Are you interested in entering a writing contest, but don’t know how to win? After reading these seven tips, you’ll become a surefire contender for winning the top prize.
1. Captivate from your first sentence
“The first sentence sets the tone for the entire piece.” You may have heard similar advice many times before, but it really does hold true of trying to produce a memorable piece of writing. Would you be inclined to continue reading a submission if the first line is dull, cliche, or doesn’t convey its intention effectively?
The harsh truth is that due to time constraints and the large volume of entries received, many writing contest judges simply flick through the submissions they receive. The golden handful that are read properly are the submissions that capture the reader from the very beginning. Of course, your writing should be captivating from the first word to the last, but especially in the case of a writing contest, it should be one of your top priorities to ensure that the judges give your piece the consideration it deserves.
2. Think outside the box
Think about this: Hundreds or thousands of other people are likely to apply for the same competition as you. This means your goal should be to make your submission stand out. How? Give the judges something to “chew on”. Whether it be a different perspective, an innovative idea or perhaps a controversial topic, your submission should be memorable.
Try to consider the given topic from a number of angles. Sure, it’s “safer” to take the usual angle to a topic if you’re confident you can do it well. But once you think about all the other people who took a similar one, it doesn’t seem like such a safe bet after all. Push yourself to take a different perspective. Another important tip is to stay away from cliched phrases or anything that sounds overused and stale. Remember, as long as you can back up what you say and convey your ideas effectively, adopting a unique approach is easy way to make your submission stand out.
3. Be consistent
Consistency is a fundamental tenet of solid writing. Without consistency, your piece will be challenging for the judges to read. In order to ensure your submission demonstrates consistency, consider the following areas:
Organize your ideas so that there is a clear flow and structure. This rule applies to any type of piece- from a nonfiction essay to a short story or poem. Structure is king.
If you’re writing an essay or analysis, assert your standpoint or message from the beginning and ensure it is evident right through to the end. If you are arguing in favor of something, for example, don’t backtrack on your words later on in the piece. This is a common error of inexperienced writers, who have a tendency to flip flop on their views throughout. Be sure to highlight your standpoint with supporting evidence at all times.
Your plot and characters
If you’re writing a story, you will need to develop the plot and characters skillfully. It is important that you do not have any plot holes, as this will throw out the whole balance of your story. Your characters should consistently reflect the personality and behavioral characteristics you attached to them in all their actions and dialogue.
Your submission should have a uniform style, from punctuation to stylistic features like the font and headings. See Tip 5 and 6 for more information.
4. Emotionally engage
One of the hard and fast rules about writing well is to write in a way that emotionally engages the reader. Whatever topic you write about, try to hone in on an aspect which has the potential to tap into the reader’s experiences or bring about meaningful reaction in them. A judge is far more likely to remember your piece of writing if it prompted them to feel, think, or even reflect or question their own views.
Unless the competition calls for it, try not to make your writing too specific to yourself. Try to write in a way which will allow anyone who reads your submission to find something they can identify with, or at least relate to. For instance, instead of writing about the impact a certain policy has on you, write about how it has affected your town, city, or the country as a whole. Everyone likes being able to see themselves in a piece of writing- make sure your piece speaks to everyone.
5. Edit, edit, edit
Any writer will tell you that writing is only half the battle- editing is where the real beast lies. A simple way to impress the judges of a writing contest is to make sure you have read and reread your article for errors. And no, a quick once-over won’t cut it. You’ll need to be vigilant in your search for typos, punctuation errors, structural weaknesses, cliches, overused words and any other problems. Once you learn how to edit effectively, and become more confident doing it, editing your piece won’t seem nearly as confronting.
Even when it’s not explicitly stated in the competition guidelines that editing will be considered, you can be certain that any judge will look more favorably on a well-edited piece than a poorly edited one. You never know, if your piece is running head-to-head with another contestant’s for the top prize, a “simple” mistake could cost you the whole contest. Ignore proofreading at your own peril.
