The Best Writing Contests and How to Apply

You live to write and have numerous short stories to prove it. Best of all, people other than your mother love and praise them! But because your name doesn’t happen to be Danielle Steel, no publisher is currently knocking down your front door to rip manuscripts from your printer before the pages even cool. So what is an aspiring writer to do? Apply to a writing contest, perhaps?

If you were a singer, you could try out for American Idol; if a dancer, you could apply to So You Think You Can Dance. But let’s face it, a television show where you typed at your keyboard is not must-see TV.

Even so, there are numerous (non-televised) writing contests where you can display your skills and improve your writing. Plus, if you win, you might receive some well-deserved critical acclaim—not to mention a cash award and potential future writing contracts.

In this article, you will learn:

  • How to enter a writing contest and increase your chances of placing or even winning
  • Which contests are reputable
  • Which contests are currently accepting submissions

General Rules for Applying to Writing Contests

There are a lot of writing contests out there that may or may not be worth your time. As a general rule, it's a good idea to check out the contest's social media presence, their history, and the previous winners to be sure that you're applying to one that isn't going to waste your time and your money–since most of them do have entrance fees. Never fear, I've done some research for you, and listed a few of the best writing contests and how to apply to them below.

But it's probably a good idea for us to go over some general rules for applying to these contests. So here they are:

  1. Edit your work before you submit anything. Make sure that it's the best it can possibly be.
  2. Don't apply to writing contests that are outside of your genre.
  3. If a writing contest has a specific requirement or theme like “Robots takes over the Earth,” don't try to shop an old story that doesn't fit.
  4. Do check the specific submission requirements for each contest. This will include the length of the piece in words, the theme or genre, and how your submission should be formatted, including margin and font size.
  5. Write a great cover letter–once again, this depends on the submission guidelines.
  6. If the contest organization publishes past winners, it’s a great idea to read two or three issues to understand the writing the current judges love. Your fantasy tale might be the greatest thing since The Lord of the Rings, but if the judges are currently into science fiction, winning will remain your largest fantasy.
  7. Be professional, both in writing and correspondence.
  8. If you win, that's awesome! If you don't, try again, but don't ever contact the judges or call the competition out on social media. This won't reflect well on you or up your chances in future writing contests.
  9. Don't submit the same piece to multiple contests at the same time.

Now that we've gotten the general rules out of the way. Let's look at some of the best writing contests that you can apply to.

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Writers & Illustrators of the Future

writers of the future

This contest is currently entering its 36th year and is one of the most famous writing contests around. You can enter four times a year and there is NO reading fee! The three top winners from each quarter are published in the Writers & Illustrators of the Future annual anthology. The contest is for science-fiction and fantasy writers and was formed to “help foster the next generation of master writers.” A lofty goal. And one the competition seems to have achieved many times over. To date there have been 404 contest winners, 334 illustrator winners, and entries from 181 countries.

If you're interested in submitting your story to the competition, click to check out the submission guidelines.

Note: The competition is for short works of fiction below 17,000 words in length.

The coordinating judge will give advice to help good writers get better, and the website has a writer’s forum with plenty of helpful information to assist new authors. Many of the twelve annual winners have gone on to successful writing careers as you can see in this list of the brand new science fiction past winners.

In addition to publishing the winning stories, authors are paid for their story and one gold award winner is given $5,000. They also fly the winners out each year for an exclusive writers' workshop, which is really a scholarship, with training delivered by some of the leading authors in the industry. With no reading fee and the chance to have your writing judged by a panel that includes the likes of Kevin J. Anderson and Brandon Sanderson, this is an awesome opportunity for sci-fi and fantasy writers.

writers of the future writing contest

Writer's Digest Magazine 

Writer's Digest Magazine writing contest

Writer's Digest Magazine hosts an annual writing contest that's been going on for over 80 years. This year's contest is the 89th, and contest submissions are judged by editors and literary agents with over 500 winners being selected. I like those odds.

There are reading fees for the different types of submissions, starting at $20 for poetry and $30 for manuscripts.  But the cost is well worth the reward. The first-place winner receives $5,000, an interview with the author on the Writer's Digest website, and a chance to attend the Writer's Digest Annual Conference with a Pitch Slam slot.

The Grand Prize winner and the first-place winner are also published on the Writer's Digest website. If you'd like to find out more about how to submit, you can do so here. Remember, these competitions always have unique and specific submission guidelines–it's a good idea to check them out before you submit.

Even with the fee, the contest is well-worth an aspiring short story writer's time.

This contest is open to multiple forms of writing, including but not limited to:

  • Genre fiction short works (mystery, romance, etc.)
  • Memoirs
  • Print or online articles
  • Literary short stories
  • Poetry

EcoLit Books

EcoLit Books writing contest

EcoLit Books is an independent online journal devoted to stories with environmental themes. They have a large section of their website dedicated to writers, with many writing opportunities listed, including competitions authors can submit to. Each contest has a different theme. For instance, the theme of the current competition is: “And lately, the sun.” 

The project will produce an anthology that will be released in November 2020, and submissions are open until 30 June 2020. But if you miss this round of the contest, there will be others, all with similar themes, that you can apply to. Here are the submission guidelines for the current contest.

