Literary Contest Tips & Etiquette

first placeAbout five years ago, I approached Kerrie Flanagan, director of the Northern Colorado Writers, with the idea of incorporating a book contest into the association’s annual conference. Other conferences around the country have similar contests, so why not have our own? As a writing organization, the NCW loves recognizing high quality fiction and nonfiction, and thus, the Top of the Mountain Book Award was born. I’ve been the contest’s coordinator since and am blown away by how much it has grown in these last four years. During that time, I’ve learned a lot. I’d like to share my tips and suggestions on submitting to fiction and/or nonfiction contests.

Follow Contest Guidelines to the Letter. It sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how often people don’t do this. (I have a better appreciation for what agents and editors gripe about.) Most contest rules, especially with formatting, mirror what agents and editors ask for, so it shouldn’t be difficult to tailor your submission to a contest. Some of the rules may not make sense to you, such as how they want the document saved as, but trust that there’s a method to their madness, and go with it. They have specific requirements for a reason, so if they ask for a 3-page synopsis; it’s a 3-page synopsis—not a 2 or 2-1/2 page synopsis. Agents and editors expect the same guideline considerations. And if you’re not sure about something, email the contest coordinator and ask. It’s much better than submitting and finding out later your overall score suffered because you didn’t ask about something first. 

Don’t Ask for Exceptions or Special Treatment. Rules are rules, man, what can I say? If we let everyone submit an extra page because “that’s where the action starts,” then first of all, maybe you should rewrite your opening, and two, we’d have a bunch of submissions of varying length and it wouldn’t be a level playing field. Most rules are going to be pretty general, so unless they’re asking you to send a vial of your first born’s blood with your submission, there shouldn’t be any rule you can’t adhere to.

Only Send Your Most Polished Work. Again, probably a no-brainer, but also a reminder that if you want to win, or even be a finalist, your work better be the best it can be. Even if you’ve had your entire critique group look it over, I suggest having one other person—who has never read it before—have a gander at it. You’ll be surprised the typos or plot issues a fresh pair of eyes can catch; it can make or break your submission.

Be Open to Criticism. It can be difficult to send your work out to be judged. Some contests will offer written critiques, and some will not. If they do, be open to hearing what they have to say, but at the same time, remember that it’s all subjective; it’s one reader’s opinion. Judges for the Top of the Mountain are instructed to leave constructive feedback and to offer practical advice, but not all contests are like that, so be prepared . . . or don’t send anything out until you’re confident your work is the best it can be.

Do Not Pitch a Fit. You’d think I wouldn’t have to mention this to adults, but sadly, it happens. Last year, we had a very disgruntled author who didn’t make the cut and after several threats, the police had to get involved. Yeah, not fun. Do not pull a Kanye West. Not only would you likely be asked to never submit to another contest of theirs, word may get around that you don’t like to lose, or have your work critiqued, and you don’t want that following you around. A contest is a contest and if your ego can’t take rejection, well, you’re in the wrong business. So be nice. Be gracious. Keep learning the craft. And keep submitting.

Other things to consider:

  • It’s perfectly fine to send a follow up email to confirm your submission was received. If a contest coordinator has a problem with that, then it’s not a  contest I’d want to be associated with. If you’re paying a fee, you should be able to find out if your entry arrived safely.
  • Don’t end your submission with an unfinished sentence. Tie it up for the judge, otherwise, it shows you didn’t take the time to polish your submission, and that you just saved the required number of pages and sent it off.
  • Judges are often donating their time and efforts. Entry fees typically go toward the cash prizes, PayPal fees, and other admin costs. 

That’s about it. Literary contests are a great way to get your work recognized and grab the attention of an agent or editor. So follow the rules, submit your best work, and wait for the prize money to roll in.

4 thoughts on “Literary Contest Tips & Etiquette

  1. Patricia Stoltey

    I judged for the first time ever last year — for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Contest which is for novel-length fiction and also for the Denver Women’s Club which included personal essays and poetry. I now have a new appreciation for the tough job of judging and the responsibility judges have to provide help and encouragement to the writers who put their work out there for evaluation. Those who submit their work to contests deserve gold stars for courage. The judges deserve gold stars for sweating blood as they review and critique those submissions.

    Reply
    1. April J. Moore

      Well said, Pat. I should have included that writers should pat themselves on the back once they submit to a contest; it takes courage to put themselves out there!

      Reply
  2. Dean K Miller

    Great advice and ones I’ll keep for future submissions. I’ve entered a few contests, but only one with an entire manuscript. Didn’t win, place, or show, but got amazing feedback from the judge that made the exorbitant entry fee worth it.

    Reply
    1. April J. Moore

      Thanks, Dean. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s great when you receive helpful feedback from an experienced judge.

      Reply

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