Uncommon Contests: Nineteen Literary Awards With Prizes Beyond the Ordinary

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky
From the May/June 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For most writers a contest win offers the rare opportunity to step back from the writing grind and revel in a moment of recognition, validation, and the feeling of hard work paid off. The possibility of earning a cash prize or securing a home for a piece you’ve labored over in devotion (and possibly agony) doesn’t hurt either. But there are other excellent reasons to pursue a writing contest, including the chance to connect to new audiences or interested agents, find rejuvenation in a retreat you’ve received as part of your prize, or simply put your work in the hands of a publisher who will do something extraordinary, and perhaps unexpected, with the manuscript. Here are nineteen literary prizes with out-of-the-ordinary rewards that you may want to add to your submission calendar.

The Civitella Ranieri castle in Umbria, Italy, is the site of residencies awarded by the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize and the Academy of American Poets First Book Award.

A literary contest might be your ticket to a fabulous destination, near or far, for the writing retreat of your dreams. If you’ve always felt you’d get your best writing done in a castle—and really, who hasn’t?—consider the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize. The contest’s first-prize winner receives a weeklong stay at Civitella Ranieri, a fifteenth-century castle that was the historic home to generations of the Ranieri family. Located atop a hill in the Umbria region of Italy and now run as a retreat by the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the retreat attracts artists from around the globe for focused work time in its singular setting. Poets also can win a chance to wander the castle’s wooded slopes and gardens—and eat its chefs’ renowned regional fare—through the Academy of American Poets First Book Award. In addition to being treated to a six-week residency at Civitella Ranieri, winning poets receive $5,000 and have their debut collections published by Graywolf Press, with distribution of their book to the Academy’s members. (The Desperate Literature Prize also offers a prize of €1,500—approximately $1,657—and consultation with an editor and agent.) Both contests run annually; submit to the Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize by April 30 or the Academy of American Poets First Book Award from July 1 to September 1—or check back in 2023 for similar deadlines.

If time in France is more your speed, submit to the Moth International Short Story Prize. Sponsored by the quarterly literary magazine the Moth, the contest awards a first-place prize of €3,000 (approximately $3,311), but you may be just as interested in its second: a weeklong retreat at Circle of Misse, a picturesque residence on the banks of the Thouet river in Missé, France, about a four-hour drive southwest of Paris. According to the Moth’s website, thouet is an ancient Gallic word for “tranquil,” so count on peaceful, engaged time to pursue your work. Writing program director Wayne Milstead says the space has served as a haven for writers in a number of ways: “Some hunker down and finish a project free from interruptions in a quiet, supportive environment, knowing that a great meal and friendly faces await them at the end of the workday; others take long walks through sunflower fields (with or without our cocker spaniel), thinking about their next project; and still others relax in the garden with a good book and a glass of wine, enjoying the opportunity to simply recharge and escape the tyranny of the clock.” (If you win first place but wish it had been second, you can always put the purse toward a stay at the retreat anyway.)

And if you’re a poet whose ideal getaway instead involves the time in communion with inspiring art, consider the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize. This contest awards $3,000, publication of your collection by the press, and a weeklong residency at MASS MoCA, a celebrated contemporary art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. Enjoy the use of a private studio space at the museum and lodging at a residence across the street. Submit to the Moth International Short Story Prize by June 30; the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize has a deadline of December 31.

Writing contests can also be unique opportunities to step into broader literary community. Several annual awards offer the chance to work with student writers, allowing winners to foster an emerging generation of talent while building meaningful relationships with their readership. Among such awards are the Bard Fiction Prize, the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, and the Western Connecticut State University Housatonic Book Awards, all of which bring winning writers to college campuses to inspire their students. Open to poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers who’ve published books in the previous year, the Housatonic Book Awards are meant not only to celebrate the best new books, but also to “identify authors who serve as professional role models,” says assistant professor and MFA coordinator Anthony D’Aries. During their time at the campus in Danbury, Connecticut, each winning writer has the opportunity to give a reading and teach a master class. The Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) New Writers Award extends invitations for a poet, a fiction writer, and a nonfiction writer with recently released debuts to visit some of the thirteen colleges in the association to read and teach, offering an honorarium of at least $500 for each stop. “Seeing a young writer who has just achieved some significant success is powerful, in part, because students with aspirations can imagine themselves as writers in the not-so-distant future,” says award director Gregory Wegner. “Students, authors, and faculty members all find this process exhilarating.” And the Bard Fiction Prize awards $30,000 and brings a novelist or short story writer under the age of 40 to its campus in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, for a semester as a writer-in residence; no formal teaching is required, but writers are asked to deliver one public lecture and meet informally with students. This year’s deadlines are June 13 for the Housatonic Book Awards, June 15 for the Bard Fiction Prize, and June 25 for the GLCA New Writers Award.

