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Writing Contests: Why Not You?

May 10, 2012 Awards, Fiction, Revision, Writers, Writing 19 Comments

By Kathy Crowley

A few years ago, I took an adult education piano class for novices.  There were only four of us slightly schlumpy middle-aged types registered.  The teacher was a Hungarian-born classical singer who had performed in many prestigious venues in the U.S. and Europe. She liked to teach beginners because she had this notion that music belonged to everyone – even those of us who had lumbered into our middle forties without experiencing any training nor showing any particular aptitude.

We were all a few weeks into the class when she announced that we had to set a date for our recital. We looked at one another. A recital?  Was she serious?

Oh yes. She was. With great passion she explained that things happen in a recital or in preparation for a recital that don’t happen otherwise.  And by things she meant growth, milestones, skill, understanding. Good things.

She wasn’t interested in discussion.“You will all perform at the recital.”

So we did. We each invited a few friends or family members.  There were flowers and applause.  Each of us made a mistake or two but… I think she was right. She had given us an extra push in the right direction.

I thought of this recently as I moved back into more serious writing after months of being kept away by other commitments (loosely known as “life”).  For various reasons I was floundering a bit about how to jump back in. I am lucky enough to have several writing Guardian Angels, one of whom forwards me any notification she encounters for writing contests (you know who you are, Guardian Angel) and just a week or two ago, she sent along information on a short story contest with a cash prize and publication.  She always includes an encouraging note, as though all I need to do to win any contest is to submit my laundry list or my high school essay on The Grapes of Wrath: “Just pull something out of your files. It’ll be great.”  So I did. Pulled something out, polished it up over a couple of days and submitted it exactly at midnight on the day of the deadline.  And I’m glad I did – despite the fact that it’s unlikely I’ll get any prize or mention.

Here are my thoughts about why entering a contest or two may be good for you, too:

1. Contests have deadlines.

Can all you writers out there who don’t need deadlines raise your hands?

I thought so.

2. Contests force you to step up your game.

Yes, in theory we write to the best of our abilities all the time, but doesn’t it get easier to do that when you know that some Person of Authority is going to be reading what you wrote? It does for me.

3. Contests push you to find and finish things.

When my Guardian Angel suggested I “pull something out of the file,” I actually went and looked in my (electronic) file.  Stumbling around I found 800 words of a piece — it even had a title — that I had no recollection of writing.  And you know, it wasn’t bad. The lines of a story were in place.  I wrote another 1500 words or so and sent it off.  As I said above, I don’t think I’ll win anything, but I discovered and finished a short story that wasn’t even on my radar screen. In a couple of months, I’ll look at it again, revise and send it out to literary journals or to another contest.

4. It may not be all about winning – but hey, somebody has to win.

So why not you?  Or, even if you don’t win, recognition as a finalist or a semifinalist in a major writing competition is cover-letter-worthy and may rescue your short story or novel manuscript from a slow death in the slush pile.

5. Now that I’ve convinced you, pull out your calendar.

Here are links to sites that compile information on grants and contests.

Poets and Writer’s Contests

The Review Review classified section

Writer’s Relief contests page

Freelance Writing site

So go on, get to work.  I’m pretty sure you’ve got a deadline coming right up.


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    This is wonderful post! Yes, you’ve convinced me 1) to step up my game, 2) I need a Guardian Angel.

    Though, with the fifth point *points above* it seems as if there’s a lovely one right here.

    Thank you.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Thank you Marisa!
      What a nice way to start my day.
      Good luck with the contests and thanks again for reading and commenting.

  2. Dell Smith says:

    Oh yeah. You know, I had written off contests – I mean, often there’s a fee and there are so many contests, who has the time? But you make so many good points that I’m reconsidering all my previously closed-minded closed-mindedness and will check out those links. Thanks Kathy!

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Dell — I have to admit the fees really bug me — and even more than that, the new phenomenon of a fee just to submit to a literary mag for general consideration (Narrative Mag). At least with a contest I understand — there is likely a judge or three who are receiving some kind of honorarium.
      Best of luck!

      • Caralyn Davis says:

        Fee-free contests aren’t common, but they are out there if you look. For example, May 15 is the deadline for a fee-free contest run by Mason’s Road: Theme is characterization. Fiction and creative nonfiction eligible. Shenandoah also has a (so far) fee-free flash fiction prize every spring: I’ve gone a little contest-crazy in the past, so I like to look for fee-free options.

