As if trying to get your writing published doesn't feel enough like stepping into the Colosseum and letting the teeming masses assess our value...
...or worse, ignore us completely, there are also writing competitions. Lots of them.
I figure, hell, if you're sending work out to journals, you're already on the arena floor. And after spending a number of years behind the scenes at Room where I read both regular submissions and for contests, I recommend them for a few reasons.
The competition is much smaller.
You’re not contending with the piles of regular submissions each journal receives, yet the quality of submissions is at the same ratio (around 80% not ready for publication). Submit work you worked hard at and you can bet you’re in the top 20%—probably more like 10%—of this fairly small pool.
You’re not competing against established writers.
It’s an unwritten rule—with few exceptions—that writers who are not classified as “emerging” abstain from lit mag contests.
Your work will get more consideration.
This is not only because you’re in a smaller pool of contenders, but because the first readers are usually looking for a set number of quality pieces to forward to the guest contest judge.
Your work may get read by a writer who you admire.
If your work passes the first reading, it’ll get read by the contest judge. It’s exciting to know someone you loved reading is reading you. Even if you don’t win in the end, you could take this opportunity to make a connection by thanking the contest judge for reading your work, at a book signing or on social media.
It helps the magazines.
I’m all about lit mag love, so I think this is a good thing. Plus, supporting journals with your time (reading) and money (contest fees or subscriptions) helps make sure journals will be there in the future to publish your work.
Some Myths About Literary Magazine Contests
I've heard quite a few myths about writing contests and will try to debunk a few here...
Some writers think contests are scams—and that entry fees prove it. I don’t agree. Although magazines love contests for economic reasons, they ultimately want to find great work they can publish and promote. Contests may be the best way to keep the magazine going so they can do this. If you’re truly concerned about a writing contest's legitimacy, do some quick research online: look for negative comments; check out the sponsors—if legit, chances are so is the contest; and look up the previous winners to see who they are and how they fared after winning.
I've also heard writers say even if they aren’t scams, contests are too expensive. I think the key here is to remember that most entry fees come with a free subscription, so when you factor in the costs of paying the judge and running the contest, it’s a pretty good deal. If you’re balking at the entry fee, consider your own financial situation first, but also consider your goals for your writing career. Being shortlisted (or winning) a contest will nicely adorn a query letter, book proposal, or your website. If you’re looking to raise your profile, it makes them a good option. If you’re looking for general affirmation that you’re on the right track with this writing thing, placing in contests can let you know your writing is ready for wider publication.
Another thing I’ve heard are fears that judges just pick their friends as winners. This one is a head-scratcher since most contests are read blind, meaning the judges won’t know whose work they’re reading until they pick the winners. Plus there are first readers who are not the contest judge. (It’s general submissions where there’s a risk that favouritism can play a part, yet you seldom hear complaints about this.)
Reasons to Step in Room's Writing Contest Ring
There are so many stories from past winners of Room's contests that illustrate the benefits of stepping into the ring. Here are a few...
Serena Shipp won Room's 2015 CNF contest. It was her very first publication. After her win, she told Room, “It was a huge boost for my writerly motivation. The first thing I did when I found out I’d won the contest, after calling my mom and squealing incoherent excitements to her, was to sit myself down and write.”
Sigal Samuel, author of The Mystics of Mile End told us, “Winning Room's contest was a big boost for my writing career. After reading my winning piece, a literary agent reached out to me. Down the line, the award also helped to impress my Canadian and American publishers.”
Najwa Ali, who not only won Room's 2013 CNF competition, her poetry published the following year was awarded Room's first Emerging Writer Award, said, “I didn’t know much about Room but came across the contest online and submitted my essay because Betsy Warland was judging. I admired her work and hoped she might appreciate the formal qualities of my writing. I was delighted not only to win but to be introduced to a whole new community of readers and writers.” (Najwa's winning piece also went on to win runner-up at the Canadian National Magazine Awards.)
Are you ready to get out there and be a writing-contest champion? You can enter Room's Fiction & Poetry Contest from now until July 15.
Author, editor, and member of the Room collective, Rachel Thompson, sends out free weekly letters to writers to help illuminate their writing lives. Sign up on Lit Writers. No stranger to writing competitions, her book or poetry, Galaxy (Anvil Press, 2011), won the Simon Fraser University Writers Studio's First Book Contest.
This article started life as a letter sent out on Lit Writers, then evolved to appear here.