Submitting to Writing Contests
By Yong-Yu Huang
There are so many opportunities to enter your work in writing contests––many geared towards students are even free! Although some may be limited in terms of access (for example, YoungArts is available only to US citizens), most of them welcome submissions from anywhere in the world. Although you might feel tempted to alter your writing in an effort to appeal to the judges that you’ve been surreptitiously Googling––don’t. No matter what you see in their publications or what they’ve previously judged, the end goal of the contest isn’t to write something so that the judges will like it. It’s to write something that you like, and if the judges enjoy it too, then it’s everybody’s win.
While it can be helpful to look at previous winners’ submissions to see what the judging panel might be looking for, it’s important to remember that judges can change from year to year, so most importantly, write what you know.
It doesn’t matter if last year’s winners all wrote about terribly moving grief or their adoration for their pet dog. It doesn’t matter if they were all in couplet form, or if every single one of them was formatted with artistic white space. Most likely, the judges aren’t looking for a carbon copy of what won the previous year––people change, art changes, and there’s no guarantee of what might catch their eye this year.
When submitting to contests, or really, anything, the most obvious thing to keep in mind is to follow the guidelines listed on the website.
Some contests don’t accept simultaneous submissions. That is, you can’t submit your work to the contest while also sending it off to another contest or publication for consideration. Even if you think there might be a way to sneak past that––don’t. It’s never a good look to awkwardly contact a contest to say that you have to withdraw the piece from consideration because it’s been accepted elsewhere when their guidelines clearly state that simultaneous submissions aren’t allowed. Be mindful of the effort that contest organizers will have to make in order to straighten out this logistical issue.
Other contests have age or geographic limitations. The Kenyon Review’s Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize is open only to sophomores and juniors. Only juniors can submit to Princeton’s High School Poetry Contest. YoungArts is only a possibility if you’re in the US. These guidelines can sometimes slip by, so make sure to always double-check if you’re eligible for these opportunities.
Also, some require a teacher to sponsor you––like Bennington College’s Young Writer Awards. Make sure to check with your English teacher before submitting!
As confident as you might be in your work, don’t forget to ask for feedback. From your friends, your English teacher, or anyone who’s familiar with your work, a fresh set of eyes can do wonders––whether you have doubts about your enjambment or a piece of imagery isn’t sitting quite right on the page.
In the end, it comes down to luck, really. You’re not less of a writer if a contest doesn’t award your work. The experience is what counts––sit down, and keep writing.
Here’s a short list of contests open to high schoolers:
Yong-Yu Huang is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.