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Submitting to Literary Contests: How to Win Every Time (& other Lesser-Known Industry Secrets)

Yes, you can win every time. But perhaps not the way you think…:)

There are a lot of unofficial small “wins” to be gained just from the process of submitting to literary contests— you can read about some of them, here:

And yes, you really, truly can win every single time, if your focused objective is succeeding at the process of submitting, rather than the end goal of getting your work selected by the judges. But how do we maximize our chances for the big prize, along with just succeeding at hitting “submit,” you might wonder?

Grab a cup of tea, dear ambitious writing friends, relax and read, and I will share all the secrets I’ve learned thus far. These six tips are guaranteed to make the submission process as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Ready? Ok. Here we go:

1. Subscribe to online literary newsletters, to find out about contest deadlines in advance.

These publications take on the work of searching out contests for you. Literistic is a great example. You can pay to upgrade, to get full listings; but the basic subscription (at the time of this writing, at least) is free. Also, be sure to sign up for their free email course by Eliza Robertson, Submissions 101. (I’m not affiliated.)

Alternatively, you can search the web for “literary contests” or “writing contests — upcoming deadlines” and see what turns up. Another resource you can try are various Facebook groups, such as this one, called “Calls for Submissions (Poetry, Fiction, Art)” which lists a lot of lesser-known (therefore easier to break into) publications.

Some of my favourite well-known contests are at Geist (Canada, open to worldwide), the CBC Literary Prize (Canadians and/or permanent residents only), Reed (California USA, open to worldwide) and the Bridport Prize (UK-based, open to worldwide). Each has various genres, with separate contests for each (e.g. Poetry, Fiction, Nonfiction, Flash Fiction, etc.).

A lesser-known one with the biggest potential winnings-per-word, is the micro-fiction contest offered by the César Egido Serrano Foundation at El Museo de la Palabra (the Museum of the Word) near Madrid, in Spain. It’s free to enter online, open to worldwide submissions, yet the grand prize is €20,000 for the best 100-word story. Yes, you read that right, and yes, it’s real! (Check out this article on JBHE, interviewing Emily Raboteau, 2015’s winner. Or this Reddit thread, debating the contest’s existence. 😆)

Last but not least, there’s a new publication called Grindstone Literary Ltd. (est. 2017) which provides quick turnaround times, and, amazingly, feedback on every entry.

2. Understand submission requirements ahead of time.

Ideally, figure out—and plan for—the contest’s submission and formatting guidelines, before you begin to create and edit your piece. There’s nothing worse than finishing something at the 11th hour and being ready to hit “Submit,” only to find out you still have to format it correctly, or worse, add a professional cover letter that you have no clue how to write! (For tips on writing cover letters, see Jane Campbell’s article in Prism: How to Write a Cover Letter for a Literary Magazine Submission; also the beautifully thorough You Can Impress Journals and Publishers with Your Cover Letter by James Ardis here on Medium.)

3. Editing tips: a) Print it out. b) Read it aloud. c) Keep your own voice.

As an editor, I find that although digital editing programs such as the “Track Changes” feature of MS Word, Mac OSX Pages, or Open Office are helpful, especially for client work and/or communicating on collaborative projects, nothing beats printing out a hard copy to catch last-minute errors, and to get the best overall sense of the near-finished product. Relax with a cup of coffee or tea nearby, and keep your pen or pencil in hand, marking up the draft the old-fashioned way, as necessary.

Take it a step further, and read your work aloud to yourself. You’ll catch previously-missed places where you need to add a comma or semi-colon, or break up confusing sentences, omit repetitive words, and you’ll be able to fix other glitches that need smoothing out. Alternatively, you can do as Robin Rice suggests on Glenn Leibowitz’s Write With Impact podcast, and get a text-to-speech interface to read your (digital) copy aloud to you. I believe Robin mentioned using Siri (from iOS/Mac), if I remember correctly, but most apps/browsers have a speech option if Siri’s not available.

For example, in the web browser I’m using (Chrome), to type into Medium’s text editor, I can go to the top Edit menu, then scroll down to “Speech,” click it, and my computer’s “voice” will read this aloud to me. I can even change the particular type of voice (on Mac, it’s via “System Preferences” in the Apple menu, then pick “Accessibility,” then “Voice”) —but only if I’d rather waste a bunch of time doing that, instead of writing this. ;)

Which brings me to another tip: Stay focused, people! You won’t achieve anything on time, unless you manage to stay focused. The 11th hour is not the time to procrastinate about which writing app is best. It’s time to get the actual writing done, then release it to the cosmos. I’ve used countless apps (and researched many more, during my own procrastination sessions), and yes, some are better than others, but in the interim, any one of them will do. Stop obsessing. Just start typing, or writing by hand, if you prefer. Then do some editing and formatting. Then hit Submit.

Be careful not to over-edit (something we can all be guilty of when it comes to our own work). Also: Do have another person check for spelling and grammar, if possible, and do ask for, and consider, constructive feedback. But be sure to keep your own creative voice. A writer’s own voice (or whichever one they are channelling in the moment) is the unique ingredient that will ultimately win any contest, if the time is right. As an example, check out this poem which won CBC’s 2016 Poetry Prize: African Canadian in Union Blue by Michael Fraser.

4. When it comes to last-minute decisions, go with your gut.

When in doubt as to which piece, or which version of a piece, to submit, always go with your intuition. It can be helpful to ask others for their opinion, but in the end it’s you who must decide. For me, this most often points to the version closest to the original (carefully checked for typos, of course), and/or the piece I was inspired to write specifically for the contest, rather than resurrecting some possibly “better” piece of writing I’d created in the past.

It’s just like parenting, or anything else: regardless of what anyone else thinks, if you follow your own instincts you’ll feel better about the results, whether positive or negative, in the end.

5. Focus on submitting finished work as the goal; not winning.

For most who are just starting out, it’s tough putting work out there. If you’ve managed to make some decisions, meet a deadline, learn more about the submission process, and perhaps even create some new work inspired by the contest theme, you can already, truly congratulate yourself. You did it!

If you don’t win a prize, you don’t win a prize; it just wasn’t your time — yet. And while you’re waiting to find out, you’ve got to get back to the page and keep writing. (And keep submitting — contests often can take up to six months to finalize decisions. No use sitting around twiddling your thumbs—unless you’re using them to tap words into your phone or tablet’s writing app. ;))

6. Continue to believe in yourself and in your work. No matter what.

The key to success is a little bit of luck, alongside a lot of hard work. (And I believe that luck is generated by hard work ;)). If you practice and persevere, it will, one fine day, be time for your work to shine—some way, somehow.

Remember: If you truly try, try, and try again, you cannot fail. In fact, you’ve already won, in the trying.

xo ♥ N

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Nadine’s favourite genre is CNF (creative nonfiction). She lives in France, working as a mom, wife, editor, property manager & marketer. She enjoys reading, writing, communing with nature, playing music, sewing clothes, querying people about their life stories, & encouraging folks to “write it down.” Feel free to connect with Nadine on Medium, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Enquiries: njl@bloomwords.com.