pile for judging. Although I've tried not to be too picky, I knew I wasn't doing the writers a favor by not letting them know the errors that would shout, "amateur" to an editor. Some stories had no point, or rambled on without a plot or believable character. As essays they might have worked, but not as fiction. Some had limited marketability.

The Benefits of Entering Contests

Feedback. Entering contests is a good way to receive an unbiased critique from someone who doesn't know who you are. Judges are comparing your piece to others entered in the same category, much like an editor reviewing the huge pile of manuscripts received every day. You don't always have to win a contest for it to be worth your time to enter, as long as critiques are promised. A manuscript that doesn't win may still be very good and publishable. I've used the critiques received for both winning and non-winning manuscripts to make them more saleable. Some suggestions have made the manuscripts better. Other suggestions I've ignored. So don't let a loss get you down, but do let a win encourage you.

Approval. Rejections come hard, but winning contests can re-build your self-confidence. When you've learned that your manuscript competed against 500, 100, or even 25 others and came out on top, you feel recharged, ready to pound on those editor doors once again. And, if you don't win, well, you know that you were up against many others and if you can handle it, you can handle whatever happens to your "babies" when they're shipped off to editors.

Monetary awards. In 1996, nearly one-third of my writing income came from contest wins. Some of my stories made more money in contests than when they finally sold. Another advantage of contests is that you can enter the same manuscript in several different contests, though not in the same contest the next year. Several wins on one well-written manuscript is very profitable. If the contest includes publication, your story may receive more money and prestige than other pieces accepted by the same publication.

Publication. "The Worst Sport Ever" was a humorous short story I entered into the Pockets fiction contest. It didn't win. But I was just as thrilled when I received a letter notifying me that they wanted to purchase and publish my story in a future issue. Other writers have entered Highlights for Children contests and had similar experiences. Sometimes, you don't win the contest, but you do win an acceptance. Contests are one way some publishers have of finding publishable stories.

Amanda Jenkins researched publishers for edgy YA novels and found there weren't a lot of places to market her book. The Delacorte contest seemed a good way to get a foot in the door at Random House. When the contest winners were announced in April 1996, Amanda learned that she was the winner of the 14th annual Delacorte Press Prize for First Young Adult Novel for Breaking Boxes. Amanda believes winning the Delacorte launched her career. She has since acquired an agent and sold four more novels to Harpercollins. Her books have been nominated for the California Young Reader Medal and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Amanda says, "Many people in the YA business are aware of the Delacorte contest. The contest not only gets you published, it automatically gives your book a slightly stronger push off the starting block. Winning the Delacorte helped attract attention in my cover letter to my agent."

Martha Moore, the 1994 winner of the Delacorte, author of Under the Mermaid Angel, Angels on the Rooftop, and Matchit, agrees that winning this award launched her career. "I immediately received invitations to speak, sign books, and more. I will always be grateful for getting this wonderful opportunity." Another author won the children's story category for a Writer's Digest competition and soon after sold his story as a picture book.

Recognition. Sitting in an awards ceremony, hearing your name called and going forward to receive your award amidst applause is a great boost to your writing ego. How exciting to learn there were 50 entrants in a category and you won first place. Contest wins also help balance those rejections. I frame my winning certificates and hang them on the wall in front of my computer. When I'm down or frustrated with rejection, I look over the awards and get a boost to my self-confidence. Every writer craves assurance and approval of their work. A contest win or encouraging word from a judge has kept me submitting a manuscript that I might otherwise stuff in a file and give up trying to sell.

Are you excited? Find a contest by checking writer magazines online and off or getting in touch with your local writers group. Prepare your manuscript as if an editor were reading it. Send it in. Then, rejoice over your wins and learn from your losses.

Find Out More...

A Beginner's Guide to Writing Competitions - Dawn Copeman

Choosing a Writing Contest - Tammy Mackenzie

Through Judge-Coloured Spectacles: How to Win a Writing Contest - Sue Emms

Step Into the Winner's Circle! - Moira Allen

Writing to Win - Moira Allen

Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests, by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2004 Kathryn Lay. This article originally appeared in Children's Book Insider.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Kathryn Lay has had over 1000 articles, essays, and short stories published in magazines and anthologies such as Woman's Day, Cricket, Guideposts, CHICKEN SOUP, and more. Her children's novel for ages 8-12, Crown Me! is published by Holiday House Books. She is also the author of The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer, which can be purchased through her website at http://www.kathrynlay.com.


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