Writing Contests: Why to Enter, What's Available This Year, What You Can Win

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I won my first writing competition in the second grade. The prize was several two-dollar bills in a white envelope from the football-crazed nuns at my elementary school, for writing the best poem about the Washington Redskins.

I'm a serious sports fan now, but I knew nothing about football at the time, which just goes to show that back then, I would write about just about anything for the promise of minor glory and a few bucks.

Woman with trophy

I abandoned journalism in college for a career in counseling, and it would be years before I would win another writing competition. My eyes were still drawn, though, to contest announcements in the library and bookstores. I still picked up copies of Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers, scanning markets and competitions in the back that I never seemed to enter, mostly because I was sure I'd lose.

Then, in the late 90s when I was living in Dayton, Ohio, I entered the Erma Bombeck Essay Competition, sponsored by the University of Dayton -- where both Erma and I had graduated. I would go on to win an honorable mention, which scored me a certificate, I think, and I may have gotten a small cash prize, but I honestly can't remember. I was focused on having to read my essay at the awards ceremony, which is always nerve-wracking, but something I make myself do when given the chance.

And I honestly believe that is when I returned to writing for real.

And there you have why I enter writing contests. I get a strange inspiration born, not just of competition, but of some kind of motivation that I only get by throwing my words in the ring.

Hints For Writing Contests

  • First, check them out carefully. Some contests can surely be scams, or just not worth your time. I don't like having to pay too much money to enter contests for no known reward, which is another reason why I've hesitated when I have. But if it seems like a reasonable fee (which may be different for you than it is for me -- I'm pretty stingy about entry fees) then I'd go for it. I'm not giving someone $50 to read my stuff, but I may send $20 if the prize and the organization hosting the contest seem worth it. I have no specific formula for this. I just know what feels right to me.
  • Send something you've worked pretty hard on and edited to a place where you feel like it's solid. Contest submissions, like any kind of pitch, can be nerve-wracking. Have a couple of people read it who you trust to tell the truth, and if it feels like it's ready to go, send it.
  • Make sure everything is in good order. In the rush to meet deadlines and the anxiety of entering contests like this, it's entirely possible you'll name files incorrectly, forget to attach or do something else that will disqualify you even though you are a genius who clearly deserves to win every contest you enter, right?
  • Also, spell everything correctly. Who knows who's judging what, and first and surface impressions matter, like it or not.
  • If you don't win, take it in stride. The truth is that you will lose most of the time, so contests shouldn't carry too much weight. I'd balance entering them -- if you choose to at all -- with pitching to paying freelance gigs, which require a similar gift for marketing yourself and polishing your work without the contest structure.

Contests That Might Be Worth Your While

Writer's Digest runs several contests in different genres yearly. The largest contest is closed to entries but the short-short fiction contest is open until December. For shorter efforts, there is also a monthly "Your Story" prompt that can still get you published in the magazine.

Are you a poet? The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is accepting submissions to its first annual poetry contest until August 15. If you win, you get $1,000, admission to the March, 2011 festival, and the chance to read your work when you get there.

The She Writes Community is hosting the Passion Project -- an opportunity for one lucky prospective female author to gain substantial editorial and marketing support for a book project and get a "literary makeover."

Glamour Magazine's 7th Essay Contest is seeking inspiring stories about a "life changing event, an obstacle overcome, a relationship or a passion that's defined you." The deadline is September 15, and the grand prize is $5000 and a meeting with a literary agent.

Real Simple magazine's third annual Life Lessons essay contest has a prize of a trip to New York, publication in the magazine, $3000 and lunch with the editors.

Want to practice dialogue? BartlebySnopes.com has an all-dialogue story contest going on until September 12.

For more ideas, check out the Pen American Center and Poets & Writers databases of writing contests, sorted by genre and entry fee. NewPages.com helpfully lists many competitions by deadline.

I do hope that I would have pursued new writing goals whether I had won a spot in Erma's contest or not. My name is on no holy scroll of writers because a panel of judges at a relatively small (at the time, anyway) contest deemed me worthy. But I have found after years of participating in writer's groups, reading magazines and message boards, and going to conferences that writers like to talk about writing a lot, bless our hearts. Sometimes, though, we need to act more decisively, and more consistently. And sometimes that means sending words out into the world in the hopes that someone will read them and maybe, just maybe, say they are good.

And if they don't say anything at all? At least you tried.

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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