Being commended, shortlisted, or winning a writing competition is the most successful way to build you resume, have your writing noticed, earn some cash, network in the industry, develop a productive writing routine, generate polished work, and gain new opportunities.
Until four years ago, I’d never sent my work out, or entered a writing competition. There was the fear of rejection, suspicion of scams, un-affordable entry fees, excessive word-counts, and my—self-proclaimed—poor editing skills. Then one day, with encouragement, I entered the Joanne Burns short/micro/flash fiction award.
I was on exchange at the University of Massachusetts when I was informed that, although my piece didn’t win, it’d been selected to be published in the Writing to the Edge anthology. It’s impossible to exaggerate the encouragement and confidence this recognition gave me as an aspiring writer.
Shortly after this, I entered two poems in the UMass Spring 2014 Class of 1940 Poetry Competition, which I won. I was ecstatic. This led to three performance gigs, an additional publication in the UMass undergraduate literary journal, Jabberwocky, and enabled me to conquer my glossophobia (aversion to public speaking).
I began researching contests, jotting down deadlines, word counts, themes, entry fees, and prize money. Since then, I have won six writing competitions, earning close to $6000 in prize money. I’ve also had work commended and shortlisted, and have won multiple Instagram poetry competitions (which don’t have cash prizes, but do provide collaborative opportunities, new followers, and a worldwide audience).
While the cash rewards are always appreciated, they are not the most valuable aspect of winning competitions. Generally speaking, when you win a contest, or are commended/shortlisted, your work is published, either in a magazine or an anthology. There are award nights, writers’ festivals, launch parties, literary events, connections to be made, and a myriad of other opportunities waiting. And, of course, awards, shortlists, performances, and publications all look fantastic on your portfolio.
Following my first publication, I was approached by Sydney-based journal, Rochford Street Review, with the prospect to become a regular reviewer. Around six months later, the editor offered to publish my chapbook.
When it comes to writing competitions, do your research! Be aware of high entry fees. Do background search of the publication, the judges, the sponsors, read past winners, read the creative work of judges, and make an informed assessment whether or not your piece is suitable. If the past winners are chivalric- romantic sonnets and your poem is non-binary BDSM free verse, perhaps it’s better you save the money and look elsewhere to submit your piece.
As for contests that don’t accept multiple submissions, well, my advice: ignore this completely. It’s usually months before you hear about the results of a contest, life’s too short, and it’s highly unlikely that your piece is going to simultaneously win two prizes.
On the single occasion that I had a story—entered in two contests—announced as a winner, I simply withdrew my piece from the second competition. On that point, be organised when submitting your work, keep records of what, when, and where you submit, and of rejections and acceptances.
Your writing will be rejected. It’s inevitable, but just remember: 2015 Man Booker winner, Marlon James, had his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, rejected seventy-eight times before it was published in 2005.
Entering contests isn’t all about winning. The brilliant thing about contests is that they force us to plan ahead, to write to deadlines, to pay attention to word counts, to overcome the fear of rejection, to rewrite and rewrite again, and they leave us with finished, polished, and tight writing. What’s more, writing to themed competitions will take your creativity to new places, often producing unexpected and pleasing results.
As a result of entering writing competitions, I’ve had one chapbook published, have a second one on its way, am currently compiling a short story collection and a full-length poetry collection, have appeared on a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, on local radio, and at poetry events.
My advice? Go for it! Write to deadlines, word counts, themes, and get your work out there!
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Currently based in Brazil, Stevi-Lee Alver has had her work published across Australia and the United States. In 2017, her work appeared in Overland, Her Heart Poetry and Westerly Magazine. Her story ‘Contributory Negligence’ was commended for the 2017 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, and her poem ‘talking to ludwig’ was awarded second prize in the 2017 MPU International Poetry Competition. Rochford Street Press published her chapbook Cactus in 2016.
HOW TO REMEMBER, WRITE AND PUBLISH YOUR LIFE STORY
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