6. Get a fresh set of eyes
It may be daunting to show your submission to someone you’re close to, but having another set of eyes to look over your writing is invaluable. As any writer who has spent hours mulling over their piece will know, it’s difficult to detect your own errors or weaknesses.
When you ask someone to edit your work, it’s best to provide them with the competition guidelines so they know exactly what to be on the lookout for. If there is a particular area you are worried about, such as your punctuation or structure, let them know so they can better advise you. Receiving constructive criticism about your writing, and acting on it, is one of the best ways to improve your writing and have a good chance at winning a competition.
7. Mind your manners
Many contests require you to submit your entry by email, and this is where a lot of contestants fail to make a good impression. A surprising amount of participants simply attach the document without anything written in the body of the message. If a contest is by email submission, you need to follow proper etiquette. The following is a simple guide to writing an email to submit your piece to a writing competition:
- Subject line: First, title your email clearly. Something simple as “[Name of competition] Submission” and your own name is usually fine. Some competitions will request you title your email something specific- so read the guidelines carefully!
- Salutation: Open the body of your email with a salutation such as, “Dear [competition organization/person in charge]”.
- Self intro: Next, provide a very brief self-introduction which states who you are and what you do (e.g. student, freelance writer).
- Reason for emailing: Concisely explain that you are sending the email to enter their competition. Make sure to you specify the competition to which you submitting, as some organizations have a number of competitions running concurrently.
- Final thanks:Thank the organization/person for the opportunity to enter this competition. If you want you can express that you’re looking forward to hearing from them further.
- Sign off: End with a formal sign-off like “Yours sincerely/Kindest regards [your name]”
Here is a sample email:
[Email Subject: The Power of Science Competition Submission]
To whom it may concern at Sunflower Writing,
My name is James West, and I am completing my Bachelor of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
I am writing to submit my entry to your writing competition, “The Power of Science”. My submission answers the question, “Which Scientific Development has had the Greatest Impact on the 21st Century?”
Please find my entry attached to this email.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to enter this competition.
So writers, read over these tips (a few times if you need to!), be confident, and get to it! Writing competitions are a fantastic opportunity to polish your writing skills and get some feedback on your writing. The chance to win some prize money is just the *icing on the cake.
*Yep, that’s a cliche there. Good spotting! For those who missed it, it’s back to Tip Number 2 for you!
|Pixabay - CC0 license|
As always, every form and genre is represented. There are prizes for novel manuscripts, poetry, short stories, essays, works of nonfiction, children's books and more. Some of these contests have age and regional restrictions, so be sure to check submission guidelines before submitting.
Many contests are offered annually, so if you miss your ideal contest this year, you can always enter next year. For a month-by-month list of free contests see: Writing Contests. (You can also get a jump on next month's contests by checking that page periodically.)
United States/Japan Creative Artists Residencies. This is a 3-5 month residency in Japan. Grant: $24,000. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
The John Gardner Fiction Award is sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers-State University of New York with support from the Office of the Dean of Binghamton University's Harpur College of the Arts & Sciences. Genre: Novel or collection of fiction published in 2017. Prize: $1,000. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Wednesday Club Poetry Prize. Restrictions: Adults over 18; living within a 50-mile radius of St. Louis. Genre: Poetry. Two individual poems. Prizes: $500, $300, $150. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award is sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers-State University of New York with support from the Office of the Dean of Binghamton University's Harpur College of the Arts & Sciences. Genre: Poetry book in English published in 2017. Prize: $1,000. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Paterson Fiction Prize. Genre: Published novel or collection of short fiction. Prize: $1,000. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. Genre: Most outstanding published book for young people. There is a $500 award in each category: Pre-K - Grade 3; Grades 4 - 6; Grades 7 - 12. Prize: $500. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Gannon University Poetry Contest. Restrictions: Entrants must be a US high school student or a home-schooled student in grades nine through twelve.Genre: Poetry. Each student may enter 1 or 2 poems; each poem may be no longer than 50 lines. Prize: First Place: $100.00 Second Place: $75.00 Third Place: $50.00. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
The Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award. Genre: Short story of no more than 8,000 words that shows the near future (no more than about 50-60 years out) of manned space exploration. Prize: Publication as the featured story on the Baen Books main website paid at the normal paying rates for professional story submissions. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
$1000 for 1000 Words Creative Writing Contest is sponsored by the Leyla Beban Young Authors Foundation. Restrictions: Students enrolled in grades 6-12. Genre: Short fiction of exactly 1000 words. Prize: Two $1,000 scholarship prizes will be awarded, one for grades 6-8 and one for grades 9-12. Seven $100 cash prizes will also be awarded for winning entries, one per grade level. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Wednesday Club Junior Poetry Contest. Restrictions: High School Students in grades 10 through 12 in High Schools in St. Louis and the St. Louis area. Genre: Poetry. Two individual poems. Prizes: $100, $80, $60, $40, $20, $10 for all honorable mentions. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
The Levis Reading Prize is sponsored by the Department of English and its MFA in Creative Writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Restrictions: The prize is given annually for the best first or second book of poetry published in the previous calendar year. Genre: Poetry. Prize: $5000. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Golfwell. Genre: Golf stories, fiction or nonfiction, 700 words max. Prize: Golfing books. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award. Genre: Poetry. Prize: $100. Deadline: February 1, 2018.
The Waterman Fund Essay Contest. Genre: Personal essays between 2000 and 3000 words. The topic is, simply, wilderness and wildness. Prizes: The winning essayist will be awarded $1500 and publication in Appalachia Journal. The Honorable Mention essay will receive $500. Deadline: February 2, 2018.
Zocalo Public Square Poetry Prize. Restrictions: Open to US poets only. Genre: Poetry that evokes a connection to place. Prize: $500. Deadline: February 2, 2018. Note: Winning author gives up all rights.
Student Stowe Prize. Restrictions: Open to US high school and college students. Genre: published writing on a social justice or human rights topic, in the spirit of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Prize: Up to $2,500. Deadline: February 2, 2018.
Charles Crupi Memorial Poetry Contest. Restrictions: Open to high school students in Michigan. Genre: Poetry. Prize: 1st place - $250 and publication in The Albion Review, 2nd place - $150 and publication in The Albion Review; 3rd place - $100 and publication in The Albion Review. Deadline: February 3, 2018.
White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails Prize in Southern Poetry. Restrictions: Open to all poets who currently reside in and have had residency in one of the following states for a minimum of 12 consecutive months: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia. Genre: Poetry. "WOKC invites poets from across the South to explore the topic of Faith." Prize: $1,500. Deadline: February 4, 2018.
Sweek #My2018 Contest. Genre: Short story about your plans in 2018. Note: your story is not about writing your resolutions for next year, the mission is to give your real life story a fictional layer. Prize: Grand prize $200; Best story per language: $50. Deadline: February 6, 2018.
Nelson Algren Literary Awards is a short story contest sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. This contest is open to residents of the United States. All entries must be: fiction, less than 8,000 words, double spaced, written in English. Prize: One grand prize winner will receive $3,500. Four finalists will each receive $1,000. Five runners-up will each receive $500. Total value of all prizes: $10,000. Deadline: February 7, 2018.
Bethesda Literary Festival Essay and Short Story Contest. The Bethesda Urban Partnership & Bethesda Magazine have partnered to honor local writers at the Bethesda Literary Festival. Genres: Essays and poetry. Adult and high school student categories. Restrictions: Residents of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia are eligible. Prizes: First Place: $500 and published in Bethesda Magazine. Second Place: $250. Third Place: $150. Honorable Mention: $75. Deadline: February 9, 2018.
Life Writing Prize. Restrictions: Writers must be UK residents who have not published a full-length work. Genre: Nonfiction based on a significant portion from the author’s own personal experience; A complete work of fiction or non-fiction of over 30,000 words; Ten or more short stories either in a collection or published individually; A professionally produced theatre script or screenplay, or radio play; Twenty or more poems either in a collection or published individually. Prize: £1500, an Arvon course, two years’ membership to the Royal Society of Literature, a development meeting with literary agent Robert Caskie and a development meeting with an editor at Unbound. Two highly commended writers receive £500, a writing mentor, a development meeting with agent Robert Caskie and a development meeting with an editor at Unbound. Deadline: February 9, 2018.
