Look, I’m going to be honest here: I’m no short story competition expert.
Of the 20+ competitions I have entered in the past year and a half, I’ve had exactly 0 successes – longlist, shortlist, somewhere-in-between-list. No luck.
But I haven’t given up, and I continue to methodically and strategically apply to short story competitions, hoping one day to hear good news. I don’t believe that my writing is bad because I haven’t yet had success in this way. In fact, I see every competition deadline as a fantastic way to keep me motivated. Every rejection is a chance to improve and try again.
So, with the understanding that I’m probably not in the best position to share my wisdom, here’s my strategy for applying to short story competitions:
Identify the relevant competitions/publications
I mainly use this list on the Creative Writing Ink website to find short story competitions to enter. As well as details of some of the big ones – like The Bath Short Story Award and the Bristol Short Story Prize – there are lots of smaller ones on there that you might not always hear about. I’ll then always have a look at the competition/publication’s website to see if it’s my sort of thing before applying.
You should be aware that you might not be eligible to apply for every competition. Some are for published writers, some are for writers aged under 25, some are for writers from underrepresented backgrounds. Don’t waste your time by applying for a competition that doesn’t apply to you – make sure you check first.
Another great place to find out about short story competitions is Twitter. By following writers, publishers and publications I’ve been able to find out about lots of different competitions and prizes, and my phone is full of screenshots of things I’ve seen on Twitter that I need to remember to apply to! A big thank you to writer Katie Hale who often summarises all the latest opportunities for writers in her Twitter threads.
Work out which of your pieces is right
It’s no good entering your historical fiction short story to an avant-garde modernist magazine, just as it’s probably doesn’t make sense to send your most experimental piece to a more traditional publication.
I usually try and see if I can find out who the judge or judges are, and have a look at the previous year’s winning piece/shortlist if I can. That will give me a sense of the sort of thing they are looking for.
Of course, I’m not saying that a competition will only celebrate one type of story, and the judges mostly change every year, but I do always get a feeling if I don’t think a particular story will suit a certain competition.
For example, I will be entering the Soundwork Short Story Competition next month. The winning piece will be recorded by a professional actor and released on Soundcloud. I know that my more fragmented and ‘modernist’ pieces just won’t work as well in that format, so will be submitting something that sounds good being read aloud, and has a tension and plot that grows throughout. It’s just about stopping to think ‘does this actually have a chance?’ before hitting submit.
And don’t worry – my more experimental pieces will be submitted to somewhere more suitable!
Follow the rules
It goes without saying that you really should double, triple-check the rules of each individual competition. Guess what? They all have different word counts and different specifications for the formatting and naming style and it can be a bit confusing – especially if you already have a story in a certain format or word count from another competition. Make sure you read the rules and instructions for each competition before submitting.
Don’t submit your story to multiple places at once (optional)
I’m not sure what other people think about this one, but I’ve decided not to submit anything to multiple competitions at once. Most competitions have a clause that says if your story gets accepted/published somewhere else, you will have to withdraw it from that competition. So for me, it makes sense to have one story in at one place at a time – just in case one gets picked up elsewhere.
Maybe when you’re a more established writer, it’s usual to send out a piece to several different places at once, but as a writer at the beginning of her career, it’s easier for me to keep track of everything by just doing it one at a time. Plus, it’s motivation to write something new for different competitions!
Keep track of where you’ve submitted
It sounds obvious, but make sure you keep note of where you’ve submitted and which story you’ve put forward. That way you can avoid submitting the same piece to multiple stories, and you can also have an overview of which stage your pieces are at.
I write deadlines in my diary to make sure I remember to submit to certain competitions, and I’ve created a spreadsheet of which stories I’ve submitted where – and when I can expect to hear back – so I know where everything is. Any excuse to organise things!
See rejections in the right way
Believe me, I have been disheartened and disappointed to receive rejections for pieces I love and truly believe in. But a rejection doesn’t mean it’s never going to get anywhere, and it doesn’t mean that it’s not good.
Unfortunately, in the fickle and subjective world of creative writing, sometimes it can just be a matter of wrong place, wrong time. A piece you enter for one competition could be better suited elsewhere. A judge for another competition might love it while another doesn’t – you just don’t know.
See a rejection as chance to review your story and work out how it can be better. Viewing it with fresh eyes after a rejection (and don’t forget that the processes for competitions can take months) might allow you to see things you hadn’t noticed before. A friend told me that for every rejection she redrafts a story, to ensure that it really is as good as it can be – and next time, it will hopefully do better.
You could win the first competition you ever enter. It could take years and hundreds of submissions before you get anywhere. There is no right or wrong way to do it. You don’t even need to enter competitions until you feel that you’re ready.
We all know writing can be a somewhat lonely occupation. I really enjoy entering competitions as it gives me a sense of purpose and makes me feel that I’m part of something bigger. Even though I’ve only received rejections, I still enjoy the feeling of engaging with the community and putting my work out there. Don’t underestimate how scary it can be to submit your work to a competition! View every time you submit a story as a success in itself, and hopefully one day you will see some recognition for your work.
One more thing…
The cost of entering a competition differs between publications and competitions. Some are free, most cost somewhere between £5 and £12, and if you’re feeling particularly rich you might like to apply to the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award which charges a hefty £18(!). It can definitely be expensive to submit to competitions, and although I understand that the prizes and publications have to cover their own costs, I do resent having to fork out for the expensive charges (especially when you don’t find yourself getting anywhere). If you can afford the costs, or budget them into your monthly expenses, great. If you can’t, have a think about targeting your stories to apply to just a few a year. Lots of competitions also have funding for those unable to afford the entry fees – so keep an eye out for those.
And don’t forget that most competitions offer some kind of prize money for the winner and those shortlisted… we can all dream of that day and keep submitting our work in the meantime.