Make Writing Contests Work for You

Debut and self-published authors struggle to compete with the thousands of other books published each year. Writing awards come with the feeling of validation that your writing is “good enough.” They are also a marketing tool.

Awards drive sales by catching the eye of new readers and opening doors to new sales opportunities. Many readers and booksellers are skeptical about trying an unknown author. A good way to allay their fears is adding the tagline, “award-winning author.”

If you win an award, don’t be shy—let everyone know! Announce the award in your newsletter and on social media. Post the information on your website and include it in your press kit. Get extra milage out of an award by adding it to your Amazon author page and on GoodReads.

If you don’t enter, you can’t win. In addition to being able to get noticed and connect with new readers, there are other reasons to enter writing contest.

Reasons to Enter Writing Contests

  • Awards. Winning feels good. Even an honorable mention can boost your ego, keep naysayers at bay, and ensure writing remains fun.
  • Feedback. Because names are withheld, all writers are on equal footing. This ensures that editors and judges give impartial feedback, based solely on the quality of the writing.
  • Money. Everyone loves cash and most writing contests have cash prizes. Awards range from less than a hundred bucks to thousands of dollars. Consequently, many writers earn nearly a third of their income from winning contests.
  • Motivation. Hustling to meet contest deadlines might be the motivation an author needs to re-work a rejected piece and get it back on the path to success.
  • Prestige. Writing awards give an author immediate credibility. It looks good having a literary prize listed on promotion materials, not to mention inclusion in your bio. If the award is prestigious enough, even being shortlisted is something you can mentioned in your portfolio.
  • Publication. Many contests come with the promise of publication. Even awards that don’t include publication can help authors get noticed by literary agents, which may lead to having your work published in the future.

Downsides to Entering Writing Contests

  • Entry fees. Free writing contests exist, but most require entry fees that usually range between $5 and $100. Set a budget for entry fees and prioritize the contests you wish to enter.
  • Exclusive submissions. Some contests require exclusive submissions. Having your manuscript tied up for several months can be less than ideal if you’re actively shopping for a publisher.
  • False sense of rejection. Not winning causes some people to assume there’s something wrong with their work, which may be untrue. Much of contest judging is subjective. It is not uncommon for the same entry to get widely different scores as judges change from year to year.

Tips for Entering Writing Contests 

There are two basic book awards paths: pre-publication and post-publication. Pre-publication contests evaluate anything from the entire manuscript to just the first chapter. I’ve even seen contests for just the first page! Post-publication contests require submission of an entire book, either in print or electronically. They often require that the book have been published in the last year or two.

Read the entry instructions–twice. Pay particular attention to manuscript formatting preferences and follow the instructions exactly. Contest promoters receive lots of submissions, don’t irritate them by including anything they didn’t ask for.

Carefully check the eligibility requirements, including:

  • Age. There are youth contests and adult contests. Some are only for people under 30, others are for writers over 50. Whatever the age requirement, make sure you know it.
  • Contest Type. Not all writing contests are created equal. Is the contest only for short fiction? Maybe it’s for nonfiction, poetry, novels, plays, or screenplays? Don’t waste time and money by submitting to contest that isn’t interested in your work.
  • Deadline. Many contests have tight submission windows. There’s no point writing a check for a contest that’s already closed or one that hasn’t opened yet.
  • Demographics. Many contests are only for writers who are women, persons of color, are from a specific religion, or have LGBTQI+ status. Others may not care who the writer is, but seek a manuscript targeted to a certain demographic.
  • Location. Is the contest limited to writers in a specific country, state, or region?
  • Publication Status. Contests for emerging writers might only accept pieces from unpublished authors. Others are dedicated for self-published works. Still more are for first novels and may disregard prior publication if it was for short stories, non-fiction, or journal articles.
  • Word/Page Count. Do they want the whole manuscript or just the first 10 pages? Some contest limit entries to 5,000 words while others state a manuscript must be over 60,000 words. Know the requirements before entering.

Still not sure you’re ready to enter? Start small. Look for a local or regional contest. If you’ve never been published, you may feel more comfortable entering a contest with less competition.

Once you’ve selected a contest, familiarize yourself with the contest’s aesthetic and make sure your writing is a good match. If the judges’ names are published, find out what type of books they write. If the previous winners are published on the contest’s website, read those, too.

Create a plan. Make sure you have enough time before the submission deadline to edit and revise your work. Entries should be the highest caliber writing craftsmanship you can muster. Have fellow writers read your entry and provide feedback. Then revise and edit again to polish your prose so the writing is interesting and engaging for the reader.

Don’t get Scammed

Legitimate contests work like this: you pay a fee to submit and wait several months to hear back. Slush readers filter the best works up to final judges or publication editors. When the contest winners are announced, the entry fees go toward the contest payout. So, how do you tell if a contest is a scam?

Research contests before entering. Reputable contests are totally transparent regarding entry guidelines, awards, and past winners. Their websites clearly state who is sponsoring the contest and often include who the judges are. Pro tip: the lower the contest entry fee, the more likely it is to be legitimate. Look carefully at any contest that charges more than $30 to enter. Also, be wary of contests that demand full and exclusive rights to your work.

Genre also plays a role in determining the legitimacy of contests. In the literary fiction world, contests are more common. They are considered a viable route to publication and a good way to land a publisher without needing an agent. Post-publication contests are seen as great ways to generate buzz and garner the additional recognition necessary for book successes.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers tend to scorn contests that charge entry fees and often rail against pre-publication contests. Consequently, there are very few reputable SFF contests for unpublished manuscripts—most of the ones you find are likely to be scams. However, there are a number of reputable post-publication contests for works in these genres, many of which require nominations from industry professionals.

When in doubt, check SFWA’s Writer Beware page. It’s a great resource and has an extensive list of red flags common to disreputable contest.

Ready to take the plunge? Check out these resources for finding a contest that’s right for you:

Even if you lose your entry fee, your polished manuscript can be submitted elsewhere. And next time, you just might win.

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