The Backseat Writer on Writing Contests

So you’ve got a manuscript.  It’s ready.  You love it. Of course you do.  You’ve always loved it.  That’s why you spent the last [insert appropriate number of years] alone in front of your computer with it. And, truth be told, you’re critique group refuses to look at your first chapter “just one more time” because, even though they continue to be your best cheerleaders, it’s all they’ve seen from you in over a year and they’re a little sick of it.

What do you do?

Sounds like you might be ready to enter a writing contest.  Contests come in all shapes and sizes.  Some require reading fees, some don’t.  Some offer big cash payoffs, while some offer invaluable professional feedback, or trips to big name conferences.  Some even offer that elusive white whale that pretty much all of us “unpubs” are seeking:


How do you know which one is right for you?  Well, like pretty much everything else in the writing world, it takes research and patience and proper preparation.   And you have to decide what you’re looking for. Make sure the contest you enter is right for you.  For example, if you’re looking for professional evaluation of your work, don’t enter a contest that offers only a cash prize with no feedback.

Hey, wait a minute.  It just occurred to me that Yellow Bird just opened a contest where the winner gets a full manuscript evaluation from a professional editor.  What a coincidence!  Here’s the link:

But getting back to the sometimes confusing world of entering writing contests:  I am no all-knowing expert.  Wait!  Don’t stop reading, I’m going somewhere with this.  I’m no expert, but I can offer some perspective on how not to do it.  (Steep learning curves seem to be a life choice for me.)  Anyway, I made a fundamental mistake:  I ignored all the good advice I was getting and just took the random “scatter gun” approach to entering.  I didn’t bother to read what was already published in/by the periodical or publishing house sponsoring the contest.  I didn’t look at the past winner samples.  I didn’t bother to research the judges in any way.  I just opened my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine to the contest deadlines section in the back and went down the list.   I entered anything and everything that looked like I might be eligible for, regardless of whether or not my writing seemed like a good fit.

What did I get for my trouble?  I ended up spending a bunch of money on reading fees and accidentally subscribing to a lot of literary journals (some offer subscriptions in exchange for their reading fees).  But that’s all I got, besides a steady stream of heartbreakingly generic “thanks but no thanks” rejection emails.

So, if you’re interested in supporting the struggling literary publishing community with wasted entry fees, then, by all means, do it like I did.  But, if you’re looking to increase your chances of actually winning, then take the time to do the research before you enter.  Don’t enter your YA fantasy into a literary fiction contest.  If you’ve got a procedural detective story, you probably shouldn’t submit it to a historical fiction contest.  And memoirs rarely win short story contests.  Make sure you know what you’re spending your money on.

Or, you could just find a contest like Yellow Bird’s.  Did I mention it already?  I can’t remember.  Just in case I didn’t, here’s the link:

It’s wide open to any and all comers.  The only thing we’re looking for is good writing.  So send us your middle grade dystopian, your memoir of the years you served in Afghanistan, your bodice ripping romance.  Whatever!  If the writing rocks, then you’ve got a shot.  So polish up that first chapter and get it to us before July 31st.  You can’t win if you don’t enter!