My #1 Tip When Entering Writing Contests

As an example, here are the official rules for the 2012 Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards Science Fiction/Fantasy Category. Note the September 14, 2012, deadline. Coming in under the deadline is another vital rule to respect. (Click on the image to enlarge, or click here to see the guidelines on site.)


Sigh…it does no good to write a blog post if you forget to post it. Here’s my “Monday contest advice” one day late:

Having judged not only poetry but some prose contests, I have a primary piece of advice for those entering writing contests:

Read and follow the guidelines!

It doesn’t matter how good your entry is; if you violate the guidelines, you’ll be disqualified from most contests. (I say “most” because I don’t know absolutely that every contest is strict; let’s just say the ones that matter are.)

I’ve run into this problem screening poems in the Writer’s Digest poetry competitions. Entrants simply don’t read the rules, much less take pains to follow them. It astounds me. The entry fees aren’t cheap, so why virtually flush them down the tube by entering something that will never even be considered in the contest?

The most common violation I come across when screening Writer’s Digest entries is a poem exceeding the line limit, which in this contest is 32 lines. I don’t have specific figures, but it seemed as if one out of every five poems was over 32 lines, and that may be conservative. In some cases I suspected poets tried to game the length limit by squeezing lines together, which of course is nonsense, especially in the rhyming category. Entering a screwy, awkward form just to make the poem come in under 32 lines results in getting tossed anyhow because it creates a bloated-looking, ugly poem, usually with mile-long lines. (I have to admit the poets attempting this trick usually aren’t very good anyhow.)

If a contest stipulates a limit of X number of lines, that means lines of poetry, not counting the title or spaces between stanzas. It’s important to pay attention to what seems a miniscule detail. It breaks my heart to have to disqualify potential prizewinners because the entrant was careless, especially if the poem was over by just a line or two. (And, no, a judge shouldn’t fudge it if a poem is really good otherwise. Other entrants followed the guidelines, honing their poems down to the proper length and possibly trimming them of lines they would have liked to have kept—if they’d known ahead of time the judge would arbitrarily allow some leeway.)

There are even poets who enter entire chapbook manuscripts in contests for single poems of limited length. I don’t get it; unless, besides being dense about rules, the poets think they’ll get some kind of attention for their chapbook. I wouldn’t pin my hopes on someone bothering to read such an entry, much less thinking, “Hey, this is good. I’m going to pass this on to a publisher.”

Length isn’t the only rule writers violate (I keep referring to poets and poetry because I have the most experience with poetry; however, these transgressions happen with all kinds of writing). Manuscript preparation is a prime example. Most contests are quite specific about how they want entries prepared, whether entries are short stories, poetry chapbooks, or entire books. Some of the standard criteria include: white paper only for hard copy submissions; no fancy fonts (for example, using a script font for your poem may please you aesthetically, but most contests wouldn’t appreciate it); no bound or stapled entries unless the contest calls for them; acceptable document formats for electronic entries (if a contest says it accepts only .doc or .rtf files, don’t submit a PDF). Contests may stipulate no names on the actual entries, requiring a cover sheet or an index card with the required information.

Contests may also state that previously published writing is not accepted. Whether something is considered “previously published” is a controversial topic, and I’ll cover this in another blog post. However, to be safe, if the contest doesn’t accept previously published work and, say, your poem appeared in a blog or in any print form for public consumption, consider it previously published to be safe.

I’d think maybe the Writer’s Digest contest simply attracts more inexperienced writers because it’s so widely promoted, but writers who should know better sometimes violate the rules as well. At a conference of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) several years ago, I heard a presentation by the contest coordinator in which she gave statistics about number entries, entries by states, and so forth. She noted that a surprising number of entries throughout the contest had to be disqualified because poets hadn’t followed the guidelines.

Every time you check out a writing contest, after you look over the prizes—everyone’s first concern—read through the guidelines as well, simply to train yourself. Naturally, as you prepare your entry, read the guidelines again, and even check a requirement off when you know your entry meets it. Don’t trash your entry before it’s had a chance to compete.


