Should You Enter Writing Contests? This Author Says Yes

Should You Enter Writing Contests? This Author Says Yes

Last spring, I entered my novel into a writing contest on a whim, with my state’s writing association.

I felt my odds of winning something seemed decent enough it was worth the $40 entry fee, and at minimum, I’d receive the judges’ feedback, which would be extremely helpful for honing my craft.

Who can resist an opportunity to see how you measure up to your peers?

In early summer I got news that I was a semifinalist. Then in August, that I was a finalist. It started to get exciting. I could really, actually place!  But I tried not to think about it too hard, to avoid too much disappointment later.

Well friends, I not only placed, I got first place for the published fantasy category.

And then in a completely unexpected twist, my novel received the organization’s top honor as 2016 Book of the Year.

Hooray!

I was completely floored. Winning an award is a really nice pat on the back—you’re doing something right, and those high-starred reviews on Amazon are not just out of politeness.

Held up to high standards of objective judging, you made the cut.

But beyond fueling a writer’s ego, what can an award do for your author career?

“Award-winning”

As soon as you are declared a winner in a contest, you get to slap “award-winning” in front of your byline any time you want.

And you should definitely want to. The external affirmation of an award can help new readers consider you worth a risk. Over time, this is a credential that pays off.

Speaking opportunities

This new tag next to your name should be able to help you get a few more speaking gigs, too.

My award came with one opportunity built in: I’ll be the “person of renown” at next year’s conference, and will deliver an address the first day. Which is terrifying, but at least I have a year to prepare for it.

While at the conference, I got invited to address a writer’s group, and I’ve already started sending out queries to see what else I drum up—post-award is no time to kick back and relax … it’s time to jump into high gear!

“But I’m a writer, not a speaker!”

No, I am sorry, but you are both.

Being prepared to take on speaking gigs is a powerful way to expand your platform. I know it’s awful—when I step on a stage my hands visibly shake.

But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Start small in your own community and work your way up. If it helps, round up a panel to work with. But don’t let a fear of public speaking hold your beloved book back from success.

Media buzz

Any time you earn recognition for your work, be sure to send out a press release to any reporters in your area who cover books, or arts and culture in general (just one per media outlet please, so do your research to find the best first).

Your returns on a press release may vary, but odds are you’ll get at least a hit or two, and every mention can help readers discover and remember you.

Copies in hands

This result was immediate: As soon as the awards ceremony concluded, people were stopping me to say they couldn’t wait to purchase my book in the conference book store the next day.

At a winners’ signing in the morning, I sold 20 books in about 90 minutes—and got as many new subscribers to my email list. For comparison, I sold fewer books than that over a three-day local comic con.

I saw a jump in my Amazon ranking over the following week, too.

Putting it all to work

So how do you find the right contest for your book? Chasing the Man Booker or the Pulitzer on your first shot is probably not going to pay off. But, winning an award that lacks credibility won’t help you much, either.

A few tips:

  • Look to your local and state organizations. These often offer competitions that draw in a smaller pool since they’re not national, but most writing associations are still respected influencers in their region.
  • Research the judging process. I’ve seen contests before where books are nominated by readers, and then voted upon online—this is less a judge of writing quality than a popularity contest.

    The contest I entered had a meticulous process including objective scoring thresholds to reach semifinalist and finalist status—so even being named a finalist was a true accomplishment. Another thoughtful feature this contest used was that to account for varying tastes in writing, the judge whose score was farthest away from the others was tossed (whether it was higher or lowers than the others).Look for contests with high standards and a clear, thoughtful judging process.
  • Assess your work honestly. Do you genuinely feel that your manuscript holds up to the competition? What do critique partners tell you? Online reviews? Submitting a work you don’t feel is your best is just throwing your money away.
  • Genre considerations. Look at the competition’s past results. How does your genre fare? Are there specific categories for your genre in this competition?

    Don’t submit your hot romance novel for a literary prize—you may have written the most wonderful romance ever, but genre fiction is not what that competition is looking for! Find a romance competition instead.
  • Fringe benefits. Make sure you gain a benefit from the contest even if you don’t win—most commonly, you should receive the judges’ comments on why they scored your manuscript the way they did.

A time to seize opportunities

This was a great mid-year jumpstart to bring my book sales back to life a bit, and reaffirmed my efforts after a mid-year sales slump.

But taking full advantage of the opportunities is taking a ton of work, so be prepared. I’m reaching out to libraries, book stores, media outlets, and whatever else I can think of to seize opportunities.