If you’re dreaming of an invitation to connect with an international audience, consider the Fish Publishing Poetry Prize and Short Story Prize. Both earn the winning poet or fiction writer the opportunity to read at the West Cork Literary Festival, held each summer in Ireland. Poetry and fiction winners receive cash prizes of €1,000 (approximately $1,105) and €3,000 (approximately $3,315) respectively, although they must pay their own way to the Emerald Isle if they’re not local. Submit by November 30 for the next short story prize and by March 31, 2023, for the next contest in poetry. The Munster Literature Centre Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition and the Seán Ó Faoláin International Short Story Competition will also award opportunities for writers to find community abroad. The poetry contest offers chapbook publication, €1,000, and accommodations to give a reading at the Cork International Poetry Festival in Ireland; fiction winners receive €2,000 (approximately $2,211), as well as accommodations for the Cork International Short Story Festival and a week in residence at the Anam Cara writers retreat in the bucolic Irish countryside. Submit your entry by July 31 for the fiction contest and August 31 for entries in poetry. And if you’re looking for a travel opportunity that’s equally glamorous but with less potential jetlag, consider the Aspen Words Literary Prize. The contest awards $35,000 plus an all-expenses-paid trip to read at its annual summer writers festival and attend its benefit dinner as an honored guest, all in the lush mountain setting of Aspen, Colorado. Fiction writers with books published in the past year are eligible and must be nominated by their publisher for consideration; this year’s deadline for nominations is August 5.

Many writers enter literary contests hoping that a win will help them catch the eyes of agents and editors scouting new talent—but some contests will do one better and make the introductions to interested agents for you. Since 2011 the Masters Review has been driven by a mission to champion emerging writers. In that spirit its biannual Short Story Award for New Writers awards its first-place winners not only $3,000 and publication in the online journal, but also review of their work by literary agencies. Participating agents have previously included representatives from the Bent Agency, Carnicelli Literary Management, and Writers House. At the very least, such agency reviews can be a great cold run for practicing your pitch or getting feedback from an industry professional, depending on how they’re structured. But sometimes the connection sparks something more. It did for Joe Bond, when his work “Damico” was selected by Aimee Bender as the winner of the 2018 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers: He was picked up for representation by Sarah Fuentes of Fletcher & Company as a result of the contest. Similarly the Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest “reflects the journal’s foundational commitment to elevating new voices in the literary community,” says Nat Bension of the Ploughshares team. Each year the award introduces a winning poet, fiction writer, and nonfiction writer to an agent from Aevitas Creative Management, in hopes of allowing those writers “the opportunity to take the next step in their literary careers.” The prize also includes $2,000 and publication by the journal. 

Other opportunities to connect with agents include LitMag’s Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction and its Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction. Winners receive $1,250 for the flash contest or $2,500 for short fiction and publication by the New York City–based literary journal, as well as review by multiple agents: six for Chekhov Award winners and seven for Woolf Award recipients. And Aesthetica magazine’s annual Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, which is open to both fiction writers and poets, promises a host of other prizes to help hone your craft and introduce you to the contemporary literary landscape. Winners in both genres receive £2,500 (approximately $3,270), publication in Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual, a selection of books from Vintage, and a one-year print subscription to Granta. The poetry winner can also look forward to a membership in the Poetry Society and an online course from the Poetry School; the fiction winner’s work will be reviewed by Redhammer Management. Aesthetica’s editors hope the award will help “support the next generation of literary talent,” particularly innovative writers working at the forefront of their field, by providing a platform for their work as well as connection to literary gatekeepers. All five of these contests have deadlines before the end of the year: The Masters Review Short Story Award for New Writers will run its next summer contest from July 1 to August 28. Deadlines for the Anton Chekhov Award for Flash Fiction and the Virginia Woolf Award for Short Fiction are November 30 and December 31, respectively. Submit your work to the Aethetica Creative Writing Award now through August 31. The Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest is open until May 15.

Perhaps the greatest prize for any writer is to see their manuscript lovingly brought into the world by a reader who savors their work. Find two such opportunities in the Center for Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Chapbook Competition and the Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize. Each year the Center for Book Arts in New York City produces a gorgeous artist-designed, limited-edition chapbook of the contest’s winning manuscript. The winner is also invited to give a reading with the center and enjoy a free weeklong residency at the Millay Arts retreat in upstate New York; the poet receives a cash prize of $500 and an additional $500 honorarium for the reading. The Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize, a collaboration of the literary magazine Red Wheelbarrow at De Anza College and Poetry Center San José, in northern California, enlists expert printers like Gary Young of Greenhouse Review Press to produce broadsides of its winning poems. The next deadline for the Letterpress Poetry Chapbook Competition is December 31. The next Red Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize runs through July 31 and will be judged by Juan Felipe Herrera. “So far the prize has created just the synergy we hoped it might, supporting wonderful prize-winning poets, terrific local letterpress printers, our journal, youth programs in Santa Clara County, and our finest De Anza student writers and artists as well,” says Red Wheelbarrow’s editor Ken Weisner. “It’s win-win-win-win-win.”

May all the prizes you pursue be just as rewarding. 


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.