Writing contests—they’re stressful and exciting at the same time. They’re a way to see how your writing compares with others, they can help you build your writing resumé, and they might give you encouragement to continue writing. However, submitting to contests requires research. You first have to figure out which contest(s) you want to submit to. Once you do that, you have to write and format a piece that aligns with their requirements.
Selecting a Contest
It’s important to be able to tell the difference between good and bad contests. Here are some things to consider when looking at a contest:
Cost of Entry: Many contests are free and those that are not usually have a low price and the option to waive the fee. This is because contests are meant to help writers, not charge them. If a contest has a high entry charge, it is probably not worth entering it.
Judges: Research the contest’s judges. Are they reputable professionals or random people? Contests with famous judges are likely to be far more trustworthy and contested.
Establishment: How long has the contest been running? Is it running for the first time this year or has it been held every year for a decade? What about a century? Though older institutions aren’t necessarily better, they do generally have more experienced judges, larger prizes, and more competition.
Eligibility: You most likely have to be of a certain age range, live in a specific region, or meet other requirements in order to submit to a contest. Don’t waste time researching contests that you are ineligible to enter.
Writing Style: Analyze the kind of writing style the judges and contest seem to prefer. This includes not only looking at the genre of writing the contest is accepting, but also paying attention to the specific style or themes shared by previous winners. Oftentimes, winning entries from past contests will reveal that certain contests prefer certain lengths of entries, overarching themes, and overall rhythms.
Prizes: And of course, take into account the possible reward for winning the contest. Are the prizes worth the time and effort you will have put into writing/editing a piece for the contest? More importantly, are you interested in the prize? Not all writers are seeking a cash prize. You might be more interested in publication, or vice versa. Think about your priorities and focus your efforts on contests with similar rewards.
Knowing which writing contests to submit to and which to avoid is an important skill.
Writing Contest Examples
Below are some writing contests you might consider submitting to:
Young writers in the United States or Canada should consider submitting to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. This prestigious writing contest gives you the opportunity to be recognized at the regional and national level, get invited to workshops or conferences, and perhaps win a scholarship. They have various categories and accept numerous genres. Submissions for this year’s contest are due by December or January depending on where you live.
People who are new to writing and enjoy speculative fiction genres might submit to Ray Bradbury's Writers & Illustrators of the Future contest, which accepts fantasy and science fiction short stories. Winners receive cash prizes and get published in their anthology. This contest runs quarterly and is always accepting submissions.
The Bennington Young Writers Awards accepts submissions annually until November 1st for short stories, poetry, and essays. Winners get cash prizes and scholarships.
The New York Times often has writing contests running. Right now, for instance, you can enter the November Vocabulary Challenge, in which you must submit a 50-word story using as many of the NY Times word-of-the-days from October as possible.
On the non-fiction side, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is accepting essay submissions from students based on grade-level prompts addressing human nature in tragedies. Winning entries will receive a cash prize and be recognized at a ceremony next April.
Wattpad often has various contests running in different genres. Some are hosted by other Wattpad writers, and some are hosted or co-hosted by Wattpad itself. You can also start your own contest.
The writers of Instagram always have several contests running for different genres and prizes. For the most part, entering requires you to follow the host, like and comment on the post, share it to your story, and sometimes tag some friends. Winners usually get a mention in a post or story as well as beta reading of a couple thousand words.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. Even if none of these appeal to you, you will undoubtedly be able to find a contest that interests you among the numerous writing contests running at all times.
When you do decide to enter a contest, do further research into their submission requirements.
Check the due date: Make sure you are ready to submit with enough time to deal with any difficulties that might arise at the time of submission.
Check the formatting: Some contests may require entries to be in a specific font (Times New Roman) or spacing (double spaced).
Blind Judging: Many contests require you to remove your name from the document containing your entry to ensure fairness.
Approval: Some contests require submissions to be first reviewed by an educator.
Word count: Most contests have a maximum length for entries, and some have minimum lengths.
Generally, be sure to read everything the contest’s website says about entrance requirements. Failing to meet a requirement is the easiest way to become disqualified from a contest.
I said it earlier—contests are frightening. Deadlines, competition, and limitations may seem overwhelming. Writing contests aren’t for everyone, and make sure you know how important a contest is to you before submitting to it. Consider whether you will be able to finish your entry before the deadline without losing sleep or procrastinating on more important things. If you are not able to finish your entry before the due date, don’t worry. There will be other opportunities to submit it. If your entry is done but isn’t perfect in your eyes by the deadline, think about whether there is any downside to submitting. Is there an entry cost, for instance? If not, you might want to submit anyway.
The aftermath of a competition is equally stressful. It’s important to remember that contest results aren’t necessarily a reflection of your skill as a writer. At the end of the day, judges have some bias. While you should work to address any feedback you receive, not winning does not mean that your piece wasn’t good. It means you aren’t perfect (and nobody is) and your piece may not have been a perfect fit for the contest or the judge. And if you win, congrats! This is a major accomplishment and you should be proud of yourself.
Participating in writing contests is a great way to test the reader appeal of your stories, experiment with new writing styles, and get feedback on your writing. Still, there is a lot of research, time, and effort necessary to submit to and be successful in a writing contest.
Have you ever participated in or would you consider entering a writing contest? Which one(s)? Let me know in the comments!