As you pop around the web or read writing magazines, you’ll pretty quickly discover writing contests. In fact, we even host one on this site each spring. You may mull these contests over and wonder if they’re worth your while. Winning would be fantastic! But what do you have to gain for all your effort if you lose?
Contests are a great way to stretch your writing wings. Of course, not every contest is for everybody. To randomly select contests to enter would be as bad as submitting an article to just any-old-market without studying its style, needs, and requirements first. If you haven’t studied writing craft long, or if you haven’t been through the experience of having your work critiqued, then entering a national contest would probably not be the best use of your time.
However, if you’re looking at a smaller contest with a topic or style that really suits you, then entering a writing contest can have value in a several ways.
First, you just might win. You might not, of course. Your odds are always 1 in however-many-entrants-you’re-up-against. And you may be competing against some real whizz-bang writers. But even if you don’t win or don’t make an honorable mention, you will doubtless learn something that will improve your skill. If the contest is small enough, you may get individual feedback from the judges. This is a HUGE deal. As long as you can handle helpful criticism, you stand to gain insight that most people have to pay for.
But even if you don’t get feedback, you may learn to streamline a story, set parameters, follow guidelines, train your mind around a theme, work on a deadline, and so on. And then there is always the possibility of residual rewards.
Case in point: Two years ago I entered a very large contest with a national publisher for a contemporary romance novella (one of those stories that’s too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel). In this case, the contest word limit was 25,000 words. My story came in just under that.
I’d never written a novella before. I’d also only written in the historical genre, never contemporary. But as I was working on a separate, long project involving tons of research, stepping back to enter the contest gave me a refreshing break. It taught me a different style. In writing a novella that didn’t really require research, I knew I’d see closure on a story much sooner than in my long fiction. The contest also gave me very clear guidelines for writing this contemporary story. You could say those guidelines walked me through the process. I really didn’t know how it would go, but when I finished, I felt I’d written a very sound piece. I also discovered that I actually enjoyed writing contemporary stuff — much more than I ever thought I would.
So did I win? No. I don’t even know if I came close. But…
I was so pleased with that story that I decided to modify it for a different publisher (so it wouldn’t be seen as the same storyline as for that contest) and I submitted it elsewhere. Within weeks, I had a contract for publication of my novella, which you’ll see somewhere on the sidebar of this page. It’s called Heart Not Taken.
I am really glad I entered that contest!
Not every story you write might come to such a fine conclusion. But you will never know unless you try.
- Investigate some contests online. Beware of sites that charge high entry fees. Many contests are free to enter. Some of the larger contests charge nominal reading fees of $10-$30.
- Take a look at your current Work-in-Progress. Is it something you think might do well in a contest? Are you ready to expose it to the world? Contests like the one here at A Novel Writing Site require only the first several pages. Other contests might involve a scene, a line, or a blurb. Be prepared to meet requirements.
- If you decide to enter a contest, follow the submission directions exactly!