Over the past couple of years I’ve been entering writing contests. It began when members of my local poetry writing group, the Erratics, challenged each other to start sending out material to publishers. We purchased a copy of the “Canadian Writers Contest Calendar” (White Mountain Publications) and helped each other decide on contests to enter. In one year, about five of us entered and each of us had poems that won or placed in at least one contest.
Since then, I’ve continued to enter a handful of contests each year. I work hard to polish my writing, get feedback from writing groups, and revise, revise, revise. Even after that, I have to push past the fear. I think of it as a gesture of faith, in my writing and myself. That first year, I won $350 in prize money, and spent about $100 in entry fees. I keep that pool of money to put towards entry fees. So far, so good. If it ever zeros out, that will be the last year I enter contests.
That leaves me with the big decision: what contest to enter, with what piece of writing? I thought I would share some of the strategies I use to make that decision, and invite anyone who reads this blog to do the same.
1. Look for quality magazines or ezines.
There are so many online magazines or magazines that advertise contests online that it’s difficult to choose. The ones that were print magazines, or still have a print component, remain worth entering: Glimmer Train, Malahat Review, Narrative, Grain – to name just a few. Some have good reputations, like Pandora’s Collective. Sometimes other writers, writing groups, or writing associations will know the reputation of a market. I also click around the website hosting the contest, check back issues or other publications offered on that website, and Google the contest or publication title to see what others are saying about it.
2. Choose contests with a reasonable entry fee, including a subscription or other benefits.
Some contests are more expensive than others. Glimmer Train is a top-end market with several contests a year, for a $15 entry fee. In February I took the plunge with a short story I had taken to my local writing group for feedback, and I ended up in the top 35 of more than 1000 entries! But I really have to think twice about sending in a $25 or $35 entry fee: what are the odds I might win? Or, does that entry fee include a magazine subscription? Often the subscription is the same as the entry fee, so in a sense, everyone wins.
3. Does the contest have a theme? And how well does the story fit the theme?
I like contests with themes, because it narrows down the odds – at least in my perception, if not in reality. If I have a story or poem that fits the theme, it sometimes spurs me to take the chance and send it in. One or twice I’ve tried to write a story to fit a theme, but I wasn’t able to complete it in time to enter.
4. Read the contest guidelines, as well as the submission guidelines.
I can’t stress that enough! So many times the guidelines have offered specific hints about font, spacing, and other technical aspects that will knock a story out of the competition before it’s even been read. Can the submission be postmarked by that date, or must it be received by that date?
5. Polish the submission before hitting “send.”
I mentioned the value of writing groups in obtaining feedback for short stories and poems. Some writers will ask a trusted writing buddy to give feedback and check over the work. I also check it over myself: we are usually our own worst critics, and will catch typos and simple errors that others miss. I use a global search in the document for adverbs, and for words like “just” or “all” – those little repeated words that might bother an experienced editor.
At some point, though, it’s time to put the submission in the envelope and lick the seal, or hit the send button. Why not take a deep breath, and do it. Consider it an act of faith. Good luck! If you have tips or strategies to share, please click “Read more” below and add your comments.