Creative Writing Short Story Essay Contest

Are you interested in entering a writing contest, but don’t know how to win? After reading these seven tips, you’ll become a surefire contender for winning the top prize.

1. Captivate from your first sentence


“The first sentence sets the tone for the entire piece.” You may have heard similar advice many times before, but it really does hold true of trying to produce a memorable piece of writing. Would you be inclined to continue reading a submission if the first line is dull, cliche, or doesn’t convey its intention effectively?

The harsh truth is that due to time constraints and the large volume of entries received, many writing contest judges simply flick through the submissions they receive. The golden handful that are read properly are the submissions that capture the reader from the very beginning. Of course, your writing should be captivating from the first word to the last, but especially in the case of a writing contest, it should be one of your top priorities to ensure that the judges give your piece the consideration it deserves.

2. Think outside the box


Think about this: Hundreds or thousands of other people are likely to apply for the same competition as you. This means your goal should be to make your submission stand out. How? Give the judges something to “chew on”. Whether it be a different perspective, an innovative idea or perhaps a controversial topic, your submission should be memorable.

Try to consider the given topic from a number of angles. Sure, it’s “safer” to take the usual angle to a topic if you’re confident you can do it well. But once you think about all the other people who took a similar one, it doesn’t seem like such a safe bet after all. Push yourself to take a different perspective. Another important tip is to stay away from cliched phrases or anything that sounds overused and stale. Remember, as long as you can back up what you say and convey your ideas effectively, adopting a unique approach is easy way to make your submission stand out.

3. Be consistent


Consistency is a fundamental tenet of solid writing. Without consistency, your piece will be challenging for the judges to read. In order to ensure your submission demonstrates consistency, consider the following areas:

Structure
Organize your ideas so that there is a clear flow and structure. This rule applies to any type of piece- from a nonfiction essay to a short story or poem. Structure is king.

Your argument
If you’re writing an essay or analysis, assert your standpoint or message from the beginning and ensure it is evident right through to the end. If you are arguing in favor of something, for example, don’t backtrack on your words later on in the piece. This is a common error of inexperienced writers, who have a tendency to flip flop on their views throughout. Be sure to highlight your standpoint with supporting evidence at all times.

Your plot and characters
If you’re writing a story, you will need to develop the plot and characters skillfully. It is important that you do not have any plot holes, as this will throw out the whole balance of your story. Your characters should consistently reflect the personality and behavioral characteristics you attached to them in all their actions and dialogue.

Editing
Your submission should have a uniform style, from punctuation to stylistic features like the font and headings. See Tip 5 and 6 for more information.

4. Emotionally engage


One of the hard and fast rules about writing well is to write in a way that emotionally engages the reader. Whatever topic you write about, try to hone in on an aspect which has the potential to tap into the reader’s experiences or bring about meaningful reaction in them. A judge is far more likely to remember your piece of writing if it prompted them to feel, think, or even reflect or question their own views.   

Unless the competition calls for it, try not to make your writing too specific to yourself. Try to write in a way which will allow anyone who reads your submission to find something they can identify with, or at least relate to. For instance, instead of writing about the impact a certain policy has on you, write about how it has affected your town, city, or the country as a whole. Everyone likes being able to see themselves in a piece of writing- make sure your piece speaks to everyone.

5. Edit, edit, edit


Any writer will tell you that writing is only half the battle- editing is where the real beast lies. A simple way to impress the judges of a writing contest is to make sure you have read and reread your article for errors. And no, a quick once-over won’t cut it. You’ll need to be vigilant in your search for typos, punctuation errors, structural weaknesses, cliches, overused words and any other problems. Once you learn how to edit effectively, and become more confident doing it, editing your piece won’t seem nearly as confronting.

Even when it’s not explicitly stated in the competition guidelines that editing will be considered, you can be certain that any judge will look more favorably on a well-edited piece than a poorly edited one. You never know, if your piece is running head-to-head with another contestant’s for the top prize, a “simple” mistake could cost you the whole contest. Ignore proofreading at your own peril.

6. Get a fresh set of eyes


It may be daunting to show your submission to someone you’re close to, but having another set of eyes to look over your writing is invaluable. As any writer who has spent hours mulling over their piece will know, it’s difficult to detect your own errors or weaknesses.

