Poets and Writers

Picking What to Submit


- AIMEE SEIFF CHRISTIAN ’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Pidgeonhol­es, Atticus Review, Entropy, and elsewhere. She is a writing instructor and editor currently querying agents with the manuscript of her memoir, “Nobody’s D

WINNING a writing contest can lead to amazing things beyond a fancy line on your CV, including prize money, publicatio­n, and promotion. Contests can also connect you with judges and other writers who respect your work. But as with many aspects of the business of being a writer, entering a contest more often than not results in rejection. Contests typically have much higher entry fees than standard submission­s, and their inner workings, including how widely known a given contest is and the total number of entries it typically receives, can be opaque. Given that contests are inherently a gamble, how can you maximize your chances of being successful? It all comes down to the submission, of course, but how do you decide precisely what to submit?

There is one piece of advice that almost every set of contest submission guidelines has in common: Submit your best work. But “best” here is context-dependent; you need your submission to stand on its own, earn the attention of the judges, and suit the occasion of the contest. Creative writing begins with you and your desire to express yourself, but in the end you must connect with your readers. Submitting to a contest is like any other submission process in that you are asking a reader—in this case a judge—to read and, well, judge your work, to invest in you and your manuscript without knowing anything about you or your writing. So if you’re submitting a sample from a longer work or a collection, pick one that orients and hooks a range of readers quickly.

For prose, that probably means submitting first pages. Novelist Lara Ehrlich, whose debut collection, Animal Wife, was published as the 2018 winner of the Red Hen Fiction Award (and who now sometimes judges contests herself), advises this rather than cherry-picking a section or sections from the middle of a larger piece. Ehrlich says you will draw in the reader with the beginning more easily than from the manuscript’s midsection (or from multiple unrelated short pieces) without needing to explain and provide context. Even when the contest allows for multiple submission­s, submit contiguous pages with a clear beginning.

If the contest calls for an essay or a stand-alone short story and you think your best work is from a full-length manuscript, it can be tempting to submit your favorite chapter, even the opening chapter. But chapters typically don’t work as stand-alone pieces without significan­t revision; they don’t have the same beginning, middle, and end; they are usually too plot-heavy and don’t show enough change. Consider an essay or a short story that was born to be an essay or a short story instead.

When it comes to poetry, if you’re asked to submit a group of poems, it’s probably best to avoid submitting unrelated pieces—or, as poet, contest judge, and Omnidawn Press editor Rusty Morrison calls them, “singles” or “greatest hits.” Instead, opt for a few poems that follow some kind of progressio­n or that have among them a consistenc­y or an evolution. And those poems you just wrote that are still smoldering? Let them breathe. Show them to your writing group. Revise them again and again. And if you can’t do that before the contest closes, these poems are not yet your best work, even if they turn out to be later. Submit something else for this one.

Can you expect to make inroads with a judge if your work is like theirs or like the entry of a recent winner? Will playing to a judge’s likes and writing style help you win? While writing instructor­s might be looking for writing in a specific genre for, say, a workshop that is by applicatio­n only, judges do not, Ehrlich says. Generally writers wearing their judge’s hat seek to be objective. Overall they look for innovation and creativity, talent, commitment, promise, and attention to craft—not work that is like theirs. If anything they look for work that is different and new.

They also judge according to the contest guidelines, of course. If the guidelines specify that they are looking for something polished and ready for publicatio­n, then that is what they read for. If they are looking for work from an emerging writer, they’ll reward ambition and promise. Contests awarding publicatio­n will often encourage those wanting to submit to familiariz­e themselves with past winners. Do that. Just skim. Does the writing speak to you? Familiariz­e yourself with past recipients of the prize—not to ensure that your work is like theirs

in terms of material but to see that it meets the same bar for innovation and creativity.

Contests are usually judged in a way they call “blind,” which means that when the readers—the assistants who help screen submission­s—and the judges evaluate entries, they read all the materials without names or other identifyin­g informatio­n. But, Ehrlich notes, if they recognize a friend’s writing in the mix, it is their responsibi­lity to let the other readers and judges of the contest know that so they can recuse themselves from judging.

Ehrlich adds that when she is judging, if the contest requires a cover letter or artist’s statement, she weighs that even more than the writing sample, especially if it’s a needs-based award, in which case she wants to understand why they are writing. Ensure the statement or letter you write speaks to why you’re submitting to this contest, at this moment in time. What would winning mean to you? If your letter specifies what your work is in conversati­on with, or what your work aims to accomplish, be sure that your sample reflects the ambition you describe in your letter. For example, memoirist Rachel Zimmerman, who has been a judge on several submission panels, says that red flags go up when someone’s cover letter does not line up with the writing they submitted. For instance, if an applicant describes their project as including both indepth reporting as well as personal narrative, and the writing sample has zero reporting and no explanatio­n as to why, that’s a problem.

When you think your selection is ready, read it out loud. Read it to your friends, to your spouse, to your dog. I don’t have a dog, but I read to my birds (yes, really). They don’t mind. Sometimes I record myself and listen back. That’s harder than submitting a piece to be read by hundreds or thousands of strangers, and it’s a step you cannot afford to skip. Dare yourself to take a hard look at yourself and your work: Does it flow? Is it free of errors? Most of all: Is it at all boring? If you bore yourself even for a second, you will bore your readers. If you don’t wow yourself as you read your piece aloud, you have more work to do. Surprise yourself. When even you are impressed with your writing, then you can be confident it’s ready.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States