Archive for April 4th, 2008

Beyond “What You Know”: Contests Add a Notch to Your Belt

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineBy Sage Cohen

If you are seeking publication for your creative writing, contests can be a great way to increase your visibility, income and platform status. Being published always looks good on your writing resume. Being a contest winner looks even better. That’s why I recommend building contest submissions into your regular regimen of sending work out.

Whereas the standard literary journal submission costs you nothing and typically pays you nothing more than a copy or two of the publication when your work is accepted, you’ll pay to submit your work to a contest. And if you win, you’ll most likely be rewarded with both publication and a cash prize–and sometimes even a reading.

Because most contests require a submission fee–anywhere between $10 and $20 is common–and these can add up, be thoughtful about how frequently and where you submit your work. If you’re sending out work to journals and magazines every month, for example, perhaps you could submit to a contest every quarter. Like any submission ritual, once you get a good rhythm going, contests will become a natural part of your process. The more you submit your work, the greater your odds of winning may be.

Throughout every year, there are a wide variety of contests sponsored by literary publications for fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. Here are a few reliable resources for learning about the contests that might be the best fit for you:


A note of caution: There are presses and organizations that offer contests where, unbeknownst to those who participate, everyone who enters wins something. All winning pieces are then published in a large volume, and winners are encouraged to buy these collections for $75 or more. Such presses are called vanity presses, because they prey on the vanity and naiveté of writers who do not have enough experience to know that this is not a legitimate publishing venue. You should never have to pay to receive a copy of your published writing. Any publication that requires you to do so should raise a red flag; investigate carefully before proceeding.

When sending creative writing to contests, the same rules of engagement apply as with regular submissions: do not send simultaneous submissions (the same piece to multiple places at the same time) unless a publication explicitly says that it’s ok to do so. I made this mistake once and experienced the one-in-a-million honor/horror of having the same poem win first place in two prizes simultaneously. Of course, I had to turn one down–the ultimate in bad form for me and inconvenience for the journal. Don’t let this happen to you!

Your homework assignment this week: check out the resources above and find one contest that looks appealing with a deadline that will work for you. With your next batch of submissions, send your work to this contest. Repeat this at whatever intervals make the most sense for your time and budget and get ready to add “Award-winning poet” (or fiction writer or essayist) to your resumé!

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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