Quite frankly, winning an award is some awful hard work. No sooner did I receive this unexpected honor than my heart started to race with all the new to-dos on my list. But it’s the good kind of work to have, so it’s hard to complain.

Want to create this situation for yourself? Don’t be afraid to get out there and submit!

Do you submit your work to writing contests? Why or why not?

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29 comments

  • Thank you for that and congratulations on your win. What a fantastic boost. I recently entered a Hallowe’en poetry contest. It was, admittedly a small contest run by a blogger I follow, but I was one of the 3 winners, and, boy, did it make me feel good!

  • Hi Emily:

    Thanks for your post. I’ve just come out with my first novel “River of the Stick Wavers” which I’m very proud of. Those who have read it didn’t want to put it down. Now I’m starting to look at marketing opportunities. I already have some in place, but I never considered entering it in a competition. But thank’s to your suggestion, I am going to do it. “Award Winning Author”, I like the sound of that.

  • Great post here. Though it’s a different type of “recognition” the same holds true for being named in a “Top Writing Blog” annual round-up.

    This provides great “social proof,” which often garners clients and advertisers, too.

    It’s a way for bloggers to “work smarter, not harder.”

  • Robert says:

    Where is the best place to find writing contests? Yes, google :). But, is there any list.ly or comprehensive resource you suggest?

  • Musa says:

    Congrats! Thanks for the motivative piece.

  • Linus D. Franca says:

    Very good article. But it would be “very, very better” if I didn’t have to click the “x” on your newsletter sign-up pop-up each time I visit. I am a subscriber of your newsletter but I will not reward spammy behavior. Tell me why you think I should have to put up with your spammy pop-up newsletter thing each time I visit and maybe I won’t unsubscribe. I understand your information is free and you’re trying to make a living and good on you, but… Also, please no IT questions like when does it happen and browser. If it’s a bug, it’s your bug to work out.

  • Tom Bentley says:

    Emily, good stuff on the contests. I rarely enter ones that have $40 fees, though I— somewhat—understand that charge for reading an entire novel. I’ve won a number of writing contests (and come in second and third in lots of others), and have been awarded cash prizes, and a couple of full scholarships to writing conferences (including flights and meals). I’ve even won licorice and poker chips.

    Poets and Writers has a good list of contests that displays fees and awards here:

    Good luck!

  • Charlie says:

    I gave up on entering competitions. Well, mostly. I always have my work critiqued several times by fellow writers/authors, and those who just like to read, before I submit anything. My writer friends tell me I write beautifully and craft characters you can almost touch, the readers like some stuff and don’t like others, but tell me the stories are well-written. And yet, I never win a comp. It seems to me that the judges decide on what suits their tastes just as much as those popularity contests you mention. And that’s if it even gets to the actual judge, and doesn’t stop at the filter judges. Half the time it feels that competitions are just a profit making exercise, and it gets expensive entering them time after time without any kind of win to pay for participating. So, I decided I can be rejected for free by magazines. There’s plenty of them out there and a publishing credit is still worth something, even if it’s not worth a press release! Free comps are still fair game, but don’t usually come with the prestige.

    • Competition can be stiff in these contests–it’s certainly true that you can be a very talented writer with top-notch content, but still not win a contest.

      I’d try to look for contests that have clear, objective judging standards (as much as possible, at least) to help with this issue.

  • Thank you, your information was very helpful. Congratulations!

  • Ann L. Coker says:

    Good information about a new topic for me. I had a first writing experience last week: I submitted a personal story to a magazine (one I’d not ed prior) and the editor wrote back within the hour and said, “This is very good.” He asked for permission to enter my piece in their annual writing contest. I agreed. The top three winners get published in their November 2017 issue. We’ll see what happens.

  • Wendy says:

    I’ve entered a few contests. Both free and paid. (Spent $50 on fees to the annual Writer’s Digest and all I got out of it was an invitation to purchase the award collection. May as well have sent it to the International Library of Poetry, it would have been cheaper.) Half of them didn’t even acknowledge receipt of the manuscript, much less bother to tell me I didn’t win (If your submission to a publication gets rejected, they at least send you a form letter. Contests don’t even do that much.)

    One of me fellow writing club members submitted to a contest and happened to know one of the judges. He asked what the judge thought of his story. The judge hadn’t even seen it–apparently, the contest had “first-pass” readers, so your story could be eliminated by someone who wasn’t even the stated judge (and who these readers are an what their tastes are is something you’ll never know).

