I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
Writers like to talk a big game about how we’re all in it for the craft. The ecstasy of creation. The absolute joy of finding the perfect word for the perfect phrase. The therapeutic benefit of tapping into subconscious thoughts we didn’t even know we harboured, until we wrote them down.
And sure, that stuff’s all great. #bigfan
But the truth is, most writers have a competitive side too. We don’t just want to write, we also want to win at writing. We want to see our words lifted up, celebrated above the rest.
Hey, maybe. Writers aren’t angels, after all. We’re artists, and as much as we’re doing it for ourselves, we’re doing it for the accolades, too; we want other people to love our art as much as we do. We want our talent recognized.
And winning a lit mag contest definitely gives you a leg up when it comes time to look for a book publisher.
If you’re feeling that competitive edge—that need to prove that your writing isn’t just good, it’s phenomenal—you’re not alone. That’s why just about every major literary magazine out there runs contests to celebrate the best of the best in contemporary writing.
In fact, lit-mag contests are so ubiquitous that it doesn’t matter when you’re reading this blog post, whether it’s March 2022 when I’m posting it, or three or six or nine months down the road—a literary contest exists that you can submit to right now.
So, let’s win something!
What Makes a Good Entry for Lit Mag Contests?
First, if you’re debating entering lit mag contests, you ought to make sure you submit the right piece. While it’s always important to make sure your work is publication-ready before you submit, contest entries need a little something extra.
Fellow writing mentor Rachel Thompson calls this “contest sparkle.” She identifies three things that give a piece contest sparkle:
- Unique subject matter. Are you writing about interesting characters or topics that simply don’t get written about very often?
- Risk. Are you exposing something bold about yourself and really taking your writing to that extra-vulnerable place? (Note: although this seems, on the surface, to apply more to CNF or poetry, fiction can be just as revealing.)
- Innovation. Are you playing with language, structure, or form in inventive ways? Are you doing something that breaks the standard writing “rules,” and pulling it off?
(Rachel runs a fantastic course called Lit Mag Love – watch for it because if you’re serious about getting published in literary magazines, her students get amazing results. Next session starts May 15th and you can get on the Waiting List here.)
If your piece hits at least two of those sparkly descriptors—or, ideally, all three—it could be a good one to consider for a contest.
Contest winners also usually have especially strong introductions and conclusions. That’s always important for any submission, of course, but contest entries in particular should hook the reader immediately—good first sentences are key (or first lines in poetry)—and really nail the landing.
The Right Entry for the Right Contest
Once you’ve worked out that you think your piece is a good fit for a contest, the next step is to decide which contest to submit to. There are always some contests going on at one magazine or another, but you want to be especially strategic when it comes to picking the right contest for the right piece.
Lit mag contests hardly ever allow simultaneous submissions; that means you can’t submit the same piece to any other magazines until you hear back about your contest entry. It could be a very long time until you know whether or not your piece was selected—many months in some cases.
That means that with a contest entry, you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak (at least for now). So, you really want to make sure you’re sending the right piece to the right market.
Ideally, if you’re submitting to a magazine contest, it’s a magazine that you know reasonably well and have a sense of their general vibe. And even if you don’t, you can do some digging.
Read through their work available online, if you can, or read up about previous contest winners.
And read up on the judge or jury! Lit mag contests often invite special guests to judge their contests, guests who aren’t usually affiliated with the magazine.
Most judges are writers that are well-established in their careers, so check out the judge’s website and see what kinds of things people say about their writing. That can give you a clue to the types of pieces they might really respond to.
I once won first prize in a literary magazine contest with a story that had been freshly rejected at another lit mag because I saw who the contest judge was and thought “Oooh, I’ll bet she would love my weird little story.”
Equally, I've decided not to enter contests at magazines I love because I thought the judge wasn't a good fit for my writing.
Keep It Anonymous
One key difference between contests and general submissions is that the selection of the pieces is usually blind—the initial readers and contest jury don’t want to know who wrote what.
Yes, you may be submitting the piece through your personal email or Submittable account, but the person receiving the submission is going to pass the story, essay, or poem along without the cover letter or any identifying details. That’s how magazines ensure a non-biased selection process.
And if you accidentally leave your name somewhere on the piece, you could be disqualified for revealing yourself too early!
So, when you’re setting up your manuscript, you need to make adaptations to the standard submission format. Remove ANYTHING with your name on it, whether it’s a real name or a pseudonym.
Check the headers and footers for anything that could disqualify you.
Remove your address too and anything other than the bare-bones details of what they need: word or line count, title of the piece, page numbers, and something to indicate which contest you’re entering.
(Of course, every rule has its exceptions, so double check the magazine’s own contest submission guidelines to see what they want you to include in the manuscript.)
Lit Mag Contests: Take the Leap!
Don’t rule contests out just because they seem like a long shot. If you’re looking to really make a mark in publishing, a piece that places in a contest is a good way to prove you’ve got something fresh and original to offer readers. (And agents or publishing houses!)
Lit mag contests don’t usually just have a grand prize and nothing else; many contests also offer second- and third-place prizes too, and often one or more “honourable mentions.” Even getting an honourable mention in a lit-mag contest is a huge deal, and something to celebrate (and share on your website, social media platforms, and CV)!
Plus, a lot of lit mags treat their contest submissions like a special slush pile. If your piece isn’t selected for the contest, the editors might still really like it, and they’ll want to snatch it up before you have the chance to submit it elsewhere. Your piece could still get a publication offer, even if you don’t place.
In fact, a lot of general publications in magazines come from contest entries! This has happened to me at least three times – a piece I submitted didn’t win first prize in the contest but the editor picked it up for publication anyway.
So, don’t repress that competitive spirit. If you’re ready to try for a contest, remember this famous advice from Michael Jordan: “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”
The Subscription Bonus
Most literary magazines use contests as a way to increase their subscriber count. I mean, sure, they love finding a hot new writer too, but subscriptions pay the bills to publish writers in the first place and a good way to boost subscriber numbers is to run a legitimate contest with a great prize.
Because they want new subscribers, most contest entry fees also buy you an annual subscription to the magazine. Win-win! You’ll get issues of the magazine year-round and can keep an eye on what they’re publishing. (Oh, and #protip: always check the back of the magazine because this is where other lit mags will promote their literary contests!)
If your budget for contests is limited, consider entering those from magazines you really love so that you can get a two-for-one deal that includes your contest entry AND your magazine subscription.
Literary Magazines, Demystified
This is the fifth blog in a series on publication in Literary Magazines. For six months throughout 2021-2022, I’ll be posting one blog each month that covers different aspects of lit mag publishing, to offer you some support as you submit to lit mags.
Here are the previous blog posts in this series:
And if you’re able to join me on Fridays at 5pm Eastern, I’ll be going Live each week on my Facebook page to talk about all things writing. Once a month when I post a new blog about lit mags, I’ll also be giving away a gift subscription to a new literary magazine so do follow me there and join me LIVE for a chance to win.
We're all on a journey with our writing. Ever wonder what the best next step is for you in YOUR writing journey? Take my Writer's Journey Quiz and get a personalized PDF guide to help assess where you are today and what specific steps you should take to meet your next writing goal.