Since the competition theme changes, the submission guidelines might too. The most accurate information will be found here for each subsequent competition. For this competition, authors whose stories are accepted will receive AUD$80, and one lucky story writer is picked by the editors to receive a prize of AUD$500. Every author whose story is chosen will receive a contributor copy of the eBook. Additionally, there's NO entry fee for this competition.

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The University of Georgia Press

Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction

The University of Georgia Press offers $1,000 in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for a collection of short stories. The first prize-winning book in this contest was published in 1983, so it's fair to say that this is an esteemed competition. Two winners per year are awarded the prize, and the submissions for this competition are open from April 1 to May 31 every year. You can purchase previous year's books here, and check out what type of stories win the award.

Here are the submission guidelines for the competition. Interestingly, the University of Georgia Press appears to host more than one writing contest. There's another called the Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction, and there's also a poetry contest: The Georgia Poetry Prize. So, if you can't submit to the fiction competition right away, you do have the option to try for the nonfiction or poetry contests instead.

There isn't an entry fee for this contest either. At a glance, it appears the short story contest is open to stories that are themed–this will change annually. Previous themes included: “Stories about Holidays”, “Stories about Death” and “Stories about Love.”

Colorado State University

Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction

Colorado State University offers prizes for short fiction via its Center for Literary Publishing. The prize is called the Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, and though it's currently closed for submissions at the time of this article's publication, it's open annually from December.

There's an entry fee of $17 for online submissions and $15 for paper submissions. You can check out the submission guidelines here. But just to break it down, this competition is for short stories in the 2,500 to the 12,500-word range. You don't need to be a resident of the U.S.A. to enter, and the winners, who receive a cash prize of $2,000, are usually announced in June of the following year. The winning story is published in the fall or winter issue of the Colorado Review.

This is an esteemed competition that was established in 2004 in honor of author and editor, Liza Nelligan. At a glance, it seems the type of fiction suitable for this competition is previously unpublished literary work.

The Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition

Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition

First established in 1981 in Key West, the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition draws in entrants from all over the states and the world. Lorian Hemingway is the judge–she's the author of three critically acclaimed books: Walking Into The River, Walk On Water and A World Turned Over. She's also the granddaughter of the great, Ernest Hemingway. She takes what might be considered an unorthodox approach to judging the competition, at least in the eyes of the literary world. To her, typos aren't an issue. It's more about the meaning and spirit of the story.

The competition has awarded over $70,000 to entrants over its 39 years of existence. Submissions cost $15 before May 1st and $20 after May 2nd. The word count of submitted stories must be 3,500 words or less. And the first-place prize winner receives $1,500 and publication in Cutthroat: A Journal of Arts. The competition favors authors or writers who have not been published in widely circulated magazines before–that includes self-published authors, who will be considered on an individual basis.

You can check out online submission guidelines here.

The Indiana Review

indiana review writing contest

The Indiana Review awards five prizes a year in different categories. One of them, the IR 1/2 K Prize, allows you to send in multiple pieces for consideration with the caveat that each one is less than 500 words. I'd say that's in the realm of flash fiction. When submitting, you don't have to add a cover letter–interestingly, the submission process for this award is done online, directly after payment. You can't email or mail your submissions–they'll be ignored.

There's an entry fee of $20. This gets you not only a submission but a year-long subscription of the journal. That's a pretty neat bonus if you ask me. All submitted works must not have been published anywhere else. And the prize? It's $1,000 and publication of your pieces.

You can take a look at the details and submission guidelines here. Remember, there are multiple prizes so be sure to check out the full list here.

Final Thoughts

With all these available contests, it’s time to get to work writing and editing your best story within an inch of its life. Then, submit it only after researching to ensure you are adhering strictly to the writing contest's guidelines, and that you’ve polished it with the shine that appeals to those specific judges.

And while you’re waiting for that contest to conclude, start working on a new submission for the next contest. Of all the tales I’ve heard, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a legend of a writer submitting his first and only work to a single contest, and winning the first time around. Persistence and hard work are the more typical stories of success.

If you live to write, your greatest breaths of air will be the days your private creations become public. Your masterpieces won't be published if you don’t go to the work of getting them out there. So use this information to push yourself just a bit harder. And do the work it takes to successfully enter these contests, so that you can start writing your own future!

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8 thoughts on “The Best Writing Contests and How to Apply

  1. Jean F

    Another good source for info on writing contests is Practicing Writing . Erika Dreifus publishes a list of contests and jobs for writers every Monday with a bigger list monthly. She lists only things that are free to enter but pay the winners. She provides subscribers with other useful info on other days.

  2. Dr.Amrita Basu

    This is a very good list of resources. I was infact looking for something like this .Writing contest accepting work from all over the work is what I need know.Will check out the guidelines.

    1. Dave Chesson

      Awesome and sounds good!

    2. Janet De Saulles

      Great list! Thanks for the hard work you put into this research.

      1. Dave Chesson

        You’re welcome and glad to have helped.

  3. Paul Gaughan

    It would be nice to have this information for non fiction writers. All the above only apply to fiction.

    1. Dave Chesson

      If you come across some, let us know and we’ll update.

  4. Tom Bierdz

    These are all for short fiction. What about contests for novels.

Comments are closed.