When you ask someone to edit your work, it’s best to provide them with the competition guidelines so they know exactly what to be on the lookout for. If there is a particular area you are worried about, such as your punctuation or structure, let them know so they can better advise you. Receiving constructive criticism about your writing, and acting on it, is one of the best ways to improve your writing and have a good chance at winning a competition.

7. Mind your manners 


Many contests require you to submit your entry by email, and this is where a lot of contestants fail to make a good impression. A surprising amount of participants simply attach the document without anything written in the body of the message. If a contest is by email submission, you need to follow proper etiquette. The following is a simple guide to writing an email to submit your piece to a writing competition:

  • Subject line: First, title your email clearly. Something simple as “[Name of competition] Submission” and your own name is usually fine. Some competitions will request you title your email something specific- so read the guidelines carefully!
  • Salutation: Open the body of your email with a salutation such as, “Dear [competition organization/person in charge]”.
  • Self intro: Next, provide a very brief self-introduction which states who you are and what you do (e.g. student, freelance writer).
  • Reason for emailing: Concisely explain that you are sending the email to enter their competition. Make sure to you specify the competition to which you submitting, as some organizations have a number of competitions running concurrently.
  • Final thanks:Thank the organization/person for the opportunity to enter this competition. If you want you can express that you’re looking forward to hearing from them further.
  • Sign off: End with a formal sign-off like “Yours sincerely/Kindest regards [your name]”

Here is a sample email:

[Email Subject: The Power of Science Competition Submission]

To whom it may concern at Sunflower Writing,

My name is James West, and I am completing my Bachelor of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

I am writing to submit my entry to your writing competition, “The Power of Science”. My submission answers the question, “Which Scientific Development has had the Greatest Impact on the 21st Century?”

Please find my entry attached to this email.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to enter this competition.

Kindest,

James West.

Final words


So writers, read over these tips (a few times if you need to!), be confident, and get to it! Writing competitions are a fantastic opportunity to polish your writing skills and get some feedback on your writing. The chance to win some prize money is just the *icing on the cake.

*Yep, that’s a cliche there. Good spotting! For those who missed it, it’s back to Tip Number 2 for you!

When I was about 12, I saw an ad in a magazine for a poetry contest that sounded fancy and impressive, something like “International Library of Poetry.” I bled poetry at that age, so I crossed my fingers and sent in a poem I’d been slaving over for weeks.

And, lo and behold, the people behind the contest quickly wrote back to tell me my poem had been selected as a winner!

I was speechless with honor. Of the thousands of poets who must have submitted to the contest — no doubt many of them adults much wiser and more skilled than me — my poem had been chosen to be featured in an exclusive, hardcover anthology! And honored on a something-karat-gold plaque!

Of course, I had to pay $50 if I wanted to see my work in print in the anthology, and I had to pay another $100 if I wanted the plaque. Those were the only “prizes.”

Even as a pre-teen, I sensed a scam.

Sadly, not much has changed when it comes to companies trying to take advantage of writers who want a chance at recognition and maybe a little bit of money. Google the term “writing contests,” and you’ll come up with approximately 8 million results. It can be hard for a writer to know where to start looking for competitions, and how to tell if they’re legitimate or not.

So I’ve done the legwork for you.

Here are 31 reputable, well-reviewed, free writing contests for poets, fiction writers, essayists and more.Some legitimate contests do charge a small entry or “reading” fee, but often a fee can be a red flag for a scam, so you may want to stick to free contests — and there are certainly enough of them.

Fiction and nonfiction writing contests

Ready to share your novel or personal essay with the world? Whether you’re a newbie or more established writer, you’re likely eligible for a few of these contests.

1. L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest

Whatever your feelings about L. Ron Hubbard’s work and philosophy, the prizes for this regular contest are nothing to sneeze at. Every three months, winners earn $1,000, $750 and $500, or an additional annual grand prize worth $5,000.

Submissions must be short stories or novelettes (up to 17,000 words) in the genre of science fiction or fantasy, and new and amateur writers are welcome to apply.

Deadlines: Quarterly on January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1.

2. Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

Awarded to “the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre,” this prize provides a $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf Press.

If you live in the U.S. and have published at least one book (in any genre), you’re eligible to submit a current manuscript in progress for consideration. The judges look for winners who push the boundaries of traditional literary nonfiction.

Deadline: Contest is every other year, with the last one running in 2016. The 2018 deadline has not been announced.

3. Drue Heinz Literature Prize

You can win $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press with this prize, awarded for a collection of short fiction.

You may submit an unpublished manuscript of short stories, two or more novellas or a combination of novellas and short stories. Your total word count should be between 150 and 300 typed pages.

Deadline: Annual submission window is May 1 through June 30.

4. Tony Hillerman Prize

Presented by St. Martin’s Press and WORDHARVEST, this prize awards the best first mystery novel set in the Southwest with $10,000 and publication by St. Martin’s Press.

It’s open to professional or non-professional writers who have not yet had a mystery published, and there are specific guidelines for the structure of your story: “Murder or another serious crime or crimes must be at the heart of the story, with emphasis on the solution rather than the details of the crime.”

Deadline: TBD

5. St. Francis College Literary Prize

This biannual prize honors mid-career writers who have recently published their third, fourth or fifth work of fiction. The winner receives $50,000 but must be able to appear at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY to deliver a talk on their work and teach a mini-workshop in fiction to St. Francis students.

Deadline: Biannually; the deadline for work published between June 2015 and May 2017 is May 15, 2017.

6. Young Lions Fiction Award

This $10,000 award recognizes “young authors,” which the rules define as any author aged 35 or younger. Submit any novel or short story published or scheduled to be published in the calendar year. Works must be written for adults; children’s or YA pieces are ineligible.

Deadline: Annually in the fall (most recently in August or September). 2017 deadline not yet announced.

7.Inkitt

This boutique publishing firm offers a full-fledged publishing deal to its contest winner. Submit a novel of 20,000 words or more in any fiction genre (no fanfic, short stories or poetry) and if it’s selected, Inkitt will provide you with professional editing, a cover design, and 25 percent royalties. They also have a strategy to get you into the Amazon Top 100. (Not too shabby.)

Inkitt runs contests regularly, so be sure to check back often!

Deadline: See individual contest pages.

8.Real Simple’s Life Lessons Essay Contest

Have you ever had a “eureka” moment? If you have, and you can write a compelling personal essay about it in no more than 1,500 words, you may be able to win $3,000 in Real Simple’s annual essay contest.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

9. New Voices Award

Presented by Lee & Low Books, an award-winning children’s book publisher, this award is given for a previously unpublished children’s picture book manuscript (of no more than 1,500 words) written by a writer of color.

The winner receives $1,000 cash and a standard publication contract. You may submit up to two manuscripts.

Deadline: Submissions must be postmarked by September 30 each year.

10. Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

This contest aims to provide visibility for emerging African American fiction writers and to enable them to focus on their writing by awarding a $10,000 cash prize. Eligible authors should submit a work of fiction, such as a novel or short story collection, published in the calendar year.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

11. PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Honoring the best work of fiction published by an American author in a single calendar year, this award has been given to the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Ann Patchett.

The winner receives $15,000 and an invitation to read at the award ceremony in Washington, DC. Four finalists also each receive a $5,000 award.

Deadline: Annually on October 31 for books published that calendar year.

12. Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

Presented by the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival, this annual prize awards $500 cash for “the best Brooklyn-focused non-fiction essay which is set in Brooklyn and is about Brooklyn and/or Brooklyn people/characters.” (So it’s Brooklyn-centric, if you haven’t picked up on that yet.)

Submissions should be four to 10 pages (up to 2,500 words), and five authors will be chosen to read and discuss their submissions at the annual December event.

Deadline: Annually in mid-November.

13. Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

Fiction and nonfiction writers who have recently published a book that “contributes to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures” are eligible for this award, which offers $10,000 cash as well media and publicity opportunities.

Submissions must be published in the prior year (so books published in 2016 are eligible for the 2017 award).

Deadline: Annual submission window is September 1 through December 31.

14. Marfield Prize (a.k.a. National Award for Arts Writing)

Presented by the Arts Club of Washington, this award seeks to honor nonfiction books that deal with “any artistic discipline (visual, literary, performing, or media arts, as well as cross-disciplinary works).” This may include criticism, art history, memoirs and biographies, and essays.

