Shelley Widhalm

Picking the best writing contests to enter (and overcoming the fear to try)

In Staying Motivated, Writing, Writing Contests, Writing Processes on April 5, 2015 at 11:00 am


I have a slight fear when it comes to entering writing contests, or actually two fears—will my writing be thrown into the reject pile and will I be wasting my money?

The answer to the first is practical and philosophical—I can’t win if I don’t try, and, as a friend told me, I basically lose by not trying.

What can be “won” can include publication in a magazine, journal or anthology, prize money, an all-expense trip to a writer’s conference or a meeting with agents and editors.

As for my second fear, I have to remind myself that not all contests require an entry fee, and those that do can provide a return on investment, if not a win. The ROI is the feedback you receive in the score sheet or written comments beyond the form letter rejections that will help you improve your writing for the next time.

The ROI in a win or an honorable mention, such as for a short story, nonfiction or poetry contest, is a demonstration to agents and publishers that someone other than family and friends sees merit in your work. You earn an accolade to mention in the query letters you submit to literary agents for longer work.

But before you even enter a writing contest, realize winning or not winning isn’t personal or a reflection of your writing quality and originality. It can be a matter of the publication’s style, the editors’ personal taste and a high number of entries from other talented writers.

Also, it’s important to:

  • Be selective on which contests you enter, and only enter those where winning guarantees publication in a reputable journal. Avoid contests that lack a website or mailing address or that have large entry fees and low payouts to the winners.
  • Follow the contest guidelines, themes and rules for entering.
  • Get a sense of the taste and style of the magazine, journal or anthology.
  • Research the final judge and read his or her work.
  • Avoid entering simultaneous submissions; save them for non-contest entries.
  • Keep track of your submissions on a spreadsheet, including contest name, entry date and deadline, title of the work and the entry fee, if required.
  • Submit early and, if allowed, often.

Most of all, make sure what you enter is your best (and polished) work. Realize that contests are one of many paths to publication. Submitting to a journal or magazine during regular submission periods also can earn you those publication credits.

(See Zoey the Cute Dachshund’s blog at


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