(I recently had reason to dig up this article on "how contests can help your writing." Some of you may recall seeing a version this article elsewhere on the Web a few years back, but hey, it's my article and I'll republish/update it if I want to! Enjoy!)
How Contests Can Help Your Writing (Whether You Win Them Or Not)
By Erika Dreifus
Most of the writing contests I've entered have been competitions for short-story writers and novelists, with the occasional essay- or poem-focused opportunity thrown in for good measure. And while my work certainly hasn't won (or even placed as a finalist) every time, the experiences have enriched my work and my development as a practicing writer.
You may be wondering how that's possible—especially if I've lost a lot of money on contest fees. Well, often I target contests that don't charge fees (such contests do exist and you'll find some mentioned in this article, and in my free monthly newsletter, and on my blog), but even when I've had to write checks along with submissions I've usually received something in return.
You might, too.
The most obvious way any contest may help your writing—whether it charges a fee or not—is that it offers a goal and a deadline. For those who may have lots of projects and priorities competing at the same time, or for those who need some order imposed from outside, contests provide some basic structure and motivation. And that's because you simply must have your manuscript completed and mailed to the contest administrators by a certain date. This isn't a case where you can ask for an extension or call in sick.
Maybe you'll take the opportunity to write something new, using the contest as something between a prompt and an "assignment." Depending on your favored genre and other interests, you might check out the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Contest (www.mertoninstitute.org) or the Thoroughbred Times Biennial Fiction Contest (www.thoroughbredtimes.com); the latter recognizes "outstanding fiction written about the Thoroughbred industry."
The contest-as-deadline concept can also help if you have been thinking about where you might send a particular story or essay that you've already been working on for a while. Or maybe the agenting process isn't for you right now, and you're interested in contests that may offer book publication.
But that's not all. A number of other benefits accompany writing contests and competitions. Here are a few to consider:
—Hate revision? Contest deadlines are also wonderfully effective ways to prod reluctant "revisionists" into that process. Often a contest can be especially helpful in streamlining work; there's nothing like a contest directive ("Stories may not exceed 1500 [or 3000, 5000, etc.] words...") to get you to pare down that prose! Several times I've been impressed by how much better a story or essay of mine read in the contest version than in the longer one I'd already sent out (without success, clearly) elsewhere.
—Like to read? Well, now you may be entitled to a subscription to the journal(s) that can (sometimes) be included with a contest fee. For several years I entered the same contest in part because I'd come to depend on the twice-yearly arrival of the literary journal whose subscription accompanied the $15 contest fee. Yes, I would have loved to win that contest. But in the meantime, I certainly come to know (and, more importantly, even learned from) the work of some excellent writers whose writing appeared in the journal. Including the work of the contest winners themselves.
And if you win, there are even more plusses coming your way:
—The prize money. I'm sure I don't have to tell you the many ways this can help!
—Publication of your work. The "helpfulness" of having your work published may be more mysterious. Seeing your work in the pages of a journal or magazine is, first of all, wonderfully affirming, and perhaps even more so with the words "contest winner" printed over it. Having won an award, you have something important to add to your record of writerly accomplishments should you decide to apply for another, such as a grant or fellowship whose administrators may ask to know about previous honors. And you never know which agents or editors may be reading your published work.
And don't forget about inspiration. A contest win will sure keep you writing for a while, won't it? But even without a win, the process will have engaged you in at least one project, keeping you in the writer's mindset. And we all know that anything's possible when that happens.