Deadline: Annually in the last quarter of the year; the 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

15. W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction

If you’re a war buff, this competition is for you. It awards $5,000 to the best piece of fiction set during a period when the U.S. was at war (war may either be the main plot of the piece or simply provide the setting). Submissions may be adult or YA novels.

Deadline: Annually on December 1.

16. Friends of American Writers Chicago Awards

FAW presents two annual awards: an Adult Literature Award for literary fiction or nonfiction, and a Juvenile Literature Award for a children’s/YA book.

Authors must reside in the state of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota or Wisconsin — or they must set their book in one of those locations. Prize amounts vary from year to year but are typically between $500 and $2,000.

Deadline: Annually at the end of the year; 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

17. Hektoen Grand Prix Essay Contest

Hektoen International, an online journal dedicated to medical humanities, offers two prizes annually for essays of no more than 1,600 words in two categories.

The Grand Prize of $1,200 is given for an essay suited for their Famous Hospitals section, while a Silver Prize of $1,000 is given to the best essay suited for the sections of Art Flashes, Literary Vignettes, Moments in History or Physicians of Note.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 has passed and 2018 deadline is not yet announced.

18. Nelson Algren Short Story Award

Presented by the Chicago Tribune, this award presents $3,500 to one grand prize winner, $1,000 to four finalists and $500 to five runners-up for a short fiction story of less than 8,000 words.

You may submit up to two short stories, but note that your name must not appear anywhere on your submission as the process is anonymous.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 has passed and 2018 deadline is not yet announced.

19. Minotaur Books / Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition

Writers 18 and older who have never had a novel published (in any genre) are eligible for this prize, awarded for an original book-length manuscript where “murder or another serious crime or crimes is at the heart of the story.” The winner receives a publication contract with Minotaur Books and an advance of $10,000 against future royalties.

Deadline: Annually in the last quarter of the year. The deadline for 2017 awards has passed; the deadline for 2018 awards has not yet been announced.

20. FutureScapes Writing Contest

Want to change the world? Then listen up.

FutureScapes is looking for concrete, substantive pieces that “can provide a roadmap for cities, states, and nations to follow.” If you just want to write the next Hunger Games, this isn’t the contest for you, but if you’re inspired by politics and civic issues, you’ve found the right place. (Case in point: the inaugural theme, “Empowerment Cities,” features a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville.) First place wins $2,000; second place $1,000; and four runners-up will get $500 each. Oh, and did we mention publication in an anthology that will be “distributed to mayors, governors and members of the U.S. Congress”?

Deadline: Annually; deadline for 2017 is TBD.

21. Stowe Prize

This biennial prize of $10,000 honors an American author whose work has had an impact on a critical social justice issue (as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

In addition to submitting a copy of your book or written work, you must also complete a 250-word statement that describes the tangible impact your piece has made in the world and outlining any social justice work you perform outside of your writing.

Deadline: Biennially in odd-numbered years. The deadline for 2017 awards has passed, and the deadline for 2019 have not yet been announced.

22. The Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Non-Fiction

Creative nonfiction essays of no more than 5,000 words on any subject, are eligible for consideration for this award, whose winner receives $250 and publication in Lunch Ticket, the literary and art journal produced by the MFA community of Antioch University Los Angeles.

Works must not have been published elsewhere. Award winners are required to submit a 100-word biography, recent photo and a short note thanking the Woods family for their generosity and support.

Deadlines: Biannual reading periods are the month of February for the Summer/Fall issue and the month of August for the Winter/Spring issue.

23. Words & Brushes

This contest seeks to foster collaborations between artists and writers. Select a piece of artwork from the gallery provided and submit a short story inspired by it and you could win $350 — plus a spot in a future art book showcasing these collaborations. Short stories should be between 2,000 – 5,000 words.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 has passed and 2018 deadline is not yet announced.

24. Write the World

For young writers ages 13-18, this cool contest also serves as a mini writer’s camp. Recognizing that “a first draft is never perfect,” submissions actually receive peer review by authors, writing teachers and other experts and writers are given the chance to revise their pieces based on this feedback before submitting them for final prize consideration. There’s a $100 prize for the winner and $50 for the runner-up (plus $50 for the best peer-reviewer). All three are featured on Write the World’s blog alongside comments from a guest judge. And since each month’s prompt is from a different genre, developing writers get a chance to test out different styles.

Deadline: Monthly.

