Putting Your Pen in the Contest Ring: Writers Saying, “Why Not?”

Startup Stock Photos

image via Startup Stock Photos

There’s a lot to be said for saying “no.” As hard as it can be to put up the stop sign, “no” can save you from taking on projects for which you are ill-suited, going to events that don’t enlarge your life, or drinking that fourth Brandy Alexander when you know that Alexander himself stops at two.

The writing life can be a harried one, particularly if you have a day job, and the only time you have to plot out your nine-book saga on intergalactic love between a sentient vaping pen and a 19-legged Venusian dog is your lunch hour (and for the 30 minutes after dinner before you do the dishes).

But there are some writing opportunities for which saying “Why not?” can deliver an unusual sense of gratification, and sometimes some exotic rewards. I’m talking about writing contests. I’ve written about contests before, but because I’ve had some recent success with a few, I want to write about them again. Getting recognition from a contest—no matter if you are the first-place winner or receive an honorable mention—can give give you some sweet cream of satisfaction. That juice is qualitatively different from that gained from crafting a zingy sentence for your last chapter, or having your beta readers say that your Venusian dog puts them in mind of Cary Grant in his prime.

Contests Give You Warm Gravy
Here’s the kind of thing that placing well in a writing contest can do for you:

  • Validation – Most contests are judged by credible writers. Them saying you are a hot tamale can do wonders for the tender egos of most writers.
  • Exposure – Many publications publish the winning works, and sometimes they have a big print circulation and/or online traffic, so your work can get attention. Publication at many contest venues will include links to your site or other work.
  • Swag – I’ve won all kinds of things from writing contests, including poker chips (nice ones), licorice, and luggage tags. Oh, and money. Sometimes a pretty good chunk. Or the equivalent of money. For instance, last month I was at the Catamaran Writer’s Conference in pretty Pebble Beach, which offered me four days of good writerly cheer and good advice on a work in progress of mine. I won a $750 fellowship to the conference by submitting a short story I’d written a while ago. I didn’t think I’d win anything, but I already had the story: why not?

Have Pen, Will Travel
MarketingProfs had this essay contest going last month, and I won a first-runner-up award, which lets me get into all the conference sessions free and gives me some other goodies, to the tune of $1,800. I don’t know if I can make it out there, because flights and lodging are expensive (and the evil first-place winner took those). But writing a 500-word essay—easy. What was my essay about? How pizza is actually marketing. Yes, being a goofball can pay.

And my latest serving of confectionery, a roundabout way of “winning” a contest: a couple of years ago I entered an unsold travel piece I had languishing on my computer to Dave’s Travel Corner, a popular travel site. I won second place in that contest, which awarded a hundred bucks, some travel books and some other oddities. But it won me some attention from Dave, who later invited me to be a writer for his site for some press trips, one though the Florida Keys and one at a luxury hotel in Vegas.

These trips are all-expenses paid, where the writers get treated to all kinds of amazing scenic/historic/crazy venues, gobble foods at places most couldn’t afford to gobble, and be out and about, goggled-eyed, in this wondrous country of ours. Or in other countries: the latest one I was invited on leaves late this coming Thursday for 9 days in Myanmar. Myanmar! That ain’t the Long Beach, CA suburb I was raised in.

Contesting the Contests
Yes, writing contests often have entry fees, but they often are reasonable: $10–$15 dollars that might win you $500-$1,000, plus some of the perks mentioned above. And you might find contests for which you already have the story or essay written, but never found a home for it. I won $1,000 for paying $15 to enter a National Steinbeck Center fiction contest a long ways back, for a story I’d written in college. I didn’t think I had a prayer to win that contest, but I said “why not?” and entered. That was a good feeling.

Subscribe to Hope Clark’s free (or paid, for more entry opps) newsletter that has lots of good contests. So does Moira’s Allen’s Writing World newsletter. And Poets and Writers magazine has a searchable list of writing contests that you can filter for fees and genres.

Say “why not” to contests. Why not? And if you happen to be in Mandalay in the coming two weeks, let me know.

Writing Contests: Yea, Nay, or Meh?



Steinbeck award copy

No, I didn’t get a pawnbroker to re-etch my name over the real winner’s

It’s great to get published. I’ve had the good fortune to be published in lots of magazines and newspapers, and I’m grateful for the editors who have given me the opportunity, particularly when I first started out, and had nary a clip to my name. But there’s a special—and sometimes odd—kick that comes from doing well in a writing contest.

There’s some ego investment there for sure. But I think the ego vector comes less from “Wow, did I kick Shakespeare’s old booty all over the place in that haiku contest!” than Sally Field’s famous, “… this time I feel it—and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

Writers can be inward sorts, languishing a league or two below the surface in their writing caves, so validation of any sort is manna precious.

The reason I bring up writing contests right now is that I recently won second place in a travel-writing contest over at Dave’s Travel Corner. Dave had solicited contest prizes from some of his travel industry connections, so in addition to $100 cash, I received two travel books, a certificate for a private tasting for six ($180 value) at a fancy-schmancy Napa winery, a Vegas.com promotional kit (my article is set in Vegas) that included a deck of cards, nice poker chips, coasters and more, and last but not least chewy: two big packs of licorice vines. Now them’s some winnin’s.

Paying to Play

Dave had the generous spirit not to charge for entry into his contest, but many contests do require entry fees. I’ve seen novel writing contests where the fees went upward of $125, but of course, reviewing novels for contest entries could take up a great deal of reading time. Many contests I’ve entered were free, but a good number of them required entry fees between $10 and $25. Some years I’ve probably spent between $100 for contests, others maybe half that much. But I’ve had fair luck with my entries.

Right now I’m enjoying the tail end of a free year of Carol Tice’s Freelance Writing Den (normally $25 a month), and have found the Den a deep well of excellent writing resources, as well as a congenial place for writers to congregate. I won that free year just by writing—no fee—a blog post. Here’s my doffed cap to Carol and Linda Formichelli for choosing me.

I’ve won tickets to a Broadway play; admission, lodging and meals at a good writer’s conference; a few cash prizes of $100 or more, and long ago, that lovely glass plaque that adorns this post. That plaque is one of my prized possessions: being named on anything with John Steinbeck’s name is good gravy. The fact that it came with $1,000 cash and that Leon Panetta presented it to me (in lieu of an ill Thomas Steinbeck, John’s son) made that gravy all the warmer.

Contests (With Caveats), Si!

So, to answer the question that this post poses: I have to say Yea! Contests can give you good exposure. They can also stretch your writing: you will often be given a theme or a prompt to follow, and it can be a helpful challenge to push your words into places they wouldn’t go otherwise. And sometimes you might be able to enter an article or a story with a piece that you’d written some time ago and hadn’t found a home for. Don’t forget that Sally Field thrill. Not to mention, there’s the potential for licorice.

Make sure the contest is credible, make sure to follow the contest guidelines to the letter, and of course, don’t spend money that you can’t afford. (I’ve lost WAY more contests than I’ve won.) I was going to list a lot of writing contest resources, but the smart fellow at The Competitive Writer has already done that.

He provides links to writing contest advice and resources, like Hope Clark’s great Funds for Writers newsletter and Moira Allen’s Writing World, two newsletters I always look forward to receiving. He also lists contest databases, care of fine publications like Poets and Writers. One other source not on his list is the yearly Writer’s Market, which can be obtained in print or online or both. That publication has a Contests and Awards section that lists contest specs, fees, deadlines and prizes.

Oh, but don’t enter any of the ones I intend to. I’m sensitive, you know.