For budding writers, journalists and poets, winning first prize in an official contest can be the first step toward a long, fruitful literary career. Every year, scores of these competitions are announced to the public—and for many, the entry fee is far outweighed by the potential benefits. Writing contests are useful because they allow writers to hone their technical skills and, in the case of a win, generate self-publicity and often earn a little spending money—provided the contest is reputable.
Many writers, particularly college students, use a writing contest entry as the opportunity to sharpen their skills and compose a project of the highest caliber. Many experts recommend the use of writer’s manuals, style guides and other literary references throughout the creative process. With the advent of the Internet, there are also many online resources that student writers can turn to for writing tips, such as educational sites like this one for getting an online masters or the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
While some students may think they don’t need to rely on these resources, the reality is tools like these are extremely helpful in perfecting one’s writing and should not be overlooked. As Dana Cassell, the executive director of the Writers-Editors Network, explains, it is imperative for writers to remember basic language principles, such as grammar and punctuation. She says “While this may not be as important as plot or style or characterization. It can be important when determining finishing order for all the finalists.” These strategies not only increase a writer’s chances of winning or placing well in a contest, but also hone their craft and prepare them for more advanced future projects.
Publicity is a notable benefit to entering a writing contest, as well—but Victoria Strauss, of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, warns a competition is only as useful to a writer as it is reputable in the eyes of publishers, editors and agents. “Many writers see contests as a possible springboard to success—a way to add writing credits, or get closer to commercial publication, or promote a self-published book. This can work if the contest is sponsored by an organization with standing in the publishing industry,” she writes. “However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few of the hundreds of contests out there have that kind of prestige.” She adds that few readers or publishers will take notice if a writer wins a contest sponsored by an Internet mill or an obscure publication. Furthermore, they might assume the contest was not judged to professional standards, and this can reflect poorly on the writer and his or her submitted work. To avoid wasting time, entrants should review past winners of the contest and their awarded work—not only for quality, but also to see what the author has done since. If this information is not readily available, it may be an indication of a low-end competition.
In addition to professional credit, amateur writers and students are often inspired to enter contests based on large monetary prizes awarded to top finishers. Most of the largest payouts are generated by fiction competitions, such as the Dundee International Book Prize (winner receives £10,000), The Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series (winner receives $3,000 and publication through University of Nebraska Press) and The Tom Howard/John H. Reid Short Story Contest (winner receives $3,000). Another contest category that has proven lucrative is Creative Non-fiction. Notable competitions in that genre include the AWP Prize for Creative Non-fiction book-length manuscripts (winner receives $2,500) and The Dorothy Churchill Cappon Prize for the Essay (winner receives $1,500). Though poets technically submit less work, they too are able to win substantial monies for a first place finish in many contests. These include the Kathryn Morton Prize in Poetry (winner receives $2,000), The National Poetry Series (five winners receive $1,000 and publication) and the Emily Dickinson First Book Award (winner receives $10,000 and publication). If a writer submits work to a contest with a high payout, he or she is encouraged to read the fine print. For instance some contests may pro-rate the prize based on the number of applicants, which is likely to decrease the winning dollar amount. However, this is usually not the case with legitimate, reputable contests.
In lieu of cash prizes, many competitions award winning entrants the opportunity to participate in a writer’s residency. This may not be as tempting as a sizable check, but professional writer and editor Meghan C. Ward notes a residency can be very beneficial to writers in the long term. A writing residency is a place that provides you with 24/7 focus on your writing, oftentimes providing you with prepared meals (with one meal, like dinner, eaten with other artists) and free room and board,” she writes. “It can be heaven for writers.” Ward adds that the experience is greatly improved when the writer enters a residency with clear project objectives in mind. Reputable residencies in the United States include the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Macdowell Colony and Napa Valley Writer’s Conference. Newly graduated writing students particularly thrive in these communities, as they often resemble real world versions of the literary workshop classes they attended in college.
Reputable contests are ultimately useful to inexperienced writers regardless of who earned the top prize. If a writer does not win anything, the time and energy they put forth by composing high-quality work will benefit later projects. On the other hand, claiming first place can provide writers with publicity, necessary finances—and most importantly, the confidence to pursue a literary career.
Emily Matthews is currently applying to master’s degree programs across the U.S., and loves to read about new research into health care, gender issues, and literature. She lives and writes in Seattle, Washington.