A Skeptic’s Guide To Writing Contests

Earlier this morning, I submitted a short story to a popular literary journal’s writing contest, and I feel worse for it. I have never submitted to this type of contest before. Despite knowing fiction writers and poets who have won story and poetry contests, I have even advised other people against this practice. Writing contests have often rubbed me the wrong way. We can chalk it up to my inner skeptic. We can call it bad math. Writing contests? I just don’t trust them. But here I am, short another $20 looking at my Submittable ticket receipt, and drinking coffee like any other regular day in the life.

Many of my friends have entered contests with a reader’s fee. (Say, $20.) A journal would announce its contest, promise the winner $500/publication, and the runner-up $100/publication. This amount varies depending on the contest, journal, allotted reader’s fee, etc. In exchange for the reader’s fee, writers will receive a subscription to the literary journal.AQR Writers begin submitting their stories and paying the journal’s fees. A journal hosting the contest might receive 1,000 manuscripts during their reading period. That’s a lot of reading fees. $20,000 of reading fees. For a long time, that sounded like bullshit to me.

Maybe I’ve become a bit more amiable over the years, because I’ve met the readers and judges of these contests and heard their horror stories. Or maybe I’ve gotten an insider look into literary journals that allows me to see how difficult funding can be. I am saddened by a recent article and movement that’s been floating through the literary scene entitled Save the Alaska Quarterly Review. This article illuminates some of the obstacles faced by journals, and the hashtag #saveaqr is a painful reminder of these problems.

I realize I could just be saying all this to make myself feel better about spending that $20.

Originally, I felt like contests were money-making ponzi schemes. Highly successful literary cons. A darker side of my skepticism thought the judges of said contests probably had a small pool of favorites anyway. I disregarded reading hierarchies and anonymous submission/reading guidelines with the understanding that people talk. Writers recognize each other. I concentrated on getting published the regular way, and that has seemed to work pretty well. I operated under the golden light that my stories might receive awards after they’ve been published. In some ways, I felt like I was taking the “smart” route, but now, I’m not so sure. I have started to see contests as a necessary evil in the literary world. A give and take affair.

Contests are a viable way for journals to stay afloat financially. Some journals that have contests use that extra generated money to pay writers for their accepted submissions throughout the year. Other journals just want to pay their fucking rent. However, it’s still best to remain pragmatic when submitting:

  • Submit to contests hosted by journals you love.
  • Only submit exceptional material.

There are a thousand other people out there submitting their work to a contest. If your submission doesn’t stand out from your own pool of writing on your laptop at home, it’s not going to stand out in an even greater pool.

But here I am thinking about the different ways a person could spend $20—new pants, a bike lock, gourmet cheese, tote bags— and wondering if any of my friends secretly submitted, too.


  1. @Ghanta_Clause · August 30, 2014

    I have never entered a contest before and I have no immediate plans to, but does a journal really need 20k in reading fees? It sounds like a lucrative business opportunity…

    • Sarah Key · August 31, 2014

      $20,000 is entirely reasonable, especially if the journal is paying people for their work. Even if the journal isn’t paying for submissions/content, that money goes to paying their readers, contest judges, printing costs, rent, advertising, booth reservation at conferences, etc. The people who work at journals are frequently underpaid, so that figure isn’t as wild as I used to think either. Hopefully, I made it clear enough in this post that I am explaining the way I viewed contests in the past and how I still struggle to overcome those skeptical undertones. Do you write, Ghanta?

  2. Catholic Tap House · August 30, 2014

    The story linked in the Alaska Dispatch news source makes me feel sick to my stomach. It talks about about music degrees and chemistry degrees as being non-essential…. I looked at going to school in Alaska for awhile for their biology programs that were more centered around experience and immersion. :-(


    there is the article if you didn’t see it through the Missouri Review.

    Its comforting to see someone being supportive of literary journals. Scholarly journals face the same problems all the time…. My college hosts panels about publishing academic research papers and we talk about the lessening popularity of scientific magazines a lot.
    Hope you come out on top in the contest!


    • Sarah Key · August 31, 2014

      Conversations regarding prioritization have always been somewhat disheartening for me, at least. These conversations seem to often be a reflection of society and how education officials are perceiving their society, data, etc. in order to make decisions. Whether the prioritization is biased or completely logical, the results and the conversation leading to those results are often demoralizing and (if I dare say) a bit touchy.

      I listened to a science writer speak earlier this summer at a conference, and I found myself thinking about your interests following the session. (For the sake of my own clarity, I will mention that I wasn’t attending a secular conference for this panel.) I would be interested to know which magazines you read.

      Thank you for the encouragement and comment, my friend!