Luminarts Creative Writing Program. The Creative Writing Competition awards five $5,000 grant awards and Luminarts Fellowships across categories of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Open to writers between the ages of 18 and 30 years old at the time of application; be enrolled in, or have graduated from, a degree program; and live within 150 miles of the Union League Club of Chicago. Genre: Poetry or prose, fiction and nonfiction. Prize: $5,000 and publication in Luminarts Review, a literary journal. Deadline: February 9, 2018.
Library of Virginia Literary Awards. Restrictions: Open to writers who were born in or are residents of Virginia or, in the case of nonfiction, books with a Virginia theme, are eligible. Genre: Books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published in the previous year. Prize: $2,500. Deadline: February 10, 2018.
Writers’ Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. Restrictions: Only works from writers who are Canadian citizens, whether living in Canada or abroad, or permanent residents of Canada are eligible. Genre: Short story or excerpt from a fiction work-in-progress first published by a Canadian magazine or annual anthology during the previous calendar year. Prize: $10,000. Deadline: February 12, 2018.
Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Short Story Competition. Genre: Short story. All entries must be original unpublished prose of 2,000 words or fewer. Prize: £500 and publication. Deadline: February 13, 2018.
The Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry is an annual regional prize, presented in partnership by Milkweed Editions and the Lindquist & Vennum Foundation. Restrictions: Open to residents of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Genre: Poetry. Prize: $10,000 as well as a contract for publication to the author of the winning manuscript. Deadline: February 14, 2018.
Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. Genre: Poetry collection translated from any language into English and published in the previous calendar year. Prize: $1,000. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Bala Kids/Khyentse Foundation Children's Book Prize. Genre: Children's book on Buddhist themes and values. Prize: $5,000 and publication by Bala Kids, an imprint of the Buddhist magazine and publishing house Shambhala. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Words and Brushes. Genre: Fiction inspired by artwork. Prize: $300 top prize. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Haiku Society of America Merit Book Awards for Excellence in Published Haiku, Translation, and Criticism. Genre: Published book. Books must have been published in 2016 and must clearly contain a printed 2016 copyright. A member, author, or publisher may submit or nominate more than one title. At least 50 percent of the book must be haiku, senryu, or haibun, or prose about these subjects (books mostly of tanka, for example, are not eligible). Prize: $500. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowships. Restrictions: Open to Kentucky poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers. Genre: Literary arts. Prize: $7,500. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Brilliant Flash Fiction. Genre: Flash fiction based on Adam Kluger’s art; 300 words max. Prize: 50 euro first prize (or equivalent amount in your currency), 25 euro second prize,15 euro third prize. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
New England Youth Outdoor Writing Contest. Restrictions: The contest is open to students in New England. Submissions from students in grades 6-8 will be entered in the Junior Division; grades 9-12 will be entered in the Senior Division. Genre: Prose or poem, The topic must be outdoor-oriented (fishing, hunting, boating, canoeing, hiking, camping, nature, ecology, etc.). 500 words max. Prize: $125, $150. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Scotiabank Giller Prize. Restrictions: Open to books published in Canada in English. Books must be published in Canada in English between October 1, 2017 and February 28, 2018 to be eligible for the 2017 Prize. Must be nominated by publisher. Genre: Fiction. Full-length novel or collection of short stories published in English, either originally, or in translation. Prize: $100,000 to the winner and $10,000 to each of the finalists. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Award. Genre: Poetry - translation into English of a significant work of modern Italian poetry. Prize: $10,000. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
New York City Emerging Writers Fellowship. Restrictions: "Applicants must be current residents of one of the five boroughs, and must remain in New York City for the entire year of the fellowship. Students in degree-granting programs are not eligible to apply, even if the focus of study is not directly related to writing. This program supports emerging writers whose work shows promise of excellence. Applicants can be of any age, but must be in the early stages of their careers as fiction writers and will not have had the support needed to achieve major recognition for their work. We define “emerging writer” as someone who has not yet had a novel or short story collection published by either a major or independent publisher and who is also not currently under contract to a publisher for a work of fiction. Eligible applicants may have had stories or novel excerpts published in magazines, literary journals or online, but this is not a requirement." Genre: Fiction. Grant: $5,000. Deadline: February 15, 2018.
