The Top 13 Writing Contests You Should Take Part In

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Winning a contest can give you just the break you need in your writing career. First off, it’s a great point to mention in your resume. Many competitions offer book publishing deals to the winners. And there’s almost always a cash prize involved. 

Even if you don’t win, there’s a lot you can learn about how to improve your writing.

And the process of writing and sharing a competition entry is progress in itself.

Best of all? A lot of the top writing contests are completely free to take part in. 

Whether you’re a first-timer looking to earn your chops as a poet or an experienced writer with published books under your belt, there’s a competition out there for you.

Here’s a list of (free!) writing contests you should consider applying to ASAP.

1. Emily Dickinson First Book Award

What is it about?

This award honors the legacy of the iconic American poet Emily Dickinson by recognizing unpublished American writers over 40 years of age who have a completed book of poetry. 

Who is eligible to apply?

The Emily Dickinson First Book Award is open to any American poet of at least 40 years of age who has not previously published a book-length poetry collection.

What are the guidelines?

Eligible applicants need to submit a book-length (between 48 and 80 pages long) manuscript of poems. The poems can be in any style and of any length.

What’s the prize?

The winner of this poetry contest receives a cash award of $10000. In addition, Graywolf Press will publish and promote the winning manuscript. 

2. PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction

What is it about?

The PEN/Faulkner Award was founded by the international writers’ organization PEN in honour of renowned American writer William Faulkner. A team of three judges chooses the finalists each year from among the best works of literary fiction. The winner is hailed as ‘first among equals’.

Who is eligible to apply?

Authors of any age who are permanent residents of the United States can apply. 

What are the guidelines?

Authors must submit a novel, novella, or short story collection for consideration. The book must have been published the previous year by an academic, commercial, or small press, and self-published books are not eligible. The authors should send five copies of the book to the judges for evaluation.

What’s the prize?

The winner and four finalists get to attend the awards ceremony at Washington DC. The winner gets $15000 and the honorable mentions get $1500 each. All the writers get to read excerpts from their books and the judges share their citations for each.

3. Writers of the Future Contest

What is it about?

The Writers of the Future contest honors the spirit of famed sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard. It’s one of the most influential contests for fantasy and science fiction and a great way to get your work out in front of a large audience.

Who is eligible to apply?

New writers of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, who have not previously published a novel or more than three short stories, are eligible to apply.

What are the guidelines?

Applicants should share a prose manuscript of up to 17000 words in length. The submission can be either electronic or a hard copy. Prose targeted towards a children’s audience is not eligible.

What’s the prize?

Every three months, you stand to win prizes of $1000, $750 and $500. At the end of the year, one of the four quarterly first-place writers wins the grand prize. This winner gets the L. Ron Hubbard Golden Pen Award and a $5000 cash prize.

4. Young Lions Fiction Award

What is it about?

Offered by the New York Public Library, the Young Lions Fiction Award celebrates the work of an author 35 years or younger. The award is part of the Young Lions program, which includes people in their 20s and 30s who are committed to supporting and encouraging young artists in New York. 

Who is eligible to apply?

US citizens who are 35 years of age or younger at the time of the book’s publication the previous year are eligible to apply. 

What are the guidelines?

Applicants should submit either a novel or a collection of short stories published the previous year. Only adult fiction is eligible – no young adult or children’s books should be submitted. All submissions need to come from the books’ publishers and not from the authors themselves.

What’s the prize?

Every year, the team of judges selects five finalists. The grand prize winner gets money worth $10000. 

5. Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award

What is it about?

The Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award celebrates the role of science fiction in popularizing and advancing real scientific endeavors. It is offered jointly by Baen Books and the National Space Society in honor of the writer Jim Baen.

Who is eligible to apply?

Writers from any country may apply, except previous winners of the competition and employees of NSS or Baen Books.

What are the guidelines?

Applicants should submit a short piece of science fiction of up to 8000 words about what the near future of manned space exploration (about 50-60 years from now) might look like. 

What’s the prize?

The Grand Prize winner’s short story will be published on the Baen Books official website and given an engraved trophy. The winner and the two runners-up will get free entry into the International Space Development Conference, merchandise from Baen Books, and a year’s membership at the National Space Society.

6. Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon

What is it about?

The Owl Canyon Press hosts an annual flash fiction hackathon, designed to support and recognize new writers of short fiction. 

Who is eligible to apply?

Writers from anywhere around the world can apply to this creative writing contest as long as their entry is in English.

What are the guidelines?

Writers need to submit a short story of 50 paragraphs, with the first and 20th paragraphs provided by the judges in the submission form. There is no maximum word count, but each paragraph should have at least 40 words. 

What’s the prize?

