You write something great—no, brilliant—so you fire it off to a bunch of contests, and wait for word that you’ve won, filling your downtime taking selfies that will no doubt appear in the Recent Winners section of this magazine. It sounds too good to be true because it usually is. Being lax when it comes to entering contests is typically a waste of time and money—unless of course you fancy yourself a patron of the arts, which is likely all you’ll be if you continue to take a slapdash approach to writing contests. Here are seven strategies for a more efficient (and hopefully more effective) process of submitting your work to contests.
1. Finish first. Before you submit your manuscript, make sure you’ve pushed it as far as it can go. Revise, revise, and revise some more. Send it to five friends and ask them for constructive criticism. Pass it around your writers group. Workshop it. Stick it in a drawer for a week and then read it. It’s still brilliant? Great. Stick it back in the drawer and submit it next week after you’ve reread it again and asked yourself, “Is this better than the five hundred other manuscripts that have already been submitted to this contest?” If you’re paying an entry fee, there should be no doubt in your mind.
2. Know your sponsoring organization.Do you read the magazine that sponsors the contest? Do you subscribe? Have you read all the books published in the past year by the press that’s running the contest? Do you disagree with any of the editorial policies of that magazine or press? Familiarize yourself with the organization’s website and read some of the marketing copy. Does the sponsor present itself as one you’d like to be associated with? Are you comfortable with the idea of having your name—not to mention your writing—associated with that sponsor for the rest of your career?
3. Judge your judge. Read that famous poet’s work as well as the work of winners that judge has chosen in the past. Read interviews with that well-known novelist, reviews of her latest book, articles and essays she has published in magazines. Try to figure out not only how she writes but also how she thinks, how she reads. Never heard of the judge? Double your efforts and proceed with caution. (See number two.)
4. Follow the rules. You may have written a story for the ages, but it won’t matter if you printed your last name on the top of every page when the rules explicitly forbid any identifying information on your manuscript. Don’t e-mail it as an attachment when you’re supposed to upload it to a submissions manager. The Deadlines section of this magazine is the perfect place to start gathering information about legitimate contests with upcoming deadlines. It provides all the details you need (how much, for what, by when, and so on) in order to make a decision about whether you should research the contest further. If a contest sounds like a good match, follow the instructions and request the complete guidelines. Then follow those guidelines to the letter.
5. Don’t get fancy. Let your words win the contest, not your paper or your ink or your fonts or your formatting. Don’t print your manuscript on special paper. Keep it in a standard font—for the love of God, no script fonts—and don’t include an Oscar-worthy thank-you speech on an acknowledgments page. (Save that for the published book.) In your cover letter, don’t include the endearing anecdote about the first time you picked up a crayon and realized you wanted to be a writer. If you’re submitting a paper manuscript, don’t recycle the folded-up, paged-through, and rejected copy from the last contest. Save that for your doodles and your grocery lists; consider the extra money you’re going to spend on ink and paper as an investment in a submission with a better chance at winning. No reader or judge wants proof that an entry has already been rejected. Don’t plant doubt: It will grow.
6. Keep track. Start logging your submissions on some sort of spreadsheet. It doesn’t need to be fancy (see number five); just keep a record of which contests you enter, how much you paid, when you were notified of the results, and so on. Not only will you have a better sense of how much you are investing in writing contests, you may also allay some anxiety about when you’ll get that phone call or e-mail of congratulations.
7. Keep writing. Your writing career does not necessarily hinge on winning or losing a contest—winning can help, no doubt, but there are plenty of brilliant, well-respected writers who publish book after book and never win a contest. The most important thing to focus on is your writing. Submit your work to contests when the writing is finished (see number one). And when you’re done, start writing again.
To submit your latest short story, essay or poem, you’ll need a cover letter—which is much different from a query. Use these tips from inside a creative writing program to help your letter make the grade.
While working toward my Master of Fine Arts at The Ohio State University, I did what many writing students (and professors) do: I joined the staff of the university’s literary journal. Reading and evaluating fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction submitted by writers living across the country and beyond proved to be endlessly fascinating. And because I never let on that back in high school I had been voted “Most Disorganized,” I was eventually given an editorship. When I went on to earn my Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, I made sure to work on that university’s journal, as well.
In fact, a great many literary journals, including some of the nation’s oldest and most revered, are affiliated with university writing programs. Part of the mission of these journals is to give creative writing students a hands-on education in literary publishing. But you don’t need to be a student for your work to appear in one. You just need to make it through the submission process.
