The Smart Approach to Contest Submissions

From the May/June 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

You write something great—no, brilliant—so you fire it off to a bunch of contests, and wait for word that you’ve won, filling your downtime taking selfies that will no doubt appear in the Recent Winners section of this magazine. It sounds too good to be true because it usually is. Being lax when it comes to entering contests is typically a waste of time and money—unless of course you fancy yourself a patron of the arts, which is likely all you’ll be if you continue to take a slapdash approach to writing contests. Here are seven strategies for a more efficient (and hopefully more effective) process of submitting your work to contests.

1. Finish first. Before you submit your manuscript, make sure you’ve pushed it as far as it can go. Revise, revise, and revise some more. Send it to five friends and ask them for constructive criticism. Pass it around your writers group. Workshop it. Stick it in a drawer for a week and then read it. It’s still brilliant? Great. Stick it back in the drawer and submit it next week after you’ve reread it again and asked yourself, “Is this better than the five hundred other manuscripts that have already been submitted to this contest?” If you’re paying an entry fee, there should be no doubt in your mind.

2. Know your sponsoring organization. Do you read the magazine that sponsors the contest? Do you subscribe? Have you read all the books published in the past year by the press that’s running the contest? Do you disagree with any of the editorial policies of that magazine or press? Familiarize yourself with the organization’s website and read some of the marketing copy. Does the sponsor present itself as one you’d like to be associated with? Are you comfortable with the idea of having your name—not to mention your writing—associated with that sponsor for the rest of your career?

3. Judge your judge. Read that famous poet’s work as well as the work of winners that judge has chosen in the past. Read interviews with that well-known novelist, reviews of her latest book, articles and essays she has published in magazines. Try to figure out not only how she writes but also how she thinks, how she reads. Never heard of the judge? Double your efforts and proceed with caution. (See number two.)

4. Follow the rules. You may have written a story for the ages, but it won’t matter if you printed your last name on the top of every page when the rules explicitly forbid any identifying information on your manuscript. Don’t e-mail it as an attachment when you’re supposed to upload it to a submissions manager. The Deadlines section of this magazine is the perfect place to start gathering information about legitimate contests with upcoming deadlines. It provides all the details you need (how much, for what, by when, and so on) in order to make a decision about whether you should research the contest further. If a contest sounds like a good match, follow the instructions and request the complete guidelines. Then follow those guidelines to the letter.

5. Don’t get fancy. Let your words win the contest, not your paper or your ink or your fonts or your formatting. Don’t print your manuscript on special paper. Keep it in a standard font—for the love of God, no script fonts—and don’t include an Oscar-worthy thank-you speech on an acknowledgments page. (Save that for the published book.) In your cover letter, don’t include the endearing anecdote about the first time you picked up a crayon and realized you wanted to be a writer. If you’re submitting a paper manuscript, don’t recycle the folded-up, paged-through, and rejected copy from the last contest. Save that for your doodles and your grocery lists; consider the extra money you’re going to spend on ink and paper as an investment in a submission with a better chance at winning. No reader or judge wants proof that an entry has already been rejected. Don’t plant doubt: It will grow.

6. Keep track. Start logging your submissions on some sort of spreadsheet. It doesn’t need to be fancy (see number five); just keep a record of which contests you enter, how much you paid, when you were notified of the results, and so on. Not only will you have a better sense of how much you are investing in writing contests, you may also allay some anxiety about when you’ll get that phone call or e-mail of congratulations.

7. Keep writing. Your writing career does not necessarily hinge on winning or losing a contest—winning can help, no doubt, but there are plenty of brilliant, well-respected writers who publish book after book and never win a contest. The most important thing to focus on is your writing. Submit your work to contests when the writing is finished (see number one). And when you’re done, start writing again. 


The Smart Approach

Well. Don't we all want to win? Every time? But alas, having won, once, that's not enough to get drunk on it. I've been an "almost won" more times than I can count. But that doesn't deter me. What does? Not having a clue about why. I thought that might be evident by the writing of the dearly won. But even then, I cannot measure why this or that won.

