When you are submitting your work to literary magazines, you have two options. Either you can submit to the slush (for free or for a very small fee) or you can pay money to submit to a contest.
Most literary magazines run contests each year, ranging from general prizes in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction to specific prizes for certain types of writers or particular types of work. For example, the Mid-American Review’s Fineline Competition is limited to prose under 500 words while Ploughshares’s Emerging Writer’s Contest is only for writers who haven’t yet published a book.
Here’s what you should know about contests, and what you should look for before you submit.
The Advantages of Contests
Here are a few advantages to submitting to contests instead of general open submissions:
* You can win money. Most lit mags pay somewhere between $0 and $200 for work, but most contest winners will receive $1,000 or more.
* Your work may get a closer read. The general submission pile, or “the slush,” will typically get a lot more submissions than a contest. The general submissions are also often read by volunteers in the early rounds, and your work may never be seen by the editors on the masthead. Editors typically give a closer read to contest submissions.
* Less competition. In addition to the fact that editors may give your contest entry a closer read, you may have less competition. Since contests cost money, less writers enter contests than submit to the slush. Additionally, established writers typically avoid entering contests, providing a more even playing field.
The Disadvantage of Contests
There is only really one disadvantage to contests, but it can be a big one:
* They cost money. Entry fees of $10 or $25 might not seem like that much, but if you are entering multiple contests the costs add up quickly.
So when is it a good idea to submit to contests? Every writer has to make that decision for themselves, but if you decide to submit to contests it is a good idea to submit to ones at magazines you admire. Those magazines are more likely to publish the kind of work that you write, and they are more likely to be legitimate magazines running their contests in an ethical way. Make sure you are submitting to contests that pay a good amount relative to the cost of an entry fee. A good rule of thumb is at least 100 times the entry fee, so a $1,000 prize for a $10 entry. If a magazine you’ve never heard of is charging $50 for a $200 prize, run away! It’s probably a scam.
It is also a good idea to submit to contests that fit your style. Do you write poems about landscapes and see a contest for poetry focused on place? Do your write science fiction utopias and see a contest for positive visions of the future? Your chances might be much higher than they would be entering a general poetry or fiction contest. Similarly, literary magazines typically announce their judges ahead of time, so you can plan to enter contests judged by someone you believe might like your work.
As with everything that involves an outlay of money, you should do your due diligence when choosing to submit. While there are certainly scams out there, most literary magazines struggle financially and application fees are one of the few ways they are able to subsidize prizes and sustain operations. Ask around, use your networks, and ask us here at the Guild if you are skeptical about the legitimacy of a particular contest.
If you decide to take the plunge—and open the wallet—for lit mag contests, here are some useful resources: