Regardless where you are on your writing journey—from wannabe to bestseller—you can benefit from entering contests.
Because the right contest can tell you:
- Where you stand
- How you measure up against the competition
- What you still need to learn
To get you the complete lowdown on everything you need to know about writing contests I consulted the ultimate expert. Dr. Dennis Hensley is chairman of the Department of Professional Writing at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana.
It’s because of Doc that I unequivocally refer to Taylor as having the best university writer training program in the country, bar none. Ever since I heard him speak more than 30 years ago, I have never hosted a writers conference without inviting him to keynote and teach. Doc is always a favorite and never disappoints.
His students don’t just learn to write and sell and publish. They’re in the game every day, pushed to query and propose and market their work to real publications. So Doc isn’t preparing them to be professional writers when they graduate; he’s thrusting them into the action now.
Besides having students sell their writing, Doc pushes them into contests too. He’s turned out enough productive writers over the decades to tell me that what’s good for them has to be good for you and me.
So I asked him:
Why are you such a strong advocate of Christian writing contests in 2017?
Contests force writers to hit deadlines. That means they have to finish, and finish on time. It’s hard to beat that kind of training.
If a writer wins or even places in the top three, it often means publication in a magazine or quarterly or journal. That’s fantastic exposure for any writer trying to build a platform—which means every writer.
How big a deal is winning, really?
Being able to list “contest winner” on your resumé impresses publishers and boosts your confidence. From then on, the covers of all your books can feature you as an award winner. The news can be publicized in your hometown paper, college alumni magazine, church newsletter, you name it—it garners notoriety. It can also help land radio and TV interviews.
How can my students find out about writing contests?
The Write Life has a list of 29 free contests occurring in 2017. See that here.
Poets & Writers magazine lists at least 50 contests and the websites that explain their requirements.
The Christian Writer’s Market Guide 2017 carries over 10 pages of contests in both inspirational and general markets, including poetry, articles, children’s books, novels, and nonfiction books.
Writer’s Market 2017 contains around 90 pages of contests for journalism, playwriting, songwriting, poetry, TV and movie scripts, novels and nonfiction books, and essays.
How can a writer be sure a contest is legitimate?
Go to swfa.org, a free website that offers tips on how not to be cheated by scam artists who try to get you to pay for awards or charge editing fees to work on your manuscript. Any contest that charges anything is suspect.
What is meant by “blind” vs. “open” judging?
Blind judges don’t know the names of the writers they’re judging. In open judging, the bylines appear on the entries.
Doc, why are you willing to spend so much time judging writing submitted to contests?
Because it exposes me to such a wide range of topics and writers. For example, I judge a different category each year for one magazine contest. One year I may judge Editorials, so I analyze more than 50 of those. The next year I may judge Interviews, so I’ll read 50 interviews amazingly interesting people.
Reading widely like that keeps me on top of things and stimulates my own thinking as a writer. It also exposes me to many periodicals I might not normally come across. That’s good for me and for my students.
Also, besides just judging, many times I’m able to critique the submissions, providing guidance to writers who show potential but still need mentoring.
Also, I hope my credentials add credibility to worthy contests. Hopefully contestants gain confidence knowing that a judge has a degree in English and has himself written more than 60 books.
If a competitor doesn’t win a prize, should they regret having entered?
Not at all, because of some of the things I mentioned earlier. Entering requires hitting a deadline. It offers the chance at prizes and publication. And often it also offers a chance for feedback from the judge, which can prove helpful.
Any inside tips on how to win a writing contest?
Follow the guidelines precisely. Some require submissions by email and some hard copy. Some allow multiple submissions, while others limit it to one entry per person. Some are genre specific, others not. Some want your full name and address on the cover page, others want your name on a separate sheet.
Whatever the guidelines ask for, follow them exactly or your submission may be disqualified.
Proofread carefully. Nothing is more disappointing to a judge than an excellent story full of errors, evidencing a lack of professionalism.
Avoid gimmicks, such as five different fonts or colors or lace-edged paper. None of that impresses judges.
Don’t resubmit last year’s entry unless you significantly revised it.
Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is the author of eight writing textbooks, ten novels, and dozens of other books. He serves as a judge for the Christy Fiction Awards, the Christian Book Awards, and the Evangelical Press Association Awards. For ten years he also was a judge for the Jerry B. Jenkins Operation First Novel Contest.
What’s your favorite writing contest—and why?