        In terms of the fee-to-submit situation, if you look at the guidelines for the journals that have constant contests, some like Glimmer Train and Narrative do have fee-free general/open submissions months, which gives you a built-in deadline if you don’t want to pay. I got a personal rejection from one of the Glimmer Train editors for a piece I sent in fee-free. So they are looking at those as well as the contest submissions!

        The big problem I have with the folks that charge a $2-$3 fee for general submissions is that, to me, charging that money implies that the submission process will not be quite so open-ended. If they’re going to charge that fee, they should commit to turning around the submission in three to four months. For some journals, I’ve paid the $3 and six months later, not a word. If they’re professional enough to charge a fee, they should be professional enough to streamline the submission process. Some journals like Pank offer an option to submit without paying the submission fee, but I always pay the fee with them because they are timely turning around my submission — and occasionally say something nice!

  3. Fabulous! I was just yesterday searching contest information out. Once again you guys read my mind! Thank you!

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Julia — we here at BTM do try to read your mind whenever possible. It can be difficult when you’re thinking about a lot of things at once but when we get through, the ideas are great.
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Ann MG says:

    My son’s piano teacher calls that gig at the end “the Piano Party”–she has a lot of adult students and I think she knows how nerve-wracking the word “recital” was for many of them (she also has pink hair and does a cabaret show, loosely interpreted, called Moulin Musique).

    I think I’m doing a similar thing with contests: that’s not a deadline! That’s an opportunity for fabulous prizes! And then here’s a piece all polished up and ready to go out, take the next step.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Love the piano story. Having never had music lessons as a kid, I didn’t have a lot of fear of the word recital. It just seemed funny (I think I knew about two pieces at the time….). I’ve started looking at these contests and trying to figure out how they fit in with my writing goals. I won’t upend my schedule just to enter one, but I can sometimes find one that fits pretty well. And taking the ego piece down a notch (not expecting to win) makes it easier. Good luck!

  5. I love you for taking that piano class.

    At the beginning of the year, I sent off materials for a fellowship I did not get but the process forced me to update my CV. A month later, I needed that CV at the last minute–for an opportunity that did materialize. Life is weird and good.

    Heading off to look at those lists now.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Yes, I know what you mean about getting things together and moving them forward, even if it doesn’t play out exactly as planned.

      I really loved this teacher. She was so passionate about this group of middle aged beginners — her love of music was just there all the time. I’m going to take another class one of these days. It was a lot of fun.
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. This was the perfect article, or push, I needed. I’ve had one suspense story purchased for a New England Crime Writers’ Anthology, a few on-line publishings, and have written several books. But, I’ve left my short story collection in the dust and I’m now inspired to dig them out, sharpen them up, and get on with it.

    You’re right, Kathy, a contest insists on your best – it creates the challenge we need to do well what we love. Thank you.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Great to hear, and I hope you do dig those out. When I do that sometimes I’m surprised to see how good some of the stuff I’ve written actually is (of course, sometimes I’m shocked at how bad it can be too….). In any case, sometimes we need a push to get there. Good luck and thanks for your comment.

  7. Oh, what perfect timing. I JUST sent in my very first submission to a contest after years of assuming such things were not for me, yet not actually having any arguable reason for this. And buoyed by the simple act of submitting it, two days ago I brushed the virtual dust off a story I wrote ten years ago and sent it to my writing group because it occurred to me that there was no reason for letting it languish in a long-unopened sub-folder. And you know what? It’s kind of fun. Even, as you say, if I never win anything.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      You GO! Don’t let those stories languish. Best of luck and thanks for your comment.

  8. […] Writing Contests: The Extra Push In The Right Direction by Kathy Crowley […]

  9. I don’t submit to contests or lit mags but during the winter. That means I’m prepping up to submit in January and for National Travel Writing Month, during which we travel writers are encouraged to submit every day for the entire month.
    Because not every writer holds the ebullience I do to improve our author platform, I’m sharing this will them. May they be as inspired as I– Your post’s certainly the trick to spread the effusion, Kathy!


  10. Thanks also, Kathy, for listing those resources at the end of the post. So many people are grumbling about Duotrope’s new fee that they seem not to remember these stellar resources.

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Kathy Crowley

Kathy Crowley
Kathy Crowley’s short stories and essays have appeared in, among others, Ontario Review, Fish Stories, The Literary Review, New Millenium Writings, Pulse and Cognescenti. Her stories have been short-listed for Best American Short Stories, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized. In 2012 and 2006 she was awarded Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowships. She recently finished her first novel. When she’s not busy preparing for her future literary fame and fortune, she provides care and feeding to her three children and works as a physician at Boston Medical Center. Kathy can be found on Twitter at @Kathy_Crowley. Read Full