Friday, October 2, 2020

Submitting to Contests: Worth It or Waste of Money and Time?

A great way to get your writing out there, seen by readers and possibly your future agent (agents browse literary journals and magazines and website), is contests. Writing contests, if you have the happy experience of winning or even placing as a finalist, can also boost your query letter/resume considerably.

Quite a few of my clients and students submit to contests regularly. "It's great practice to have a deadline," one of them told me. She tries to submit something every month, even has the next submission ready to send as soon as she gets a rejection back. "Rejections are no fun but they're part of the writing life if you want to get published. It helps me not get discouraged if I can keep sending out my work no matter what."

Why contests? They cost. (A past student emailed that she was getting ready to send an essay and some poetry to a Writer's Digest contest. Then she found out about the fee. "They CHARGE you to enter," she told me. "Is this legit?" Short answer: Yup. Many contests charge. There are also a lot of free ones.) But they also give you an entry into journals and lit magazines.

When I was just starting to write short stories, I gathered up a list of contests for new writers. One was Glimmer Train Press, a fairly well-regarded magazine. I paid my $10 fee and sent off my submission. To my surprise and delight, I got a response--my story was a top-ten finalist. Although I didn't win, I listed that credential on all my submission queries after that. Looking back, the story wasn't great shakes and I soon abandoned it. But the almost-win boosted me for months.

Contests are often more open to newer writers than the journals themselves. If you are reluctant to send out contest fees, consider it your charitable donation for the year, or at least a tax write-off for some. And your odds of getting a boost are higher for that small fee.

I gave myself a budget for the year I tried contests. Those $10 fees added up, so I stopped when I hit $100, which was a lot for me at the time. I am certain I got my $100 worth just from that cred.

It takes some organization to do this, as does any regular submitting to agents or publications. A dear writing friend helped me out that first year: she taught me where to research contests and literary journals and showed me a chart she kept to track her submissions.

Here are the categories:

Name of publication
Contact info
Contest name (if applicable)
Contest deadline
Story submitted
Date submitted
Date of response

This saved me several times from sending the same story out twice to the same publication.

Most contests allow multiple submissions now. Check the guidelines to make sure. If you do win another contest, it's a courtesy to email the others and withdraw your submission.

Winter's coming, the best time to hunker down and writer, at least in our neck of the woods, so why not take a step and try a few contests for your work? Anything you do, will help your book when you're eventually ready to find that agent and publisher.

Contests resources (if the links don't work, google the name and search for "contest"):

Jerry Jenkins' list of free writing contests

Poets and Writers list of contests, grants, and awards

The Write Life list of free contests

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