Curiously, I don't find it daunting or even discouraging. I do find it frustrating because often I don't know what is wanted. I do follow the rules to the letter. I do stuff my drawer, reread, rewrite, and often zero back to the original where my soul wrote for me. The exercise has toughened my skin, a nice by-product of the effort. I do write and write and write and I have improved so much. I don't get fancy....that's silly. I do keep track, though my spread sheet contains only about sixty submissions across a few years. I have not made a career out of submitting. Perhaps I should. For instance, it never occurred to me to send an essay to more than one publisher at a time. And I have subscribed to several writers' mags and I see some really impressive...and And some trash.

For your amusement: the first Writer's Conference I attended, intimidated by many fine writers because I was a total newbie, my workshop submission raised the question: who publishes you? Well, either there was some measurement I was missing,  or they had low standards, I thought. But then there was a writing contest. It was called Writing Badly: write the worst possible essay you can think up. And of course, I won......

Thanks for the helpful instruction.

Barbarann Ayars


What the heck are selfies?

Quite often context reveals meaning but in this case "selfies" in the first paragraph has derailed me. Have you ever heard of a selfy or a selfie? I have a feeling of dread rather like when you can't remember how to spell "the" or "dog" because, for some wierd reason, it suddenly looks wrong or off in some way. Could it be that I have forgotten the word selfies and need more fish oil and exercise?

Nitwits deserve love too.

Tips for The Smart Approach to Contest Submissions

I agree with the tips suggested above though I take some issue with one-- regarding the judges. It is important to note that judges don't necessarily choose books that are in alignment with their own writing aesthetic. Quite often, a judge's pick is a manuscript that is stylistically very different from the the judge's own creative work. At Four Way Books, we've seen such selections: Marianne Boruch selected Deborah Bernhardt's Echolalia, Jean Valentine selected George Kalamaras's The Theory and Function of Mangoes, to name a few. The point is, to focus on refining your work and send to a reputable press that you admire. 

Smart Approach to Contest Submissions

While I appreciate some of the suggestions for strengthening my contest submissions in your article, such as targeting presses, magazines or judges who might be attracted to my work (all of which I do), I take exception to a certain snarky and patronizing tone that seemed to creep in when giving the nuts and bolts of submitting. Let me point out that the tone isn't exclusive to this article, I notice it more and more in submission guidelines. When I'm told not to include in my cover letter "the endearing anecdote about the first time you picked up a crayon and realized you wanted to be a writer." or not to include with my submission "flowers, ribbons, lollipops, chocolate" I wonder who the heck you think your audience is. I, and I assume the majority of your readers, are seasoned writers who view the submission process as a necessary evil, all business, of the writing life. I have submitted hundreds of manuscripts in my life as a writer, winning, coming close and not placing at all. The tone of your article seems to target the fifteen-year-old poet who may think a swirly font will make a nice touch, not at the professional who prints her manuscript, gets it in an envelope and out the door as efficiently as possible. I can't imagine that editors are discovering so much chocolate and lollipops in their submissions that they have to warn against their inclusion in the guidelines. In every case, I vote for a simple set of guidelines that tells me clearly what the editor wants, not what she doesn't want. And while we're at it, how about a little respect for writers on response time and communication over submissions, especially when a writer has been told their is interest and kept waiting.


Lesson: should edit letters to editor as well as ms submissions. "There" for "their" in last line.

extending this advice a bit

ssousa - you raise some good points.   I've been collecting various writing articles related to writing competitions, and if you want to check out my blog, I think you will find some have a more professional tone.


That said, maybe your criticism is a touch harsh, can we allow the article writer to have a little levity?  I know it's  balance, but I'm sure they never intednded to insult your accomplishments and abilities.


In addition to the points in this article, I'd add:

1. Look locally in terms of geographic region and subject matter expertise.

2. Watch out for populatriy based/public voting contests that are more marketing than writing.

3. Finally, study past winners.

paying to enter

When I started years ago, we were told to NEVER enter a contest where they ask for money. Has that changed?..