The Contest Fix: How Writing Contests Can Help Your Career

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Coffee. Cigarettes. Liquor. Let’s be honest: All writers have their addictions. Mine is submitting to writing contests. (Please don’t tell my mother!)

Some writers turn up their noses at writing competitions and insist they are scams, but I don’t subscribe to this cynical theory. Other writers assert that one should never enter a contest with a high reading fee. But what constitutes high? One writer feels poor paying a $10 fee; another balks at $25. I use the Starbucks Litmus Test: Will paying the fee force me to give up Starbucks for a week? If not, I am usually at peace with the fee.

However, writer beware: Not all contests are equal, and they vary in prestige. Often the most respectable contests have no fee whatsoever, a boon to the literary types amongst us. As for other contests, while reading fees can add up, there is also no faster way to add cachet to your writing credentials than to win a contest.

And now for a quickie pop quiz: What constitutes a contest? To me, a contest is any organized writing competition in which there are clear winners and, just as clearly, writers who do not win. (No writer is a “loser.” We are all out there struggling to make a name for ourselves, if not a living.)

Reasons for entering a contest vary widely, but here are a few good ones:

  1. You need a deadline to help you make your work richer, stronger, more interesting, or more fleshed out. What’s the solution? Enter a writing contest, of course! Give yourself permission to spend a few days polishing that short story, poem, or chapter excerpt to make it as riveting as possible. All writing contests offer deadlines. So if all you require is the discipline of a firm cutoff date, any writing contest will suffice.
  2. You believe that your piece is close to publishable but want tangible proof. Many contests have judges who will happily sacrifice their Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to critique your work. These weekend warriors are a writer’s true heroes. If feedback is what you seek, read the contest fine print carefully to make sure that you’ll eventually see the judges’ scorecards. (And when those scores come in a lot lower than expected, force yourself to revise accordingly.)
  3. You want your work to be discovered. Here, again, it’s a good idea to read the contest fine print. Some contests promise rave reviews of your work if you win. Hurrah! But will they publish the review in a timely manner? (Hint: Waiting over a year for the review is not timely.) Do you need a rosy review? Yes, most certainly you do. It is a truth universally acknowledged that all writers need as many glowing reviews as we can possibly amass.
  4. You suffer from writer’s block. “Give me the freedom of a tight deadline,” a writing crony of mine once crooned. If you are afflicted with writer’s block, contests have a way of making you forget all about it as you struggle to upload your documents in the correct font and point size by the contest’s midnight deadline.

Conversely, here’s one reason not to enter a writing contest:

You need affirmation. Sorry to say, neediness is not a compelling reason to submit your work. Judges can sniff desperation a thousand miles away. For some reason, I didn’t even place in the contests I was convinced I would win, whereas I fared much better in the contests for which I had lower hopes. Whether you believe the contest gods are having a much-deserved laugh at your expense or are just plain capricious, this much is certain: No writer is the best judge of her own work. You just have to put it out there and find out how readers (and judges) feel about it.

Okay, okay! You’ve decided to enter a contest. Now what?

Research the contests in the genre in which you are writing. Any detailed Web search will help you. Then, drill down. Do even more homework. Follow the contest’s Twitter feed, and like the contest’s Facebook group. Read up on what other contestants, especially past ones, have to say about the contest. Did their submissions fall into a black hole, or did those writers hear back from the contest organizers in a timely fashion? What if your novel is cross-genre? That’s great news—now you can submit to twice as many contests.

What about submitting to magazines, you ask? To me, publication is the ultimate goal for all writers. (That, plus fame, fortune, and selling the television and film rights to our stories for the same prices that Stephen King would command.) I would definitely include magazine submissions on your to-do list.

What if you’re submitting but not winning?

Take heart as the rejections get warmer and more personalized. And have faith that as your writing improves, miraculously so will the rejections. Here’s a letter I received this afternoon, as I was sending this article off to Digital Book World.

Hi Diana,

Our competition had a record number of submissions. We’re glad to let you know that your manuscript made it through to our third round but wasn’t ultimately picked. Though we can’t offer you a publication agreement at this time, we wanted you to know it made it much further than most manuscripts do, and we are glad that you thought of us for your work. The door is always open here.

Please do keep us in mind for the future.

For obvious reasons, I didn’t jump up and down in ecstasy when I received this rejection. But the fact that it was personalized made me feel sanguine about the outcome. And I have a feeling that as your rejections get warmer, you’ll feel at peace with them, too. Always remember: Rejection is a badge of honor for a writer. If you’re a real writer, you will be rejected, probably thousands of times. And that’s okay because it means that in the quest for publication you are getting your work out there. Good luck with your contest entries, and let me know how you fare at


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