Ask Midge: Literary contests

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Publishing, On Writing

Q: How do I know which literary contests are worth entering? Are some better than others?

A: I recommend doing a lot of research before entering any type of literary contest — whether you’re entering a single poem or an entire short story collection, you’ll want to make sure that it’s a magazine or publisher you know of, respect, and want to work with. Some contests may in fact be a better fit for your work than others — but most of all, you’ll want to avoid contests that could be scams (sadly, there are all too many of them out there). For the most part, though, contests are great — in fact, winning a university press contest is what led to the publication of the first edition of Forgetting English back in 2009.

So here are a few tips for researching and entering contests, whether you have one story/poem or a whole collection …

  • First, get familiar with any contest you’re thinking of entering. How long has it been around? (If it’s the contest’s first year, on one hand, you may have good odds of winning; on the other hand, if it hasn’t been around for a while, you may not know whether it’s legitimate until you enter.) Is the contest supported by a well-known organization, such as a literary magazine, a small press, or a university? Do you like and respect its products, whether it’s a literary magazine or a book publisher? Make sure you’re completely comfortable with the organization running the contest before you send anything in, especially money.
  • Consider the fee. Even legitimate contests usually charge fees these days, using the money to administer the contest and to offer judges a stipend. Paying attention to the cost may give you an idea of whether the contest is legit or not — for example, most contests for literary magazines charge fees from $5 to $15 (sometimes as high as $20) to enter a short story or selection of poems; contests for book-length works usually charge about $25. If it’s much higher than this, the contest may not be a reputable one (if, say, a contest asks for $30 or more for a single story or charges more than $50 for a manuscript). Of course, it’s always possible that these are reputable contests — some simply have higher fees — but if it’s far above the average, why not instead support the magazines and presses that work hard to keep fees reasonable for authors?
  • Consider the award. Another red flag is if there are no cash prizes for the winners, or if the prize is way out of line with the fee. All contests that ask you to pay a fee should offer a cash award (often these range from $500 to $1,000 for a story or group poems, and from $1,500 to $2,500 or more for a small-press manuscript award). If there’s no award, then what do the fees go toward? Also, make sure the fees and awards align — while some emerging lit mags and presses offer smaller awards, if you’re paying $20 for a short-story award that only pays the winner $100, that’s not a sign of a well-run competition.
  • Learn about the judge. Good contests often invite well-known authors to be a final judge, and this is usually a sign of a good contest. Also look into who does the first round of readings/rejections — magazine editors, or interns? Make sure you’re comfortable with the review process before you enter. You might also note whether a contest is judged blindly or not — contests are a lot more fair if the playing field is leveled by having no author names on the manuscripts; this way, readers and judges look at every piece with a completely open mind, which is one of the biggest advantages of entering contests: No one knows whether you’re an unpublished author or Joyce Carol Oates.
  • Submit your very best work. For contests, this is especially important — you’ll be competing with other authors submitting their very best (few authors spend money on reading fees to submit a half-baked story). So be sure your work is polished (some editors are very fussy about typos) and that it’s the best it can be. Spend time reading the contest issues of literary magazines as well as books that have won manuscript contests — this will give you a good idea of what the press is looking for and what it considers award-winning material.
  • Follow guidelines carefully. This is even more important than with regular submissions because if your work gets tossed out for not meeting guideline requirements, you’ve also lost your submission fee. If they say no cover letter or acknowledgments, do not submit them. If they say your name should not appear on the manuscript, double check to make sure it is not there. If they ask you not to staple your pages or to submit electronically using an RTF file instead of a Word doc, do it. All this may take a little extra time, but it’s better than having your submission disqualified.
  • If at first you don’t succeed… Always keep trying. Literary magazines get hundreds, if not thousands, of entries for each contest they hold — and book publishers may receive 500+ submissions for a single contest. It’s tough out there — but winning, or even placing, in a contest can do wonders for your exposure, not to mention your bank account. If you win $1,000 in a contest, I suggest using half to celebrate and using the other half to create a “contest fund.” You can then use that $500 to enter up to 50 literary magazine contests, or up to 20 manuscript contests…and if you win another award, you’ll be able to keep on going.

Good luck!


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