Wiley-Silver Prize in Civil War History. Genre: First book or monograph in Civil War history published in the previous year. Books or monographs published by scholarly or popular presses are eligible. Prize: $2,000. Deadline: February 16, 2018.
Black Caucus of the American Library Association Self-Published E-Book Literary Award. Restrictions: Open to African-Americans. Genre: Self-Published E-Book in fiction and poetry. Prize: $500. Deadline: February 17, 2018.
Past-Year Memoir Contest. Genre: True story about your past year in 17 words. Prize: Free Gotham class of your choosing. Deadline: February 19, 2018.
Lex Allen Literary Festival Prizes. Restrictions: Open to undergraduate college students. Genres: Poetry and fiction. Prize: $100. Deadline: February 20, 2018.
The Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award supports the work of a promising early-career nonfiction writer on a story that uncovers truths about the human condition. Genres: Nonfiction journalism works in progress with “strong, character-driven narratives with detailed scene writing and lyrical description.” Restrictions: The award will not fund proposals to report on armed conflicts where journalists are already imperiled, nor projects that are mainly investigatory. Prize: $12,500 grant and use of the NYU library. Deadline: February 20, 2018.
Everything Change Climate Fiction Contest. Genre: Fiction about climate change. Prize: The winning story will receive a $1000 prize, and nine finalists will receive $50 prizes. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Restrictions: Open to first-generation residents of the United States. “First-generation” can refer either to people born in another country who relocated to the U.S., or to American-born residents whose parents were born elsewhere. Genre: Unpublished fiction and nonfiction books. Prize: $10,000 and publication. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Auditory Cortex. Restrictions: Open to Asian poets. Genre: Poetry. Poems must be written and read in the author’s local variety of English (e.g. Brunei English, Burmese English, Chinese English, Fijian English, Filipino English, Guamanian English, Hawaiian English, Hong Kong English, Japanese English, Kazakh English, Malaysian English, Samoan English, Singapore English, Sri Lankan English, Thai English, Tok Pisin, Tongan English, Vietnamese English, etc.) Prize: First Prize: HK$500, Second Prize: HK$300, Third Prize: HK$200, Highly Commended (up to 8): HK$100 each. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Outlet Publishing Young Writers' Short Story Competition. Restrictions: Open to ages 16-25, UK residents only. Genre: Short story. Prize: £150 top prize. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
The Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation & Multi-Lingual Texts. Genre: Literary translations and multi-lingual texts. Prize: $200. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction. Genre: Essay, maximum 5,000 words. Prize: $250 top prize. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
YSCI-FI Flash Fiction Contest. Genre: Science fiction, fantasy, horror. Prize: $250. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Booksie Young Writer Contest. Restrictions: Open to youth aged 13-18. Genre: Short stories of any genre. Prize: $75-$300. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Poetry Matters Literary Prizes. Restrictions: Several categories, from middle-school to senior citizens. Genre: Poetry. Prize: 1st prize- $75; 2nd prize- $50; 3rd prize-$35; Honorable Mention- $25. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
Spirit First Meditation Poetry Contest. Genre: Poem on the theme of mindfulness or meditation. Prize: $200. Deadline: February 28, 2018.
SLF Working Class Writers Grant is sponsored by the Speculative Literature Foundation. Genres: Speculative fiction, magical realism. Restrictions: Applicants must be working class (see guidelines page for definition) and demonstrate financial hardship. Available to international writers. Prize: $750. Deadline: February 28, 2018.