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Ask a Freelancer: On submission-bombing contests and the odds of a win

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Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, of color, smart, edgy, and fun. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, and the Rumpus, among others. In Ask a Freelancer, Chadburn fields questions about writing, the blogosphere, platform building, and all things scary. She doesn't presume to know everything, but she knows people who know more things than her, and if there's one thing she’s learned, it’s that there's nothing to be gained from withholding information. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at)gmail.com or follow her on Twitter. She loves your whole outfit right now.

Dear Freelancer,

I have a really amazing story that I just know everyone will love. I am thinking about submitting it to contests. How do I go about finding them? What do you think about contests? Are they an okay way to go?

—The One With the Prize

Dear OWTP,

Congratulations on having written something you just looooove. I know that feeling. I think. From somewhere. Once or twice.

So contests, huh? Well, first of all, there’s the question as to where to find them. The best resource I know of for contests is Poets & Writers, which offers a database with deadlines online. Also various journals, such as Writer’s Digest and the Writer’s Chronicle, usually have listings in the back of their magazine. 

There are some online journals that consistently host contests with the award of publication, such as GlimmerTrain or Narrative. Now in terms of your odds of winning these contests, I would say that they vary based on how your writing fits into the aesthetic of the journals that you are submitting to. I know it sounds tedious, but I always read a couple of issues of the journal I am submitting to, especially if it’s a contest, because they usually charge a reader’s fee.

I would definitely warn you away from “submission bombing.” Submission bombing is when you use a submission search engine or database (like Poets & Writers, or Duotrope’s Digest) and just go down the line alphabetically, submitting using a boilerplate query letter. Journals know when you are doing that, and they don’t dig it. Not only that, but it will end up being an expensive lesson to learn—with reader’s fees varying anywhere from 6 bucks to $25 a pop. 

Your odds of winning a contest are the same as your odds of being published via the slushpile. The main difference is that there is often a nice payoff when it comes to the prize of a contest, and oftentimes they have guest editors judging the contest, so at times you may be familiar with the works of the editor and feel that he or she shares your same aesthetic and therefore find it worth a shot. Just as with regular submissions, always refer to the editor by name, the journal or contest by name, and always refer to a specific story or essay from that journal that inspires you. Personalize your letter, or people will think you’re submitting blindly. And know your reader. Don’t submit a story about overdosing on heroin and being assaulted to Highlights magazine. Personally I’ve taken my chances with contests over the years, and I’ve come real close on a few. Those are the ones I continue to submit to—but for those that I’ve gotten a generic response from more than once, I figure I just don’t share the same aesthetic as they do and move on.

Oh, and look at past winners. Read what has won in the past and see if it shares the same tonality or style as yours.

Go get ’em!

—Freelancer

Image via Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons