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.

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7 thoughts on “Writing Contests: Yea, Nay, or Meh?

  1. I’ve steadfastly avoided entering contests.

    I tell myself it’s because I can’t imagine them aligning with my writing goals but I worry, sometimes, if it’s because I couldn’t take the crush of not winning. Which I assume is a foregone conclusion because I seem to make most folks from the traditional aspects of writing sorta angry.

  2. I know what you mean Joel—it’s hard when you not only don’t get any recognition in the contest, but you hear nothing at all on your submission, which has happened to me many times.

    I enter fewer of them than I used to, but since I do get some positive results occasionally, I try to target the ones I think I have a shot at.

    The reward mechanism is akin to the partial-reinforcement strategy that the slot machines are set for in Vegas…

  3. Intermittent rewards; the greatest engagement tool there is.

    Personal opinion: do you think contests would benefit someone who’s hoping to do more and more fiction writing?

  4. J, I think contests are good for fiction writers (and there are a lot of contests for them) because they steer you to a deadline, and as you know, we writers can be wishy-washy sometimes about finishing a project, because then we think it’s fallen somewhat short of the Faulkner that we foresaw for it when it was a shining thing in the mind.

    There’s the deadline deal, and there might be extra impetus to write well because you want to do well in the contest, and as I mentioned, some contests come with themes or prompts that can lure your writing into locales and slants that it wouldn’t visit otherwise.

    I suppose the problem with those things is if you don’t get some attention in multiple contests, and take that as a sign your writing’s no good, which however specious that might be, is a direction many writers can lean. But you need at least moderately resilient skin in this business, if not thick.

  5. There’s as WS said, the rub. I don’t want to thicken my skin. I want to keep thinning it out more and more. I want to be a human nerve ending, sensing everything deeply (partly because that’s just who I am.)

    For good or ill, I think my writing path will be fairly solitary, except for having you edit my fiction when it’s ready.

    Huh. Just realized I had 4 alpha readers give me feedback on “anodyne” so, there’s that.

  6. Thanks again for the shout out.

    If you want to get an article published with a magazine -that’s a writing contest.
    If you want your manuscript chosen from the rest of the slush pile on an agent’s desk- that’s a writing contest.

    Traditional contests not only offer fame and fortunes ( or 5pound nut rolls like I got in my first win) , they help you hone in on the others ways to get your words in print.

  7. Nate, sorry, I just found you resting in the Spam folder—maybe it was that 5-pound nut roll that weighed you down. But I do agree that putting anything in an editor’s hands is a writing contest of sorts; you do have to win their approval.

    Thanks for the good info on your site.

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