By Grace Zhang
Beads of sweat dripping down my neck, I slowly moved the cursor to the bottom of the screen to login. An explosion of confetti greeted me. I almost jumped out of my seat in surprise as I skimmed over the words congratulations, we deeply enjoyed reading your work, thank you – words that I had never deigned to use when describing my writing. I had only experienced this sort of giddiness a few times in my life, and they all seemed to be inextricably linked with writing contests. It is difficult to describe the immense joy and affirmation that comes with the knowledge that someone out there is rooting for your writing – that after weeks hunched over your laptop, carefully revising and polishing a piece, you have finally been acknowledged.
It may seem daunting to submit to writing contests at first, especially with the increasingly selective nature of contests such as Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and Youngarts. I often see young writers fall into the trap of affirming their skill with writing contests, becoming dependent on the prestige that certain contests hold. While it’s true that winning a writing contest is an exceptional feat – one that you should certainly be proud of – these contests are by no means a reflection of your self-worth as a writer.
The most important tip that anyone can give you when it comes to submitting to highly competitive writing contests is to avoid changing your writing style based on previous winners’ work. Judges change year after year, and it’s impossible to predict what kind of work they will be looking for. As long as you stay true to your voice and keep refining your craft the way you like it, you will be much more likely to encounter success rather than churning out a contrived version of someone else’s voice.
In a similar vein, I want to remind you that you should only write and submit what you are comfortable with. A common theme in the winners of prestigious writing contests is the “trauma essay”, where one’s personal struggles are commodified for the judges’ enjoyment in an almost performative activist way. However, this is not to say that you should feel compelled to write about your traumatic experiences just to win an award, especially if you have not fully recovered from said experience.
Keep in mind that most national-level writing contests also have tight deadlines and fees. For example, Scholastic Art & Writing charges $10 per individual entry and $30 per portfolio (seniors only). Be sure to abide by these guidelines and plan ahead of time when to submit – I recommend at least 1-2 days prior to the deadline. You don’t want to be scrambling at the last minute to turn in a piece, since the servers can become extremely full and you might end up unable to turn in your work before the deadline. In this case, creating a submission timeline can be highly beneficial! Websites like Google Calendar and Notion can assist you in properly scheduling when to have your piece finished.
Word count restrictions are another factor to keep in mind. For Bennington College Young Writers Awards, you are limited to submitting three poems maximum or a short story/essay of up to 1500 words. If you find yourself going over the word limit, I suggest looking for phrases within your piece that can be condensed. You should also narrow down which sentences are unnecessary in contributing to your central plot/theme, as these can be deleted to save space.
Finally, don’t let yourself get caught up in the rat race of writing competitions. As always, the experience of getting to share your own ideas and aspirations is most crucial, and no judge can take that away from you. When writing, what’s most crucial is to find joy in the process and be proud of all that you have accomplished.
Here is a short list of writing contests to consider submitting to:
Grace Zhang is a blogger at Voices and a Junior Editor at Polyphony.