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3 Responses to My #1 Tip When Entering Writing Contests

  1. Have always wondered (forty years) if the title was to be included in the line count. Thanks for the info.
    Another question I always have is when going to the next page and you give “line breaks.” Standard rules say there are two spaces between stanzas, which translates to actually just ONE blank space, with the typing to begin on the second line. Since I use both three and two line break spacings, depending on the style of the poem, is that a problem? I guess my question would be do I make the designation according to the number of blank line spaces between them, or do I count the times one hits the enter key?
    I’ve always used the latter count. No one seems to ever answer when I ask this question.
    I am also going round and round with a particular website. It is for notable poets in a particular state (or with state affiliations). They say the site is for “archival” purposes, so I should not consider any item placed with them as “published.” (And what “poetry police” are out there to report me, if my previously unpublished poem appears there, and I still submit it to journals as a contest entry or as “unpublished” material?) In fact, they rather bristled when I suggested it was not ethical to do so. I am considering withdrawing my material, since I feel if it presented to the public for public access, it is not in the realm of being unpublished. After all, what would keep someone from taking the poem and possibly using it as an example in a classroom, or copying it and sending it on to a friend somewhere?
    Although, true, who would know (except the locals); and what would they do about it if it were later discovered it had appeared
    “elsewhere” than a particular journal? (Even if I had had a piece published 15 years ago in an obscure journal now defunct?)

    • NancyB says:

      Hi, Richard. I’m just now seeing this, so sorry for the delay in replying. You’re right, there should be just one blank space between basic stanzas. Since I’m not sure how you’re using the 2- and 3-line stanza breaks, I’m not sure what to advise. It sounds like a lot of unnecessary white space. White space is a break in thought as well, so consider whether you want the reader to actually break concentration between those stanzas. Also consider visually how those gaps affect your poem in print. If you’re not keying your poems single-spaced, you should do so unless some contest or journal requests otherwise. In single-spaced poems, a single blank line between stanzas is more than adequate.

      Editors have different thoughts about indicating the line breaks between two pages of a single poem. When I edited Poet’s Market, in the FAQ I suggested indicating “continue stanza” or “new stanza” in the final line after the page ID in the upper left corner (i.e., name, poem title or keyword from title, page number, and stanza indication).

      Regarding the website with the “archived” poems: If anyone on the Internet can access those poems, they are, according to my standards, published. Some would disagree, but I would never take a chance submitted a work available online to a contest for unpublished work. As for who would know–I always do Internet searches for poems when I’m judging a contest that stipulates “unpublished” entries. I’ve actually rejected poems that were one step from being stop winners because I found them on authors’ websites. Also, I’ve found poems listed in the table of contents of books and chapbooks; those also count as “published.” I don’t understand why poets would think a poem from a published collection doesn’t count as “published.” It does, even if the poet self-published the collection in a small run.

      As for work that appears in older, defunct journals: You’re still taking a chance. You never know if the contents of a defunct journal, or its table of contents, are available somewhere online and would still turn up in an Internet search. And, as you say, it comes down to a matter of ethics. It’s simply not ethical to try to “put one over” on a judge or editor.

      Thanks for your input!

      • Richard Atwood says:

        Thanks for your reply.
        I side with you on the ethics issue. Which however seems vaguely immaterial to many today — among the younger, and/or the unchurched. I once queried a contest editor about something. I had won a 3rd place on a poem, in it’s original form, 10 years earlier; it was then published in a local in-house journal for the contest winners. I queried to ask if it was okay to submit. They said “yes,” since it had been reworked, and was not in a noted publication. This was from Nimrod. (That’s why I brought it up.)

        Regarding the two or three line break, mentioned, it is in regards to how many times you hit the enter key (not the number of “blank” spaces between stanzas). Alot of my earlier poetry did have two blank spaces between stanzas, because that’s the way I first learned it (back in the 60’s); then, in some of my modern things, if I want two, I’ll use two… particularly to divide sections of a longer poem, that may yes have only one-line breaks between subordinate stanzas.

        But I will tell you I had a major upset on one of my self-published books, when the designers went through and adjusted all my spacings according to the way they thought they should be, instead of the way I presented them — and it did not a happy poet make. I made them change it back. But spacing is to be used for emphasis, agreed, and if it is deemed that is how the poet wants it — but the rule of one blank space between stanzas is not what I call “law,” if the poet wishes it to be otherwise.

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