Six Ways to Win With Writing Contests

On the road to publication, it's nice to have some folks cheering you on--besides your friends and family. You may not win the contest, but here's how to win no matter where you place.

Know the Benefits. Entering a writing contest can do several wonderful things for you:

  1. Help you meet a deadline.
  2. Force you to prepare for submitting to agents by following manuscript guidelines.
  3. Give you valuable feedback from publishing professionals.
  4. Develop your confidence in letting others read your work.

 Choose a Goal. Is your mission to gain publicity? To get feedback? To interest an agent? Or maybe you just want to force yourself to stretch your writing. Some contests give a prompt, whether written or visual. You might discover the seed of a novel you never would have thought of before. It was through a writing contest prompt that I began my current novel.

Stretch Yourself. If you write romance, don't limit yourself to the hundreds of romance-oriented writing contests available. Try something in another genre or format (like flash fiction, if you're a novelist, or write some sci-fi if you like to write mysteries). Often contests outside your comfort zone can help you uncover a previously unknown ability in a certain genre. 

Uncover the Details. If the contest has a fee, evaluate whether it's worthwhile for you. Many organizations run contests to raise money through contest fees. This is legitimate, but stop to evaluate your chances of winning, and what you'll receive. 

I enter the Pikes Peak Writers Paul Gillette Contest every year. There is a fee, but I receive two in-depth score sheets from professional writers, along with a chance for a cash prize or attendance at their writing conference. 

Make Like a Professional. It's never too early to learn to follow directions. Sure, a contest's directions for entries may seem strange, but consider it your boot camp to becoming a published writer. If you can't follow (seemingly) arcane instructions now, what will you do when the twelve agents you plan on submitting to each have their own do's and don'ts?

Don't Forget to Debrief. After the contest is over, evaluate how it went. If you received score sheets or judges critiques, spend some time reading through the comments. If the opinions hurt, set it aside for awhile, or go over it with a critique partner. 

If you entered an online contest, like one hosted on a blog, you can often read the winning entries. Take the time to go over the stories that placed, and try to determine why they are different. Did they just follow the guidelines better? Are there craft issues you can work on? Think of it as just another learning experience that will hone your skills as a writer.

How have contests helped your writing?

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