I’m a big fan of writing contests. I’ve been an occasional winner, a sometimes shortlistee, and have come nowhere absolutely loads of times. So why do I keep entering?
Between February 2020 and November 2022, I submitted to sixty-eight writing contests, awards and prizes, from micro fiction to full length novels. Also, bit of a disclosure here, I am an early round reader for a few competitions.
Why enter writing contests?
1. Prizes & Opportunities
The most obvious reason to enter a writing contest is your story might come first, and you could win some money or another useful prize like:
- connection with agents and publishers
- being published
- other goodies
Your story might come second or third, be shortlisted, longlisted, commended or chosen as a reader’s favourite. Any of these will be great for your writing CV and/or cover letter when submitting to agents/publishers. Not to mention giving you an ego boost.
But what if your story doesn’t win or place? What’s in it for you then?
Well, two things. Purpose and practice.
A reason to start something …
Entering a writing contest gives you purpose, a reason to write something new and specific, or something different to your main work in progress. Writing a novel takes a long time and on occasion you may find yourself questioning whether you’ll reach the end any time this century, and/or whether you’ll ever have a new idea. When this happens, I like to have a go at a micro or flash competition. These often have a prompt which helps focus the mind. I can usually produce something not too shabby in a couple of hours. I may enter the contest, I may not, but either way I have words on the page and a sense of achievement.
This technique is also helpful if you are feeling blocked, have lost your way in what you are currently writing, or are struggling with mental, emotional, or physical health or energy levels.
A reason to finish something …
Keeping an eye on when contests are closing can be great to help you focus on a longer term project like a novel or screenplay. I find having a deadline that has been set by someone other than myself is very motivating.
It may seem odd to think of entering writing contests as practising rather than a thing you’re actually doing, especially if you’re paying for the privilege, but I think it can be a helpful way of looking at the process. I’m really talking about contests for longer forms, like novels and screenplays, here. Often you will need to submit a synopsis with your extract, and possibly a pitch letter too. As many of us writers find these two things harder to write than a whole novel, it’s good to have a reason to produce them.
Each contest has its own rules on wordcounts and format, in the same way that agents do, so this is useful preparation for when you sub to lit agencies. Meeting the deadline is good practise for when you’re working with a publisher.
Accessing writing contests
1. How to find writing contests
There are some lovely writerly individuals and organisations who collate writing contest info. Here are a few examples:
Twitter is a good place to find out about contests, too.
New or publisher-run contests are often announced in The Bookseller.
Generally, writing competitions charge for entries, although many now include free or reduced-cost entries or bursaries for traditionally underrepresented and/or low-income writers. These are paid for either by donations, or from the submission fee pot. Some contests have a suggested donation rather than a fee, others a standard fee plus optional extra donation. There are also writing contests that offer ‘early bird’ discounts.
A number of contests offer feedback for an additional fee. See more about this in the Tips section below.
Some contests are free to enter. These tend to be at either end of the contest spectrum. E.g., websites looking for free content which offer online publishing as a prize, rather than money. Or publisher-run awards and open submission windows which offer publishing opportunities.
Virtually all contests are now run via online or emailed submissions rather than paper sent through the post, although some do still offer this as an option.
Tips on entering writing contests
1. Choose the right contest for you and your work
If you’re new to writing contests take some time to shop around. Read the previous winning stories or extracts if available. If you’re looking at flash fiction, invest in an anthology or two to see if your work is a fit. Maybe enter something low key to start with, that doesn’t cost too much. As well as the fee and the prizes, take note of the submission guidelines, and announcement dates for longlisting, shortlisting and winners. Some other considerations:
Check what you are agreeing to
For example, some contests publish the longlisted or shortlisted stories on their websites or in printed anthologies. Are you happy with this? If you want to see your work in print, then great. If you only want your work to be published if you’re being paid for it, then not so great.
There are other considerations too. Once a story has been published, even if only online, you may not be able to enter it into another writing contest (depending on their rules). On the other hand, building up a body of longlisted and shortlisted works, published on reputable sites, is great for your writing CV.
Paying extra for feedback
If you can afford this option it may be helpful when you first start out entering contests or if you have a story that you’ve submitted often that’s not getting anywhere. When I first started out, I did pay for feedback a few times and it was mostly helpful. However, it can be expensive, so do check who is giving the feedback and how detailed it is. An established editor or writer in your field might make a higher fee acceptable to you.
Who is judging?
The judging process varies between contests but generally each entry will be read by more than one reader, before the longlisting stage. There may be another group of readers for the long list, and then one or more industry professional reading the short list.
The big novel contests often have an industry professional – usually an agent – as the final judge. It can be exciting to think your work may be seen by such a person, however bear in mind this will only be once/if you get to the short list stage. For me, the way the competition is run is more important than that final judge. (See more below in what makes a good contest.)
