Today’s article is written by Suzannah Windsor Freeman, founding editor.
I’m working on a short story right now, and I have just over two weeks left to finish.
Why? Because I’m writing it specifically for a contest, and the deadline is quickly approaching.
I’ll admit, I’m not the type of writer who enters a lot of contests, but I’ve taken part in a handful of them. I’m interested in those that (a) suit my particular writing style, (b) don’t cost too much to enter, (c) offer a substantial prize, and (d) would look good in my portfolio if I were to win.
There are thousands of writing contests each year, but are they really worth your time, money, and words?
It really depends on a number of factors. Each contest should be evaluated based on its own benefits and drawbacks.
Pros of Writing Contests
- Money. Most writing contests have cash prizes (for winners and runners-up), which can range anywhere from less than a hundred bucks to many thousands. Prize money is usually determined by how many entries are expected, and the prestige attached to the particular contest.
- Prestige. Having your name attached to well-known literary prize looks great in query letter or bio, and if the prize is particularly prestigious, it may help with being noticed by literary agents.
- Publication. Publication in a magazine, anthology, or on a website is generally a fringe benefit of winning or being a finalist in a contest, but in some cases it may be the primary benefit.
- Longlist/shortlist credit. Some contests, such as Glimmer Train’s monthly contests, publish longlists and/or shortlists on their sites. If the contest is well-known, even being longlisted or shortlisted is something you can mention in your portfolio or cover letter.
- Time away from your work. If you’re not allowed to simultaneous submit to other contests or magazines, you’ll be forced to put the manuscript away for a few months. If you don’t end up winning, you may come back to the piece with fresh eyes, and note areas for improvement before sending it out again.
- Deadlines can work in your favour. Working to contest deadlines can help you finish a story more quickly than you normally would, which means you can move on to the next project.
- Not much to lose. You might lose your contest fee, but once you’ve finished and polished a piece, it can always be submitted elsewhere if you don’t win.
Cons of Writing Contests
- Entry fees. While some writing contests are free, many require a small fee—usually between $5 and $50. The money goes toward prizes and covering administrative costs. A fee on the lower end of the scale is appropriate for a smaller, regional contest, whereas a fee on the higher end would likely be required for a more prestigious, national or international contest.
- Exclusive submissions. Many contests require exclusive submissions (you’re not allowed to submit your piece anywhere else) during the course of the contest. Having your manuscript tied up in one place for several months can be less than ideal of you don’t end up winning.
- Lack of prestige. Contests which are not well-known may offer small cash prizes, but little consequence. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enter or that winning doesn’t mean anything, but it’s unlikely to matter much in terms of furthering your career.
- False sense of rejection. Not winning could cause you to assume there’s something wrong with your piece, which may be untrue. Because contests rarely offer feedback, you may have come close to winning or being long/shortlisted and never know. A few years back, I submitted a short story to a national contest, and when it didn’t win I shelved the story for two years. It wasn’t until after I’d published a couple of other stories that I started submitting it again. It was soon accepted and published in a literary magazine.
Before You Enter…
So, you’re ready to give this contest thing a try? Keep these practical tips in mind:
- Keep track of upcoming contests. When we miss a contest deadline, we tend to say, “Maybe next year.” But don’t rely on your memory—write it down! Take note of upcoming contests that suit you, along with important details such as deadlines, word count requirements, restrictions, etc. Check back with your list monthly, so you’re always aware of what’s ahead and never miss out.
- Familiarize yourself with the contest’s aesthetic. Be absolutely sure to read previous winning entries (and runners-up) if they’re published on the contest’s website. Take note of the general aesthetic. Do they like character-driven literary sketches? Longer stories with well-defined plots? Experimental pieces? Humour? Compare these pieces to your own writing style to make sure you have a good match. Read FAQ and interviews with contest judges. If the judges’ names are published, find out what type of books or stories they write.
- Be aware of eligibility restrictions. Some contests require you to be a resident of a particular country or region. Youth-oriented contests may require you to be under a certain age. Contests for new writers may only accept pieces from those who are previously unpublished. Be sure to double-check your eligibility before you go any further. I once got very excited about a writing contest only to discover you had to be a U.S. resident to enter. Luckily I found out before I wasted my money.
- Read the rules—twice. Be particularly aware of word restrictions, manuscript formatting preferences, and whether or not your contact information should appear on the manuscript. 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.
- Start small…or don’t. If you’ve never been published before, you may want to start with smaller contests. Winning one could give you a much-needed boost in confidence, and perhaps garner you your first publication credit. On the other hand, if you’ve been published a few times and are more confident in your writing abilities, you may want to shoot higher. Consider the personal benefits to you, and choose from there.
- Consider multiple entries to targeted contests. Are there just two or three contests you’d really like to enter this year? Do they allow multiple pieces by the same author (you’ll have to pay separate entry fees for each)? If so, you may want to enter more than one piece to each of these targeted contests to increase your odds.
Right now, the contest I’m targeting is the CBC Short Story Prize. The entry fee is a modest $25, and the word count is between 1200 and 1500 words. Given the short count, I don’t doubt many writers are entering multiple pieces at once.
The winner receives $6000, publication in enRoute magazine, a 2-week writer’s residency, and an interview on CBC radio. Four runners-up receive $1000 and publication on CBC’s website. Last year, there was also a longlist of 35 entries.
This is a well-known contest with some excellent prizes and fringe benefits—one that I believe is more than worth my time and money.
Some writers love contests, some find them to be a waste of time. Submitting my work to literary magazines and anthologies usually comes before contests, but some opportunities are too good to pass up.
It’s wise to be aware of the pros and cons of writing contests, so when the right opportunity presents itself, you’re ready to take advantage.
Do you enter writing contests? What’s your best advice for choosing wisely/ What are your top tips for making your piece stand out from the crowd?