I’m happy to report that in my 10 years of working on a number of journals, first as a student and later as faculty, not once did anyone ever utter the word “blockbuster.” Nobody based an editorial decision on whether an essayist’s website was getting millions of hits. No one cared whether or not a short story fit neatly into some red-hot “urban paranormal leprechaun bullfighter” genre. All of which is to say that when it comes to submissions, editors of literary journals are concerned with exactly one thing: finding manuscripts that knock their socks off.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that editors are only human. And fairly or not, a poor cover letter on any submission casts a negative light on the writer before the editor even gets to the manuscript’s first page.
So what should a cover letter entail? From reading thousands of submissions over the past decade, I’ve noticed that certain mistakes repeatedly crop up—and that your letter can stand out simply by avoiding these common errors. Let’s take a look at an (entirely fictitious) example:
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip
Did you know that it takes 28 folds to make the perfect swan?2 You will learn that and more after reading “The Secret of Paper Folding”.3 It is a fictionalized account of a boy named Sammy who meets a mysterious old woman who has never before shared her origami secret. It is a story about the importance of friendship, sad but ultimately redemptive, with a cast of unforgettable characters.4 “The Secret of Paper Folding” is based on the true story of a unique lady I met back when I was a young girl.5 I believe that your readers would appreciate the story’s universal themes as well as the lighthearted spirit in which it is told.6
I was born in Norway but raised in Missouri.7 I have worked as an emergency room technician, safari guide, Model T refurbisher, bounty hunter, hand model, ferry captain, lighthouse keeper, ninja and tympanist.8
I am an unpublished fiction writer9 but am hopeful that you’ll select this story for the Pirate’s Booty Review.10
Thank you for your consideration.
Let’s turn our attention to the points numbered throughout in red:
1. Is the editor’s name Fred or Sandra? The writer has probably sent this letter to several journals and hasn’t changed the name in all the necessary places. Also, the salutation should include the editor’s full name, or “Dear Professor Murphy” if the editor is a professor, or “Dear Dr. Murphy” if he is a Ph.D.
2. Unlike a query letter to a literary agent, your cover letter to a journal doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) try to grab the editor’s attention. Save that for the work itself. Witty? Snappy? Leave it out.
3. I see this error all the time. I think it’s reasonable for an editor to be suspicious of a writer who doesn’t know the rules of punctuation. The period always goes inside the quotation marks. Be vigilant about your grammar, always.
4. This advice might surprise writers who’ve worked hard summarizing their novels in queries to agents and editors—but, again, a cover letter isn’t a query, and the convention with literary journals is not to summarize the work in the cover letter. Let your submission speak for itself.
5. If you’re submitting fiction or poetry, there’s no need to connect the work to your personal experience. For an essay or memoir piece, you can do it briefly if your experience is relevant, but you shouldn’t feel obligated.
6. Of course you believe readers will like it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be submitting it. Leave this out.
7. Fun fact! But also totally irrelevant.
8. It’s fine to state, briefly, something about yourself—your career, your locale—so that you come across like a flesh-and-blood human being. But I see this jack-of-all-trades thing so frequently that I had to mention it. There’s no need to prove how worldly and interesting you are. Let the work itself reveal your intimate knowledge of the kudu’s mating habits.
9. Because this cover letter doesn’t mention previous publications, I might deduce that the author is unpublished. Still, there’s no reason to highlight this fact.
10. There’s nothing wrong with the sentiment, but what the heck is the Pirate’s Booty Review? (Remember, she’s supposedly submitting to Cool Story Magazine.) Another careless error.
Bearing all this in mind, here’s a revised version:
Cool Story Magazine
123 Main Street
Anytown, State, Zip
Dear Fred Murphy,
Please find enclosed my short story “The Secret of Paper Folding.”
I live in rural Missouri, where I work as an emergency room technician.
I enjoy reading Cool Story Magazine and am hopeful that you’ll find my story to be a good fit.
Thank you for your consideration.
Simple, polite, even a little boring? That’s perfect.
A few additional points:
If you’re simultaneously submitting the same work to a number of journals, it’s good form to include a statement to that effect.
Check the journal’s website to be sure you’re writing to the current editor. Many journals, especially those staffed with MFA students, change personnel frequently. When in doubt, “Dear Fiction Editor” beats using the wrong name.
If you’re submitting electronically (more and more publications are allowing this), all of these principles still hold. Keep your cover letter e-mail short, sweet and professional.
All that said, if you’ve been previously published, then go ahead and include where your work has appeared. If you’re in a creative writing program or have won any honors, awards or fellowships for your writing, you might briefly include that information. Will any of this give you a leg up? Not necessarily. It might buy you an extra minute or two of an editor’s hopeful attention—at first—but ultimately the work will stand or fall on its own merits. Which is exactly how it should be.
This article was written by Michael Kardos.
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