2. Follow the rules
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to follow the rules. I promise, competition organisers do not make them up to be difficult. They’re not trying to catch you out or disqualify you. They really want to read your work BUT organising a writing contest is a massive task involving a lot of administration and the input of numerous readers. The rules are there to make sure your work is as accessible as possible. So:
Make sure you are eligible
Writing competitions have specific eligibility rules. Most common are being over eighteen and the work written in English. (Usually translations are permitted.) Often, traditionally published authors are excluded – check the specific wording as to what this means for each contest. Some contests are set up to provide opportunities for certain groups of typically underrepresented writers. E.g., BAME, working-class, LGBTQI+, women, over 60’s etc. Some contests are explicitly for children’s stories, others for specific genres like crime. Don’t waste your time and money entering something you’re not eligible for!
Many contests are judged blind, and you are required to make sure everything you submit is anonymous. Check your headers and footers, make sure your document is titled in the way the organiser asks – usually just the title of your work to avoid any indication of who the author is.
Check the word count
E.g., exactly 100 words, not including the title. In the case of novel comps, it’s customary to submit the opening chapters, or up to a certain number of words. This means you can send slightly less, making sure you don’t stop halfway through a sentence (it happens). Try and end the extract on a stunning or hooky line.
Send only what they ask for
E.g., synopsis and first five thousand words – don’t add in a pitch or a cover letter unless it’s required …
In the requested format
One word document? or two? If the contest asks for your work in 12 point, double spaced, make sure you format it that way even if it’s not your personal preference. It takes seconds to do so in Word. (Side note: if your work is in a particular format for style reasons, e.g., a verse novel, do check with the organiser as to how you should proceed.) This is all about making your writing as easy to read as possible, giving your work the best chance. It’s also good practise for when you submit to agencies, as they often have very specific guidelines.
3. Manage your entries
Keep a record of what you send where and when, and whether your story is listed or placed. Most comps allow you to submit to multiple opportunities at once, however they ask that you withdraw should you win elsewhere. If your story doesn’t win, rework and submit elsewhere. This is also good practise for keeping track of agent subs.
What makes a good contest?
In my opinion, communication is key. Not only that the organisers communicate with the entrants, but how they do so. I have stopped entering contests* with poor communication. I think if people are paying to enter a contest the least that can be expected is an acknowledgement of receipt of entry and an email confirming the listings and winners, even if this is after the public announcement. The best contests keep their entrants informed at every stage in a kind, considerate manner.
*There are exceptions – publisher run contests and publisher open submission windows. These are usually free and the possibility of winning a publishing deal outweighs my bad-temperedness about communication! 😉
Recommended Writing Contests
Disclosure – these are my personal opinions. Please note I have connections with some of these contests, as detailed individually. *
A prompt is given on their website and social media on the first Monday of the month excluding August and December. 100 words exactly, excluding title. Entry fee. Enter via submittable. Various prizes including cash, publication, and the people’s choice.
My opinion: very efficiently run with excellent communication. Retreat West is community-minded and very supportive of writers.
*I’ve been shortlisted and won the people’s prize.
Three times a year, wordcount up to 300 words. Entry fee. Enter via email. Significant cash prizes and publication.
My opinion: very efficiently run, not long to wait between submitting and when the listings are announced, good communication.
One of each, once a year. Entry fee. Enter via website. Various prizes including mentoring and membership. The Novel in Development Award includes optional feedback. In keeping with the WriteMentor inclusive and accessible ethos, fees are kept as low as possible.
My opinion: Good, kind, and considerate communication. Forewarning of announcements. Planned dates of announcements are sometimes delayed but entrants are kept informed via social media.
*I am an early round reader for these awards
One of each, once a year. Entry fee. Enter via website. Cash prizes, plus feedback to listees and support in identifying suitable agents.
My opinion: Very slick organisation and excellent communication. Very quick turnaround between submitting and listings.
*I have been shortlisted for this award
Various contests for children’s writers each year including opening chapters, short story and picture books. Entry fee. Enter via website. Cash prize for winner, shortlist included in a ‘pitch book’ sent to agents. Inclusion in anthology.
My opinion: Good communication and great opportunities.
*I have been shortlisted in a Searchlight Award
A US based contest offering prizes in a number of categories and genres. They also run a contest for published works to be converted into script and screenplays. Fee, enter via website. Cash prizes plus industry introductions.
My Opinion: Expensive to enter although early bird fees offered. Good communication and inclusive community feel. Good for authors outside the US as a way into the massive US market.
* I have been runner up in this contest
Offering multiple categories from Picture book to Thriller. Fee. Enter via website. Various prizes including cash, agent consultations and feedback.
My opinion: Really quick turnaround time. No listings. Winners announced at their festival. Good communication.
*I’ve won/placed in a number of their comps.
More advice about writing contests
Help with your story
If you’d like some feedback on a story you’re thinking of submitting – from micro through to novel – please take a look at my mentoring services.