6 Key Questions To Ask Before Submitting to a Writing Contest
Winning a writing contest can catapult a writer’s career, but you have to be smart about it. A short story can be your craft of choice or a stepping stone on your way to writing a book. That’s why it’s important that you’re submitting to the right contests. It maximizes your chances of winning it (and to ensure that you’re not inadvertently enabling a scam).
With that in mind, here are six questions to ask yourself before committing to a contest.
1. Is It Legitimate?
Before you submit your application, you need to ensure the legitimacy of the competition you’re about to enter. Scam contests have a common goal: they want your money. Contest and award mills might make you pay $25+ for a middling prize (an announcement on the organization’s website, perhaps). Other vanity anthology companies will tell you that you’ve won the privilege of being published in a collection of short stories — then ask you to pay for the book. Other alarm bells include an entry fee above $25, a scantily-designed website, or “opportunities” to pay the contest organizer even more money.
To make sure you stay on the safe side of things, you should always conduct your own thorough research. Double-check their prizes, see if you can find evidence of past winners, and check where the contest’s been mentioned online. We also recommend finding writing contests through a vetted directory. There’s this database of writing contests that we built over at Reedsy, or you can use Kotobee’s own listing of writing contests.
In short, don’t allow yourself to be an unsuspecting prey to a scam contest. Do everything in your power to ensure that you can confidently say: yes, this contest is legit.
2. What Are the Rules?
Reading the fine print is never fun, but it exists for a reason. A contest’s rules — which might cover anything from word count to formatting — can make or break your piece before the judges even read it. Some contests may require cover notes and a short introduction. Other contests are “judged blind,” which means that a story that includes contact details could be automatically disqualified.
There’s nothing worse than a great story not making the cut simply because it didn’t follow the rules. As the writer, you don’t want to give judges any reason not to consider your story. So it’s in your best interest to read every contest’s guidelines carefully before submitting.
3. What’s the Theme/Genre?
If you bake a delicious pumpkin pie, you don’t bring it to compete at a burger festival, do you? In much the same way, a literary publication such as Carver Magazine won’t publish your fantasy story about a rare breed of unicorns. Each writing contest and magazine has a particular aesthetic, determined by its editors. To avoid wasting your time and money on a potential mismatch, do some research on the contest’s rules to see what kind of writing they’re looking for.
4. Did I Proofread My Work Properly?
You might think that this one goes without saying, but you’d be surprised at the number of entries sent that weren’t proofread before their authors submitted them. They clearly didn’t realize that proofreading is one of the most important steps of the writing process. That’s because a piece that isn’t proofread sends the wrong message to the judges, straight off the bat: if you don’t care about the quality of the piece, why should they?
We recommend proofreading your piece, a minimum of two times at least. Don’t make these common editing mistakes. Do more than a cursory spell-check: cut any extra words, make sure your quotation marks are in the right places, tighten up your sentences, and check that your point of view is consistent.
Then—and only then—should you press “Enter” and submit your story.
5. What’s My End Goal?
Sometimes writers think that writing contests are only good for two things: their writing résumés, and prize earnings. But writing contests can offer much more outside of cold cash.
It all depends on what you want to get out of the contest (provided that you win). Do you want exposure that will further your career? You should probably aim to win a contest sponsored by a publication such as Glimmer Train or Zoetrope — they’re widely read by other writers and agents. Linda Swanson-Davies, one of the editors-in-chief of Glimmer Train, said: “After each issue of Glimmer Train comes out, we are contacted by agents who’ve read stories they loved and are interested in representing the authors.”
Other contests offer perks besides prize money, such as the CBC Short Story Prize. It gives the winner $6,000, publication in enRoute magazine, a 2-week writer’s residency, and an interview on CBC radio. The prize for St. Martin’s Press’ First Crime Novel contest includes a book contract. Double-check the awards being offered, and you’ll be able to train your energy on getting something worthwhile for your efforts.
6. What Happens If I Fail?
As you enter writing contests, keep a spreadsheet of your submission progress. Use this spreadsheet to track such things as:
- Which contests you entered
- The entrance fees
- Which short story you submitted
- The date of submission
This will help you refine your strategy for submitting for the future. Finally, remember: William Saroyan got rejected 7,000 times before selling a short story. Isaac Asimov’s stories were also turned down multiple times! A contest might not pick your story as its winner, and that’s okay. You’re joining an illustrious company of authors who have been rejected — and if you keep on writing and submitting, you just might also join the company of authors who were published.
Writing contests have the potential to lead you to great things. They can help you launch your writing career or even get recognition and various awards. But to get the most out of them, you need to adhere to the aforementioned points. Writing something good is not enough, you need to think smart about how to get it out there.
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