    On the other hand, our club did judge a quarterly contest for the regional writers’ newsletter. I did the poetry. I had five entries, two of which I dismissed for exceeding the 30-line limit. If memory serves, there was something disqualifying about a third one (or else it was just bad), leaving me with only two to actually pick between. I could have explained my decision, but nobody asked me for it.

  • eve natka says:

    I’m a newbie in writing but i tried to enter a contest. It is held by a site for women writers in my country. The theme is “Proud to be a Mom” and I wrote about my oldest son. The contest is still running so I can’t tell you whether i win or not. I don’t look for the victory but i am only practicing my writing. I like looking for challenge but i do notice the competition maker. If it’s too big for me, i am still nervous to take part in it 😀

  • Muriel Clubbe says:

    Pleased to hear of your success. If nothing else it encourages others to keep trying. I think it is difficult to choose which competitions will suit an individual’s writing style, and, as someone else pointed out, judgement is very often subjective. I have not yet won any competitions, but I have experienced the thrill of having my work published. Recognition of your talent by people who do not know you is more encouraging than constructive criticism from fellow writers.

  • Congratulations Emily and thanks for sharing your contest experiences. I agree that it’s beneficial to get feedback from contests, however many don’t give that service.
    I entered one writing contest and won. It was in-house however my story was featured in the resulting anthology. From there I was asked to be a monthly magazine columnist which has increased my exposure as an author. I’m a member of two writing groups, one with a fortnightly theme whilst the other is a group of authors, editors and writers of varying genres who critique members works which are being written towards eventual publication. Writing can be a solitary process but with writing groups it becomes a both a social and educational experience.
    Thanks for the reminder about press releases.

  • Hellow Emily.
    I had a similar experience this year. As a result, I have been urging my friends and colleagues who are into writing to enter their work in an international writing contest/competition. That is a challenge that will surely improve their skills, if they do that regularly and learn from people who entered pieces that actually win prizes. It is a good learning exercise.

  • Ron Tillotson says:

    You’re posts and most of these comments remind me of one of my favorite quotes, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, either way you’re right.” I was also reminded of this event that happened many years ago, while I was a senior at San Diego State University, majoring in journalism, and at odds with the professor who managed the campus newspaper. He asked me to be a proctor for an on-the-spot feature writing contest to be held as part of the annual California Interscholastic Press Association convention then held in San Diego. I agreed, never having heard of this event. At the convention, I was given my “proctor” responsibilities. Suddenly, the professor mentioned above, in a forgiving tone, asked me if I could participate in the contest in place of the campus newspaper editor who didn’t show up. I said “sure.” This contest consisted of watching a half-hour slide show presented by a professor who had photographed acupuncture treatments in China. Everyone in the contest brought typewriters, except me. (I said this was “many years ago.”) So, I took pencil notes, finished my draft, was able to borrow a fellow SDSU student’s typewriter near the end of the allowed time, when I quickly realized everyone of the 25 students in the room was writing the exact same story. I thought, “I have to create a high impact lead to my story to grab the attention of the judges.” At the Saturday-night awards banquet, I sat with seven other students, watching ribbons and trophies being presented to contest participants. When the announcer reached the On-the-Spot Feature Writing contest group, he named the third- and second-place winners, but before he called out the trophy winner, he said, “Before I announce first place, I just want to say I wish I had a second-team writer like Ron Tillotson at Fresno State. Ron, would you please come up here and get your trophy?” Stunned, I nervously sauntered to the podium and he handed me the trophy. I was greeted back at the table by one of the contest judges, a reporter from the LA Times. He said, “Ron, when we saw your story lead, we all decided that this was the winner, unless we found an entry that could beat it.” My lead was “The elderly Chinese man laughed and drank soup while doctors removed the top of his head.” The slide depicting this man showed him anesthetized with acupuncture needles so he felt no pain while doctors performed surgery on his brain.

  • Sibusiso says:

    Hello everyone. My name is Sibusiso Dlamini, and I am a 17 year old journalist/writer in Swaziland.

    I am currently looking for opportunities to study journalism, but I have a problem with finances., as my single mother cannot afford to pay for my fees.

    Would anyone be kind enough to help me with contests I can enter or scholarship opportunities that would help me raise money to finance my education, because it is not a priority course in my country.
    Please help dear writers.

  • Rachel Maree says:

    Hi Emily,

    Just came across this post and found it very helpful. I have been digging my heels in about writing competitions, mainly due to time constraints. Now I am going to try dedicate more time to them. And you know what they say…practice makes perfect!

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