#5onFri: Five Things I Learned by Entering Writing Contests

by Brenda Rech
published in Community

Sending your story or poem out into the world, whether for critique, publication, or writing contests, is crazy-scary. Will the world accept it with open arms, love and cherish it as much as we do? Or will it be mashed and crumpled, tossed into a corner to whither, forgotten and abandoned? This is a Brobdingnagian concern for all writers, novice and seasoned.

I am a storyteller, building worlds, creating characters who cry and laugh. I cut words, agonize over punctuation, and labor for hours to find just the right (optimum, perfect) word. Until finally, I triumphantly type “The End,” only to file my story away, afraid to share it with anyone.

I needed to get my stories out into the world and decided to send them to writing contests. Sometimes I would stumble upon a contest announcement in a newsletter or a writing-friend would mention a contest that they have seen or entered. 

Some had a theme or specific subject and I would say to myself, “Self, that story you wrote about ‘the person with the thing in the place, could work for this contest.” If it was a contest that provided a specific prompt I created new characters and places, a whole new story.

I needed to “get used to” nonacceptance letters, also known as NALs. (I refuse to use the word rejection ) I needed to “get used to” my writing being not quite ready, not quite right for that publication, or not quite [insert your own word here….but be positive].

I have sent stories to many, many contests and magazines over the past couple of years and I have received many, many NALs. To my dismay, I have not become “used to” receiving the NALs. They still sting; they will always sting. But I have learned a few things.

1. Writing contests come with deadlines

Be prepared to concentrate all your efforts on that story. You may have to set aside your other writing, especially 1-2 weeks/days/hours before the deadline. 

For one of my first contest submissions, I rushed to finish a story, submitting just minutes before the deadline. But alas, I clicked on the wrong file. I didn’t just send them the wrong version of the correct story, I sent the first draft of a different, unfinished manuscript. 

When I realized what I had done a few weeks later, it was too late to make any changes. (I am sure they appreciated my $$ donation to their association.)

I learned I needed a personal deadline, 1 or 2 days before the actual submission date. If there is time, I set the completed story aside for a few days and then come back and read it with fresh eyes. Some contests are not conducive to this, such as the NYC Midnight Challenges. They give you a prompt and a brisk turnaround time.

(FYI: Deadlines also apply to articles. For instance, I did not have enough time to submit this article to my support group. I know it would have been a much better article if they could have reviewed it with me. Which leads me to item #2…)

2. Support/Critique Groups

Use them! Let them know you have a deadline coming up. Ask them to read your story. Be sure that you give them ample time to provide proper feedback that you can implement.

During the last NYC Challenge I entered, I met with three other participants two days after we had received our prompts. We spent 15 minutes brainstorming each other’s ideas. Then, I submitted a draft of the “finished” story to my critique group, revised it from their feedback, then resubmitted, twice, to ONE person (from the same critique group), revised from the feedback, and FINALLY submitted to the contest. 

I did this over an eight-day time frame. It was extremely stressful and very rewarding. (I am still awaiting the results.) I cannot say enough about creating a great support system.

3. Read the formatting requirements carefully

Contest judges read many, many stories. No matter how good your story may be if they must squint or reformat your story, you are already at a disadvantage. Make sure that they can relax and enjoy your story. If you send it incorrectly spaced, with spelling errors or incorrect fonts, it could quickly be tossed into the digital trash can. 

Make sure your tenses are correct and you don’t slip out of the correct POV. One of the members of my support system is excellent at noticing this.

Watch the word count, maximum and minimum. I keep the number at the top of my manuscript. It is okay to be over the word count in the first couple of drafts. In fact, I recommend it. I find it way easier to reduce words than add them in. But for the final version, stick to the word count.

4. Enter writing contests that give feedback

It is very important to have a good critique group, but they know you and love you. They have read a lot of your stories and sometimes it is hard for them to be unbiased.

Some writing contests will give small critiques as an included perk. Other contests offer the service for a small reading fee. I have found feedback from someone who does not know my writing to be very insightful and eye-opening. 

A word to the wise: With all critiques, keep an open mind and use what works for you and your story.

5. Do not give up when you don’t win

I wrote a short story during a DIY MFA program and had it critiqued through the program, eventually filing it away and working on other projects. Then I stumbled upon a contest. “Self,” I said, “that story you wrote about Clara and the Savoy and a cat would work for this contest.” 

I opened the file, blew the virtual dust motes off, and rewrote it. I sent it to my critique group. We spent uncountable hours cutting and adding words, deleting characters, and changing locations.

I submitted the story to twelve writing contests and magazines. Some said, “no thank-you,” others told me they liked the story, but it was not a fit “at this time.” (What does that even mean?!) 

I got wonderful feedback from the contests. I paid for some; some were unsolicited. I received 11 NALs and they all stung. (Obviously something you never “get used to”) 

Never, ever give up.

One contest that I entered was the Writer’s Digest Short Story contest. It received an honorable mention. They did not wad my story into a tiny little ball and toss it in the trash. Someone liked it, maybe they didn’t love it, but they liked it.

Now what?!? I’m glad you asked. Carol Van Den Hende wrote a wonderful article that helps answer this very question.

Brenda loves writing short fiction and is working on her first novel. 2023 is the third year of her monthly newsletter – Thru the Window.

All her life she wanted to be a veterinarian and took all the right science classes in high school. But, her favorite class was English 300. The teacher was a poet, who loved Shakespeare, and gave funky, fun assignments for creative writing. She struggled through first-year university, her grades in organic chemistry were less than stellar, but her marks in Canadian Lit were awesome. It was suggested that she pursue an English degree and be a teacher. She quit university.

Fast forward. She signed up for a snail-mail writing course and wrote on and off, mostly stories about pets that had crossed the rainbow bridge. She got married, had two children and ran a successful consulting business with her husband.

Fast forward again. During a monster house move she wrote a blog with photos to send to people who wanted to know how the relocation was going. She found a Canadian self-directed writing course and then signed up for their mentored course.

Fast forward some more. She found DIY MFA 101 run by the awesome Gabriela Pereria and her team. She finished the self-directed course DIY MFA 101, signed up for P2P, and completed two sessions of the Small Group Coaching. She is a loyal “Word Nerd.”

Find more info on her website, or check out her newsletter.

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