Twenty-four finalists will have their stories chosen for publication in the annual Owl Canyon Press anthology. The first, second, and third place winners will receive prize money of $3000, $2000, and $1000 respectively. 

7. David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction

What is it about?

The Langum Foundation offers the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize every year to recognize works of American fiction that make American history more accessible to the general reader. 

Who is eligible to apply?

Fiction writers from anywhere may apply, and either the author or the publisher of the novel may make the submission. The novel should have been published by December of the previous year. 

What are the guidelines?

Writers should submit historical novels that are set primarily in America before 1950. The novel may also take place outside of America, but it needs to include American characters and values. Submissions cannot be self-published or published by a press that the author subsidizes. 

What’s the prize?

The prize winner receives $1000 in cash, and both the winner and the runner-up receive framed certificates of honor. 

8. Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental Humanities

What is it about?

Renowned writer Wallace Stegner was passionate about the environment and spent much of his life in the American West. To honor his legacy, the University of Utah Press looks to recognize book-length publications on environmental humanities with the Wallace Stegner Prize

Who is eligible to apply?

All authors are eligible to apply except current and former faculty members and students of the University of Utah, and current and former employees of the University of Utah Press.

What are the guidelines?

Applicants should submit manuscripts of not more than 170,000. Submissions as a whole should not have been previously published. The book should preferably be set in the American West. 

What’s the prize?

The winner gets a cash award of $5000 and the winning entry is published by the University of Utah Press. 

9. 53-Word Story Contest

What is it about?

Prime Number Magazine hosts a monthly short fiction contest where writers can submit a 53-word story based on the prompt provided.

Who is eligible to apply?

Writers from anywhere around the world are welcome to apply as long as their story is in English. 

What are the guidelines?

Writers have to submit a story in any genre of not more than 53 words. Story titles are not included in this. 

What’s the prize?

The winner’s story is published in Prime Number Magazine. He or she also gets a copy of a book by Press 53 as a prize.

10. Cabell First Novelist Award

What is it about?

The Cabell First Novelist Award is given to a previously unpublished novelist for an excellent first novel. It honors the legacy of renowned writer James Branch Cabell and is sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University.

Who is eligible to apply?

Writers who have not previously published a novel are eligible to apply. They may have previously published other types of books, including short stories or poems. 

What are the guidelines?

Writers should submit first novels of any genre that were published in the previous calendar year. Self-published and young adult novels are not eligible. 

What’s the prize?

The winning story receives a $5000 cash prize and is invited to a public book reading and signing event at Richmond. It’s an all-expenses-paid event that promotes the winning book to a large audience. 

11. Drue Heinz Literature Prize

What is it about?

The Drue Heinz Literature Prize supports writers of short fiction and brings their work to a global audience. Winners are judged by authors of national repute, and past judges have included luminaries like Robert Penn Warren, Margaret Atwood, and Rick Moody. 

Who is eligible to apply?

Writers from any country who have published at least one book-length fiction collection or at least three short stories or novellas in literary publications are eligible to apply. 

What are the guidelines?

Writers should submit unpublished manuscripts between 150 and 300 pages long. The manuscripts should feature either a collection of short stories, or a mix of stories and a novella, or two or more novellas. Poetry and children’s literature is not allowed. 

What’s the prize?

The winner gets a cash prize of $15000 and has the winning book published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. 

12. Nelson Algren Short Story Award

What is it about?

The Nelson Algren Literary Award seeks to recognize great short fiction and is offered by the Chicago Tribune to honor the legacy of famed writer Nelson Algren. The short story contest has been held annually every year since 1981.

Who is eligible to apply?

Writers aged 18 years and above and legal residents of the United States are eligible to apply.

What are the guidelines?

Writers should submit previously unpublished short stories of no more than 8000 words. 

What’s the prize?

The winner will receive $3500 and five finalists will get $750 each. 

13. Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans

What is it about?

The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans is a special award for US military writers sponsored by the family of famed antiwar author and Vietnam War veteran Jeff Sharlet. 

Who is eligible to apply?

Any US military veterans and those on active duty can apply. The submission can be in any genre and touch upon any topic.

What are the guidelines?

Applicants should submit a manuscript of no more than 20 pages in their chosen genre – short fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. Prose submissions need to be double-spaced and the writing should not have been published anywhere else. 

What’s the prize?

The winner of the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award gets a cash prize of $1000 and publication of the manuscript in The Iowa Review. The runner-up gets $750 and three third-place holders get $500 each.

Conclusion

Writing competitions are about a lot more than just winning. They’re about improving your craft, learning from other writers, and trying again and again.

At the end of the day, though, winning competitions can do a lot to boost your resume and your confidence.

So pick the free writing contests that excite you the most, open that new page in your diary (or on your laptop) and start writing. Good luck!