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The Sub(mission): Writing Contests - You Have Nothing to Lose



tatistics tells you not to do this. Don’t bother submitting to a writing contest because you aren’t going to win. The chances of winning the contest are so small that I actually wrote out the exact percentage here: ___ %, but you can’t see what number I typed out because it’s just that small. Who in their right mind would be crazy enough to even think about pursuing a literary victory with such microscopic odds in their favor? Well, us, of course. Writers. We’re all kinds of crazy.

Here’s the thing about contests, though: someone has to win them. Why not you?

I’m sure you’re currently coming up with a hearty number of answers to that last question I posed, perhaps answers such as:

  • Because I have no publications
  • Because no one knows who I am
  • Because other people are better writers than I am
  • Because my writing isn’t contest-winning worthy
  • Because one person winning means everyone else loses, and I don’t want to be associated with losers
  • Because even though I am terrible at statistics, I’m not dumb, and I know that numbers don’t lie and that a microscopic percentage of success means, “Uh. No. Just stop before you even think about trying.”

Fair enough, imagined reader. Still. Someone has to win. I mean, that’s, like, the point to all of these fight-to-the-deus-ex-machina competitions. (Spoiler alert: every writing contest ends with an inherently subjective plot device known as the judge’s decision.) This is all just a creative way to say that contests are created so someone wins, and you are someone.

But here is the part where I contradict everything I just said because why not? It keeps things interesting. And true.

Contests aren’t about who wins. I mean, yeah, we want to know who wins, and we want to read the winning piece of writing, and all of that is fun and exciting. But when we enter a contest knowing that we probably aren’t going to win, it is at that exact moment when we hit “submit” that we know that contests aren’t about who wins.

What contests are about:

  • Believing in your writing. You think you wrote a stellar story? Excellent! What better way to prove that than by winning a contest! (And if you don’t win—whatever! You viewed your writing as worthy of consideration in a contest. This means you take yourself seriously as a writer. Go you!)

  • Meeting a deadline. This, of course, is something you have to do for any deadline, contest-related or not. But if you’re anything like me, you tend to turn things in before a deadline because you want people to like you. Turning something in ahead of deadline scores some major bonus points with the bosses. So here is why a contest deadline is different: it will encourage you to keep working on your writing right up until submissions are due. For a contest, no one cares if you submit early—the submissions usually aren’t even looked at until the submissions deadline anyway. So take your time when submitting to a contest. Use all of that allotted time to keep working on your words. Put the piece down for a few days, then come back to it and revise. Continue to do this all the way up to the deadline. In other words: learn some patience with the revision and submission process.

  • Resisting the thought that your writing is about a dollar amount. I know, money is an often-discussed point when considering if you should enter a contest. Many writers think of contest submission fees as a waste of money. But ask yourself this: did you start writing because you wanted to make a lot of money? I’m guessing no, considering that most people don’t make anything off of writing that could really be considered supplemental income.

    (Side note, personal story: When my first book, BodyHome, was published, I sold a bunch of copies and was super-excited to get my first check. I MADE MONEY BY DOING SOMETHING I LOVED! That check was a whopping $150. I spent three years writing that collection, revising it, submitting it, agonizing over it, loving all of it before hating all of it, and then loving all of it again, and then having to revise it way too many times and therefore, basically had the whole thing memorized, etc. And I got a whole $150 for my efforts. I didn’t start writing to get rich from it, so why make money such a huge deal in the context of contests? Money is not a part of writing. Don’t let it become a part now.)

  • Learn a journal’s aesthetic. Find some lit journals out there that you truly love, subscribe to them, read every piece in every issue, and get to know those journals’ styles. Now, when those journals have their annual contests, write a piece specifically for that journal—write something you know they would love, based on what they have already published. Every time I have written an essay solely with the intention of submitting it to one specific journal’s contest, I’ve ended up placing in those contests—and even won two of them.

  • Take the opportunity to learn why “contest” is a really dumb word we use to describe this whole situation.

  • Contest (noun)
    • a race, conflict, or other competition between rivals, as for a prize
    • a struggle for victory or superiority
    • a strife in argument; dispute; controversy

    Contest (verb)
    • to struggle or fight for, as in battle
    • to argue against; dispute
    • to call into question

    I’m not all that interested in being a hippie, even though the dreadlocks might make you think differently. But I just now realized that maybe I am some kind of hippie because I have never considered other writers to be my rivals. Yeah, we may compete for a prize, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to fight everyone and stir up some strife between us. Most of the time, I don’t even know who the other writers are who have entered the contest. Maybe a friend, if either of us mentions our submissions status. But I don’t see my writer friends as rivals either.

    When you enter a contest, you don’t think of it as an act of opening up a big ol’ can of word whoop-ass on other writers. In fact, we aren’t even really pitted against one another in a contest, rather we’re pitted against ourselves. We are not trying to “beat” someone at writing because what does that even mean?

It means this: The true “fighting” part of a contest isn’t a strife between multiple writers, but our internal rivals. Us. Our minds. Our trust in ourselves to achieve success. Those kind of things. Because you have to believe in yourself enough as a writer to even consider submitting.

So this is why you must submit to contests. Not 80 ba-gillion-million. Not just one a year, but make submitting to contests a regular part of your submissions schedule and process. You never know if you’ll win the prize or not, but there is one thing that you are guaranteed to obtain with each contest submission: just by believing in yourself enough to enter, you’ve already won.

Next month, I’ll look further at this concept of “fighting” in the context of writing. One of my favorite quotes about being a writer comes from Lawrence Sutin’s Postcard Memoir: “fight like a writer.” I’ll look at what that means and the different ways we have to “fight” for our writing.



Chelsey Clammer

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome and won the 2016 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s, and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She’s the essays editor for The Nervous Breakdown. @ChelseyClammer

Chelsey is also an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. She’s offering column readers a Submissions Consultation of up to 12 pages (4,500 words). Find out more.


Previous columns:

Breathe and Proceed: Poet Tammy Robacker on How to Submit the Hard Stuff

How to Hold Your Horses

Caring About cover Letters (because nothing says “please reject me” like a terrible first impression)

Find or Fling? Figuring Out Where to Submit

Rejection Acceptance: Interview with author/editor Jac Jemc

Hard-Working Writer Seeks Widely-Read Journal

What My Submissions Spreadsheet Teaches Me

Submit ’Til You Make It


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