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How to Win Writing Contests or Die Trying

As I write this, my unpublished novel Cold Million is a finalist in the Colorado Gold contest, which is held every year by the incomparable Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.  The competition is stiff.  I’m up against some of the finest undiscovered writers in Colorado.  In fact, a couple of the finalists in my category are good friends of mine, not to mention being members of my critique group.  (It would be even more ironic if we’d actually planned it this way.)  The good news is that no matter how this turns out, odds are that someone in our group will bring home the prize.  That’s an incredible feeling.

If you’re thinking about entering a writing contest, remember that you want to get the most out of it.  Ask yourself a few simple questions:

1. When is the writing contest deadline?
Write it down on your calendar. Use it to motivate you to write your story, get feedback and polish it until it shines.  There’s nothing like a deadline to get you writing.

2. Does the writing contest supply a critique?
Feedback is essential to your growth as a writer.  If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, how can you fix it?  Sadly, most of the time, when an aspiring writer sends out a story, the response is . . . crickets.  Silence.  Perhaps a curt, “Thanks, but not for us.”  That’s just the way the business is.  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone gave you a gentle nudge in the right direction?  Look for a writing contest that will give you some kind of a critique, so you can learn from it and write better next time.

3. Is there a writing conference involved?
When a writing contest ties in with a conference, you get a double dose of writerly goodness.  Not only do you get a chance to have your writing evaluated by professionals, you often get a chance to meet those editors and literary agents in person.  Take a few classes, sit in on a seminar and soak up everything you can about the craft and business of writing.

That’s it.  As long as the contest is reputable (check Preditors & Editors if you aren’t sure), it matches your genre and you can afford the entry fee, then why not?  Follow the writing contest guidelines closely, polish up your best work and just go for it.

Notice that in this whole list, I didn’t mention the prize.  Why?  Because although writing prizes are nice, they’re not the reason to enter a contest.  Your singular goal is to become a better writer.  Making new friends at the conference is always nice, and getting kudos for a job well done can really lift your spirits. But none of it means anything unless you’re growing as a writer.  Every time you have an “Aha!” moment and learn to do something better, you take a step closer to becoming a published author.  So even though only one person can take home the prize, every single person who becomes a better writer comes out a winner.


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