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.