Friday Find: From Erika’s Archive

(I recently had reason to dig up this article on “how contests can help your writing.” Some of you may recall seeing a version this article elsewhere on the Web a few years back, but hey, it’s my article and I’ll republish/update it if I want to! Enjoy!)

How Contests Can Help Your Writing (Whether You Win Them Or Not)
By Erika Dreifus

Most of the writing contests I’ve entered have been competitions for short-story writers and novelists, with the occasional essay- or poem-focused opportunity thrown in for good measure. And while my work certainly hasn’t won (or even placed as a finalist) every time, the experiences have enriched my work and my development as a practicing writer.

You may be wondering how that’s possible—especially if I’ve lost a lot of money on contest fees. Well, often I target contests that don’t charge fees (such contests do exist and you’ll find some mentioned in this article, and in my free monthly newsletter, and on my blog), but even when I’ve had to write checks along with submissions I’ve usually received something in return.

You might, too.

The most obvious way any contest may help your writing—whether it charges a fee or not—is that it offers a goal and a deadline. For those who may have lots of projects and priorities competing at the same time, or for those who need some order imposed from outside, contests provide some basic structure and motivation. And that’s because you simply must have your manuscript completed and mailed to the contest administrators by a certain date. This isn’t a case where you can ask for an extension or call in sick.

Maybe you’ll take the opportunity to write something new, using the contest as something between a prompt and an “assignment.” Depending on your favored genre and other interests, you might check out the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Contest ( or the Thoroughbred Times Biennial Fiction Contest (; the latter recognizes “outstanding fiction written about the Thoroughbred industry.”

The contest-as-deadline concept can also help if you have been thinking about where you might send a particular story or essay that you’ve already been working on for a while. Or maybe the agenting process isn’t for you right now, and you’re interested in contests that may offer book publication.

But that’s not all. A number of other benefits accompany writing contests and competitions. Here are a few to consider:

—Hate revision? Contest deadlines are also wonderfully effective ways to prod reluctant “revisionists” into that process. Often a contest can be especially helpful in streamlining work; there’s nothing like a contest directive (“Stories may not exceed 1500 [or 3000, 5000, etc.] words…”) to get you to pare down that prose! Several times I’ve been impressed by how much better a story or essay of mine read in the contest version than in the longer one I’d already sent out (without success, clearly) elsewhere.

—Like to read? Well, now you may be entitled to a subscription to the journal(s) that can (sometimes) be included with a contest fee. For several years I entered the same contest in part because I’d come to depend on the twice-yearly arrival of the literary journal whose subscription accompanied the $15 contest fee. Yes, I would have loved to win that contest. But in the meantime, I certainly come to know (and, more importantly, even learned from) the work of some excellent writers whose writing appeared in the journal. Including the work of the contest winners themselves.

And if you win, there are even more plusses coming your way:

—The prize money. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the many ways this can help!

—Publication of your work. The “helpfulness” of having your work published may be more mysterious. Seeing your work in the pages of a journal or magazine is, first of all, wonderfully affirming, and perhaps even more so with the words “contest winner” printed over it. Having won an award, you have something important to add to your record of writerly accomplishments should you decide to apply for another, such as a grant or fellowship whose administrators may ask to know about previous honors. And you never know which agents or editors may be reading your published work.

And don’t forget about inspiration. A contest win will sure keep you writing for a while, won’t it? But even without a win, the process will have engaged you in at least one project, keeping you in the writer’s mindset. And we all know that anything’s possible when that happens.

8 thoughts on “Friday Find: From Erika’s Archive

  1. Tara says:

    Another thing I like about contests: you can send your work around without having to pitch it (submissions are usually blind), which allows you to concentrate on the work itself. As an unknown author, I’ve had two books published, both as the result of entering contests: one is a poetry chapbook with Finishing Line Press and one is a novella from Texas Review Press (it won their 2007 novella prize). I had to pay to enter both contests (and all the others that I didn’t win), but I think of the money as my “charitable” contribution to keep the small-press literary culture alive.

  2. Erika D. says:

    Tara, thank you so much for your comment. Great to have your success stories to add here.

  3. Wordsmiff says:

    I thought I would share my solitary competition win experience.

    Like many Australians, I am a cricket tragic – love the game, played it until increasing age and injury forced me out. The Australian Broadcasting Commission has a long tradition of broadcasting matches in Australia, all the way back to the 1930s when ball-by-ball descriptions of play in England were sent by telegram to Australia and read over the air as if actually broadcasting live play – including crude sound effects (a pencil hitting a block of wood for the sound of the ball hitting the bat). The ABC has produced an annual publication for many years about the coming season.

    Several years ago, the ABC Cricket Book ran a Cricket Essay competition, where entrants had to write a short piece using a given opening line. I submitted a piece that was frankly quite silly but loosely based on an actual event. I thought nothing more about it. Months later, the next issue hit the stores. I grabbed a copy, was waiting in line to be served at the checkout and was skimming through it. Some words seemed strangely familiar. A closer look. “Sh*t – that’s my story!” I cried out in the some excitement, getting some very strange looks from other shoppers. I had moved house in the interum and my mail forwarding had expired just before the ABC tried to get in touch. No cash prize but a great collection of books and videos resulted. And my solitary competition win that was published nationally and people all around the country who knew me got in touch. Such a thrill. Looking back, I realise that it was in fact rather poorly written. But it was a comp win all the same!

  4. Erika D. says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Wordsmiff.

  5. Kristin says:

    These are all great ideas – some of which I hadn’t thought of. Thanks, Erika. And I was Thrilled to see you at my blog the other day. I’m calling you my first blog celebrity sighting! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Erika D. says:

    My pleasure, Kristin. Thanks for your comment and your kind words.

  7. Orville says:

    Erika I am going to disagree with you. I have a serious problem with contests that charge writers fees. I feel that writers we should be paid for our work. I am not American I am from Canada and it costs a lot of money to pay postage to enter USA contests. On top of that I would have to pay an international money order in American dollars. I have conflicting feelings about contests because I feel they are just cash cows for publishers. After all, it is a win win situation for the publisher. What about writers? I know there is competition and rejection is a part of the business. However, I do wonder, why do these contests charge money? Don’t these publishers care about the art of writing and the craft? Why charge money? But then I think to myself am I cheating myself out of an opportunity? But then I think again, it would be tough to win one of these contests anyway right?

  8. Erika D. says:

    Orville, I understand where you’re coming from on this, and as I suggest in the article, I tend to favor contests that don’t charge fees (but you have to be careful about those, too–some, in the fine print, say that they acquire all rights to all submissions, and that’s no good). And I think that sometimes there’s a reason to charge a reasonable fee (and one way to consider a fee reasonable is to consider the payoff–a $15 fee for a $50 possible prize does not seem reasonable to me, whereas a $15 fee for a $1,000 prize does seem more palatable). There can be costs associated with running a contest–paying a judge for his/her work, for instance. I don’t favor fee-charging contests, and that’s why I no longer share information about them on the blog or in the newsletter, but for my personal writing practice, I don’t rule them out altogether.

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