25. Prose.

Stuck with writer’s block and looking for a way to jumpstart your escape? Prose offers weekly challenges meant to spark your creativity; many are just for fun, but look for the weekly numbered challenges posted by Prose (rather than community members or sponsors) for a chance to win money.

Prizes are typically between $100 – $200 and word counts are low — some as low as under 150, some as high as 500, but all say “quality beats quantity.” So even if all you get from the prompt is a chance to flex your brain, it’s not a bad deal.

Deadline: Weekly.

Poetry contests

Curious about opportunities for poets? Your stanzas — rhyming or not — could be worth a fair amount of money in these competitions.

26. Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award

Open to African American poets, previously published or not, this award provides a $500 prize and publication by Boardside Lotus Press for the best book-length collection of poems (approximately 60 to 90 pages).

Deadline: Annually on March 1.

27. James Laughlin Award

If you’re already a published poet, this is the award for you; it’s given for a second book of poetry due to come out in the forthcoming year. The winner receives $5,000 and an all-expenses-paid week-long residency. In addition, copies of her book are distributed to the 1,000 members of the Academy of American Poets.

Deadline: Annual submission window is January 1 through May 15.

28. African Poetry Book Fund Prizes

The APBF awards three prizes annually for African Poetry. The Glenna Luschei Prize for Afican Poetry gives $5,000 for a book of original African poetry published in the prior year.

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets gives $1,000 and a publication contract for an unpublished book-length collection of poetry by an African author.

The Brunel University African Poetry Prize is a new prize that grants £3,000 to a poet who was born in Africa, is a national of an African country or has African parents, who has not yet had a full-length book of poetry published. (U.S. citizens qualify.) To submit, you’ll need 10 poems.

Deadlines: See individual prize pages.

29. Tufts Poetry Awards

Claremont Graduate University presents two awards each year to poets they deem to be “outstanding.” The Kate Tufts Poetry Award grants $10,000 for a published first book of poetry that shows promise.

The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award grants a mammoth $100,000 for a published book of poetry by an an established or mid-career poet.

Deadline: Books published between July of the previous year and June 30 of the current year are eligible for the following year’s prize (i.e. award for 2017 was for works publishing between between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016). Deadline for 2018 awards has not yet been announced.

Writing contests with multiple categories

Some contests accept submissions in multiple categories, so you could submit a novella as well as a poem or other work.

30. Binghamton University Book Awards

Sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers — State University of New York, this competition offers a $1,000 prize for work published in the previous year in two separate categories. The John Gardner Fiction Book Award goes to the best novel or collection of fiction, while the Milt Kessler Poetry Book award goes to the best book of poems.

Deadline: Annually on March 1 for books published the previous year.

31. Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition

(Editor’s note: We were so excited to include this competition that we overlooked its entry fees. We’ll leave it in the post for those interested in submitting their work, but please note that this contest is not free.)

One of the longest-running writing competitions — it’s now in its 83rd year — this contest spotlights up and coming writers in a number of categories, including Memoirs/Personal Essay, Magazine Feature Article and Genre Short story.

The Grand Prize winner gets $5,000, a feature in Writer’s Digest magazine, a paid trip to a writing conference and more. Runners-up earn prizes in first through tenth places.

Deadline: Annually; May 5, 2017.  

Where to find more legitimate, free writing contests

Looking for more opportunities to submit your work to writing contests? Here are a few great sites to keep an eye on.

Winning Writers

A number of the contests found on our list came highly recommended by this site, which compiles some of the best free literary contests out there. You can sort contests by recommendation level (Highly Recommended, Recommended or Neutral), view plenty of info on requirements and even see which contests are better for beginners, intermediate writers and pros.

They also offer a handful of contests themselves, including the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest (which sounds delightful).

Poets & Writers

Another fantastic source for legitimate writing contests I consulted when compiling this list, Poets & Writers vets competitions, contests, awards and grants to make sure they’re following legitimate practises and policies. It’s worth checking out regularly as it features both annual and one-time contests.

Cathy’s Comps and Calls

Writer, poet and editor Cathy Bryant sources legitimate, free-to-enter writing contests and calls for submission. She releases a new list of contests and calls each month, so check back monthly for new opportunities.

Are you planning to enter any writing contests this year? Which ones?

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

This post originally ran in February 2016. We updated it in March 2017.

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