Writing Contests: Your First Step to Getting Paid to Publish

Writing Contests: Your First Step to Getting Paid to Publish
Image Detail: Tyler Coburn (Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work '18), "I’m that angel," 2012—, book and performance in data centers

Writing contests can be a first step towards publishing. We’ll help to clarify the process and raise questions that you should be asking to increase your chances of publishing success.

Writing contests are a great way to get your work published—whether you’re looking to publish a single poem, a short story, or a collection of your work. Submitting your work to contests takes work and patience, but once you’ve been published it can open doors to further publishing opportunities. 

Here’s what you need to know from Kyle Carrero Lopez, NYFA Program Associate and Editor, Con Edison Immigrant Artist Newsletter. Lopez is author of the chapbook MUSCLE MEMORY, winner of the 2020 [PANK] Books Contest (sample poems here). His writing is published widely and has been highlighted in The Atlantic, W Magazine, Best New Poets, and Best of the Net, among others.

Where to Find Opportunities & the Importance of Doing Your Research

Writing contest opportunities can be found in literary magazines and journals, both online and in print. Some of your best sources for these opportunities are folks in your network, including friends, editors, and other poets and writers on Twitter; as well as Poets & Writers and CLMP

While Twitter can potentially distract from writing, one of its best features is the “Lists” function, which you can use to curate a specific cache of accounts whose Tweets show up in that List. This is a great way to streamline your information intake and allow yourself to keep your various interests separate from one another. 

You should also consider how to track relevant opportunities and create a schedule for submitting. Finding an organizational style that works for you: some writers keep spreadsheets full of submission deadlines, while some prefer to write them out on sticky notes and place them where they’re easy to see. 

Before you apply, get a sense of whether the journal or magazine is a fit for you and your work. If you’re not sure where to start, look to where your peers are publishing or have been published.

Submission Fees and How Submissions are Reviewed

The typical cost for a single poem or poem packet contest submission is $10-20, whereas manuscript submissions tend to run between $15-$30, which can add up. Many publications and sites now offer a fee waiver option–don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself! 

While there is usually a main judge (or a plurality of final judges), your submission will typically first be read in a preliminary reading round handled by staff at the publication. This means that if you decide to enter a contest because you feel your work may align with the final judge’s aesthetic, it’s important to remember that your work may not get seen by the advertised judge. 

Make sure you review the kind of work that a journal or magazine publishes before sending anything their way so that you can best position your submission to make it through to the final judging round.

What to Submit and Stipulations Around Submitting

The most important piece of a submission is the quality of the writing, of course, but the accompanying cover letter is an important component that you can use to your advantage. If you’re able to locate the names of the reader(s) or editor(s) who will be reading your piece, definitely address the letter to them! 

Keep the body text simple: a hello, a thank you for taking the time to read and consider the submission, and any brief, relevant context. For example, you might say that the short story you’re submitting comes from a larger collection about a certain theme, or that one of the poems in your packet is written in a particular form not named in the title. You have the power to control your first impression, so take your time with these details. 

A great submission could easily be soured by a silly mistake, like writing “Dear Editor at The Nation” to something you’re sending to Granta. Be sure to double check these important details before submitting!

The ordering of the manuscript for a packet submission is also important. Think about the reader’s experience when putting it together. It may help to lead with a piece you feel is strongest in the packet and then end with the other strongest. 

Lastly, there are general “rules of thumb” to go by when submitting your work for publication. If your work is already in consideration somewhere, hold off on sending it elsewhere. If a piece or collection gets accepted while it’s still out for submission elsewhere, make sure to let the publisher or journal know! This makes the publisher’s job easier and helps to foster a good rapport with other literary community members. 

Be very careful where your work is going, and know where it has been–including on your own social media! Some places consider social media posting as publication, so read editorial standards carefully.

In Closing

Getting published might feel like an uphill battle, and it might take time for you to get the “yes” that you’re looking for. The good news is that there are more opportunities for writers and poets to get published than ever, and that while rejection is part of the experience, the effort and time that you put into submitting to contests can pay off!

“In my experience,” says Lopez, “the literary journal and magazine publishing process has connected me with many readers and writers that I might not have reached, otherwise. One of the real joys of writing is getting to be in community with other writers, and there’s something very special about finding your work situated among peers’ all in one space.”

He continued: “I can think of at least one magazine that I’d applied to at least five times before an acceptance, and the reason for my persistence was my respect for the space and for the writing I’d encountered in it. It can be a daunting process, but if you take each rejection as an opportunity to either revisit drafts or gain confidence in a work’s completion–knowing that rejection sometimes means a piece is ready but would fit better elsewhere–you’re bound to improve as a writer over time.”

For more insights on writing-related topics, read our “Writers on Publishing Part 1” and “Writers on Publishing Part 2″ posts. You can find more articles on arts career topics by visiting the Business of Art section of NYFA’s websiteSign up for NYFA News and receive artist resources and upcoming events straight to your inbox.

NYFA Learning provides artists, creators, students, and arts administrators with tools, strategies, and advice for building sustainable careers. We collaborate with organizations, academic institutions, and cultural partners to bring our programs to a broad range of national and international creative communities.

Amy Aronoff
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