  3. almondcoffeed · August 30, 2014

    I’ve won mention with photography and poetry. they were REE things til you like thought you won…then the bill/bilking began. one was a placement withing the winners, the second was honorable mention. the fees were about the same 400 hoped for each time. I am thus by official letters an award winning blind photographer and a ill-educated poet notable! http://www.picture.com/ three daisies which now only is a resident picture in facebook me, and http://www.poetry.com kiss rouge miaz’ something sonnety about stuffed potatoes.
    I’ve never paid a readers fee. I have attended poetry gathering/festivals and paid for workshops but never ever been asked to run one… i.e. make the money.
    I am published as a writer for a haiku or two in an international newsletter to a nursing community. gotta love keeping up with aol folk and them getting over me saying they wore child-molestor glasses. oopies.
    I have topped sites like the original pre-wordpress xanga.

    or in short I have no earthlly valuable credentials whatever save that I blindly tell myself that count that really so do not. yet actually funny they do.
    I’m reminded of the run for a state/chapter office in a national organization where I was shown the outcome was never in doubt. this colors my judgement as it seems to yours not for voting specifically but the fear the outcome is rigged. I’ve gotten a’s while others with good writing earned c’s. I’ve been aware that somethings are favoritism not objectivity. many many times.

    yet. for all this, what the heck, why not enjoy the story of a chance you chose to widen your spheres for and by yourself? sure you can laugh as the pages yellow. the meaningfulness is obvious in time. but what aboutthat moment? we really only do live once. we can enjoy the accolades if we get them for a brief time.

    I’d never have read a book about this or that subject if they didn’t evolve some meaning into it for me. we never know what / who that meaning is exactly till its yesterday’s news.

    there is the chance that some people suck andhave lost favor thus we win by being there.

    • Sarah Key · August 31, 2014

      You sound like a talented mess to me! ;) I remember your entries from Xanga and have always admired your writing.

      Your point about “earthly valuable credentials” reminds me a lot of this conversation I was having the other day. I work for a literary journal currently and have been with them for a few years now.

      An editor and I were explaining cover letters to new readers and how cover letters have the subtle ability to sway a reader’s opinion. (In other words, take a cover letter with a grain of salt.) For example, a submitter can write in their cover letter that they have been published in the New Yorker. Your mind goes, “Wow! [Submitter X] has had a story published in the New Yorker. [Submitter X] must be a really good writer.” But then reality shows that maybe they just had a letter to the editor published in the New Yorker, or better yet, one of their tweets. It’s interesting to me to learn what counts to someone or see how they market themselves effectively in lieu.

      Your comment has been beyond uplifting. I have been thinking in the grand scale of “placing” in the contest, but who knows how many hands will see my work before then even I am (likely) rejected? If my story affects one or two readers at a journal, then isn’t that enough? Or is the value of your story dependent on how many people it touches, if anyone at all? I love these conversations.

      • almondcoffeed · August 31, 2014

        I felt like being fair. ;) I have seen what does and doesn’t count and it often truly remains up to us tomarket it. …whatever”it” is. I’ve adored watching doah’s deer and his legit now publishing offerings as he’s spoken of “secret handshakes and otherwise made a joke of what is serious business of what we want…. to be published. the chaulk outline on word press these days or jeff markowitz on the evil of the universe facebook. because he’s legitimately fair. we do not control even with our influence other’s oppinions. we can liken this to the card game poker where as kenny roger’s crooned ” ’cause every hand’s a winner and Every hand’s a loser and the best YOu can hope for is to DIE in your sleep… you got to know when to hold them. and know when to fold them…..”
        I want you to take that grain of salt further and care that you do as well as you do which in cash is far more than most…too cheap to play along. because as cliche”s go, we do….sometimes… get what we pay for.

  4. Corvin · August 31, 2014

    I haven’t submitted anything in many years, but the last time I did it was through a community college literary journal in Hopkinsville (for some reason my brain refuses to recall the name of this annual effort). I had a chance to see both sides of the equation, both being a student submitting work and someone who volunteered to wade through the enormous piles of prose and pick a few winners (ethically I did not vote for my own, but my anonymous submission was selected by the other judges for printing that year, so yay!) Rather than being a cash contest, the writers who were selected for publication received a free copy of that year’s edition that included their work. A year or so later I actually saw a copy of this collection in a bookstore, which gave me a little shiver of delight.

    • Sarah Key · August 31, 2014

      I think all writers should work for a literary journal for a short time as an intern or volunteer. The experience certainly changes your perspective a bit. Maybe I’ll try to a blog about that topic sometime?

  5. Margot · September 1, 2014

    I just submitted to a writing contest that I in no way think I can win, but I feel very good about submitting because I had the goal to submit something and I did and I feel hella about sticking to my goals.

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