Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Are Writing Contests Still Relevant?

By the end of April of this year I made a decision: I want to focus on short story writing. My plan was to seek out various writing contests to add motivation and deadlines to my work. I have found two writing contests so far that I am working on entering by the end of this month. I've been brainstorming and working on a short story and then yesterday, while in Barnes and Noble, I found this month's Poets & Writers screaming out to me.

In addition to a ton of advice on how to bring your contest entries to life, there is a compelling article by Kevin Nance entitled The Winner's Circle which discusses what it actually means to win a contest today. Since I am relatively new to this arena, I was surprised to read about the great transformation the writing community has undergone in terms of contest availability since the 1980s. It comforts me in one sense, as I can now readily understand why I did not feel there was a place for me to share or test my writing when I was younger. On the other hand, the news of the over-saturation of the writing contest market raised the big question that titles this post: Are writing contests still relevant?

Here's what I learned: 

There Are a Ton of Writing Contests Available

Depending on what you are looking for this may be read as good news or the worst. What does it mean to you to be "the winner"? Do you think that should mean that you are the penultimate, that no others stand above you, that you are uniquely talented in a way others can only dream of? Well, then this "new world" of contest saturation is going to be disappointing. With so many competitions, a "win" translates as a job well done on your writing piece. You are a good writer, perhaps even an excellence one that someone noticed and awarded. You can now say that people other than friends and family appreciate your work.

Writing Contests Help Support the Writing Community

In terms of contests where an entry fee is required, I have always been a bit wary, however, this article changed my mind. Oftentimes these fees are what keep various literary magazines afloat. In fact, the great surge in writing contests in the last 20+ years is attributed to exactly that: a means of funding. So, rather than be wary of these entry fees, I have decided that I would like to explore which magazines I'd like to support in the same way I explore charities. I'll pick one or two who have the type of writing I like to write (and read!) and focus my energies on their competitions.

Agents and Editors Notice Contest Wins, But They're Not Always Impressed

On pages 64 and 65 of this month's issue of Poets & Writers there is an embedded piece called Do Contests Matter? where six agents and editors give their impressions of contest wins in a cover letter. The overall sentiment was along the lines of something I said earlier, the recognition that someone other than your friends and family can appreciate your writing. Of course, if you won one of the "big" contests, they are still show stoppers, and there are some publication notes that also turn heads.

Some Writing Contests Are "Bigger" Than Others

It should come of no surprise, since there is a saturated writing contest market, that some names draw more attention than others. Most of these names should come of no surprise to you, as they are the "biggies" we are all familiar with:
  • Pulitzer Prize Well, duh. The Pulitzer still packs a punch no matter who you are sending your correspondence. I am quite sure I didn't have to tell you that, but I thought I'd be thorough in my listing. The Pulitzer is given to published works in the following categories: fiction, drama, history, biography & autobiography, poetry and general nonfiction. Here's how to enter.
  • Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction This "award recognizes outstanding collections of short fiction. Collections may include long stories or novellas (est. length of a novella is 50-150 pages). However, novels or single novellas will not be considered." The award is "a cash award of $1,000, and their collections are subsequently published by the University of Georgia Press under a standard book contract." Here is how you enter.  
  • The PEN/O.Henry Stories "gathers twenty of the best short stories of the year, selected from thousands published in literary magazines." While an author can not send a story in individually for submission, you may be interested in reading about the submission process
Of course, everyone has their own favorite writing contest, but these three names emerged a number of times in my reading.

My Final Verdict

After reading all of these articles I have come to realize that my thinking of the writing contest world is very similar to my thinking about the academic world. The number of students who can earn an A+ in their studies is limitless and the number of schools dolling out assessments is constantly growing. This does not diminish the significance of each individual A+. However, if the A+ is awarded by a teacher is who is known to be lenient in some way (like our friends and family with our writing), then it obviously does not hold the same amount of weight. If, on the other hand I have an A+ awarded from Harvard's strictest professor (let's call him Dr. Pulitzer), then my accomplishments are easily lauded.

I went to a small, private college for my undergrad. I was on the dean's list. I got an education that lead me not only to a brilliant career as a teacher, but also yielded an actuarial job offer on Graduation Day. After I graduated, I jumped on every opportunity I could to learn (and be assessed) more. By my count, I have been assessed in eleven different colleges, constantly pushing my learning and my experiences. Every single school taught me something new and unique, no matter how big or small its program has been viewed by others.

I will do the same in my writing. I think I love the idea that there are so many writing contests out in the world. While the individual names of small contests may not impress the masses, I am in this to learn, to write and to see that my writing means something to somebody, right?

So, to answer the big question: Are Writing Contests Still Relevant? the answer seems abundantly clear: to me, absolutely.
What about you?

The two contests I am working on right now are both for flash-fiction length works:


  1. Thank you for this overview. I've been toying with the idea of contests as well. I'm a lot like you - I'm also wanting to do this to learn and write and see if outside observers appreciate my writing.

    I will definitely have to go out and get that magazine!

  2. My pleasure! I hope to finish the issue tonight. It has been a very informative read and I think it also has a listing of contests to enter in it as well, so it is well worth the investment.

  3. Lisa Buie-CollardMay 8, 2013 at 3:14 PM

    Awesome post! Thanks for doing the research on this for us, and for posting the contests you are participating in.

  4. My pleasure. I figure if I announce which ones I am entering, then I will be held accountable for going through with it!!