Five Essential Tips for Entering Writing Contests
About the Author: Michelle Cornish
After spending almost twenty years in the public accounting industry, Michelle sold her accounting practice to spend more time with her family and pursue her dream of writing. In 2017, she published Keep More Money, a guide to help business owners find a trustworthy accountant.
Realizing that she really wanted to write fiction, Michelle published Murder Audit, her debut novel and book one in the Cynthia Webber financial crime series, in 2018. Michelle is inspired by her two sons every day and is currently working on a picture book they helped her write.
I've been entering writing contest since I was in the seventh grade. My teacher believed in the value of creative writing and supported the class by finding as many contests as she could to help us showcase our work. Now that I'm all grown up, I understand that there's more value to writing contests than just the prizes you can win.
What counts as a contest?
For me, there are two extreme ways to look at contests. The first is that you're trying to beat out everyone else to win a prize, and the second is that you’re participating in this amazing event to grow as a writer. My view of a contest takes the second form, and I use the word “contest” loosely.
Even submitting to agents and publishers is a type of contest where you’re trying to get noticed for your work. I've submitted my work via contests, query letters, and even writing seminars where instructors have offered to provide feedback. What I've learned from submitting my work in each of these ways is that not all contests are created equal and not all feedback is helpful.
Here are a few things to consider when submitting your own work to contests, agents, publishers, peers, or industry experts:
Tip #1: Be clear on your goals.
Understanding what you want to achieve in submitting your work will help you get more out of your submission. I'm not proud of this, but there were times in my writing career where I just needed to make a quick buck and threw something together that I wouldn't normally have considered.
Throwing your work together is never a good idea, especially if you want to receive helpful feedback. When your work is as polished as possible when you submit it, there’s a better chance you’ll receive good feedback instead of hearing comments that you might expect if you just threw something together.
If your goal is to make money by winning contests, you may want to consider expanding your submission base to magazines that accept short stories in your genre. Be sure to check if there are any submission fees before submitting your piece. These could really eat into your profit if the magazine accepts your work.
If, on the other hand, your goal is to improve your writing, you’ll want to look for submission opportunities that provide feedback. There are great contests out there that offer feedback to every person that enters. The NYC Midnight competition is one I have personal experience with. I participated in one of their short story contests and the feedback was very helpful.
Finally, consider how much you will pay to get feedback on your work. If you're just starting out in your writing career, I recommend finding contests that offer feedback with low or no entry fees. It's going to be a judgment call on your part as to what a low entry fee is, but it’s worth considering when you’re deciding where to submit your work. Most of the contest entry fees I’ve seen range from free to $100 USD.
Tip #2: Follow the rules to get the best results
No matter where you plan to submit your work, make sure you understand the submission guidelines. Many agents have different requirements for the format of the submissions they’ll accept, and contests have their own set of rules, too.
In most cases, not following the rules will get you an automatic pass. If you haven't followed the guidelines, there's a very good chance your work won’t even be read. This results in a lot of wasted time (and possibly money) with nothing to show as a result.
Tip #3: Deadlines are your friend.
One of the best things I've learned from submitting my work to contests, webinar instructors, and limited submission blitzes through publishers is that I work well under pressure. I really enjoy having a deadline to work towards, as they seem to help me write faster and better.
As a self-published author with only myself to hold me accountable, I realized that I needed to set hard deadlines for myself. These include things like telling my beta readers when they can expect to see my next project, booking time with an editor, or announcing on social media when my next book will be published.
Tip #4: Know that not all feedback is helpful.
I once registered for a webinar where the instructor (an agent) promised to provide feedback to all participants. The webinar was about $100 and the feedback I received on my submission was very disappointing. It was pretty much one sentence saying they didn't like my work. Not helpful.
I wasn't disappointed that they didn't like my submission, that's understandable. Not everyone is going to like my work. I was disappointed that they didn't give me any clues about how to fix it. I guess they assumed I would take what I learned from the webinar and apply it to my work.
The lessons I learned here was that just because I'm paying a good price for a webinar taught by an expert doesn't mean their feedback is going to be helpful to me. Now I understand the importance of doing my research. You can do this by talking to fellow writers, checking online, and listening to the experiences other people have had.
Tip #5: It needs to be fun if it's going to be sustainable.
Getting feedback on your work is a valuable way to improve as a writer. If you plan to submit your work to contests or open publishing calls, make sure you're writing about something you enjoy. I once submitted a sample chapter and synopsis on a story that I just wasn't feeling that great about. Of course, the publishers didn't accept it. Why would they like it if I didn't even like it?
So, the lesson I learned is that submitting work for feedback is great, but it's meaningless if I'm submitting work I'm not excited about. Can you imagine if that publisher had liked my first chapter and wanted to see more? I would have struggled to get excited about that story and it would have been a drag to write.
To get the most out of submitting your work for feedback or prizes, remember to adhere to submission guidelines, not submission deadlines in your calendar of phone, do your due diligence and research on possible submission opportunities, be honest with yourself about why you’re submitting your work, and make sure to always enjoy the story you’re writing.
As writers, we need to keep writing to get better. Submitting work to agents, publishers, contests and even webinar instructors is a great way to do this, especially if you do your research and find some places that provide great feedback. Good luck!