How to Win Writing Contests: Advice from Poets & Writers mag

Poets & Writers Magazine had a useful piece recently about how to win writing contests. It was useful because it canvassed several judges on what they look for in a winner. Here are a few snippets:

Ander Monson: “I … look for … something unusual in its ambition and its confidence … and its execution … I value a not totally successful but interesting experiment more than I do a well-executed version of something I’ve read before.”

“Do your research. You can dramatically improve your odds by making sure you’ve read the magazine or press sponsoring the contest.”

Kimiko Hahn
Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn: “I look for heightened language.”

“I see what a writer does with closure. Often the end is where the writer gives up instead of moving towards resonance.”

“Choose your strongest work.”






Carmen Giménez Smith: “How will the book be in the world? What form would it take? If we’re already thinking about the physical life of the book, it means … the book has conveyed a concrete vision.”

“Writers should read several titles from a press before submitting.”

Dinty W. Moore: “Read the work that won last year (or is published in the most recent issue), and objectively ask if your work is that strong.”

“Concise, energetic prose always catches my attention.”

Kwame Dawes
Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes: “The judging is not the same … as it is when an editor reads a manuscript … [A] judge cannot make any demands on the publisher, for example to find a good editor … the judge is searching for the manuscript that seems just about ready to be published.”



Stuart Dybek: “I’m partial to style, as often it signals a distinctive voice.”

C.D. Wright: “I want to experience a language in which I can feel the poet’s own hand, own breath, own lexicon.”

And in the same issue, there’s a section on how writers react to winning. The awesome Kirstin Valdez Quade, who is currently winning or about to win pretty much everything going for her short story collection Night at the Fiestas, has the best line, which she quotes from Andre Dubus III: “Enjoy it and then forget about it.”

For the full article and for a veritable treasure trove of advice, I’d advise any up-and-coming writer either to take out a subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine or to find a library that carries it. There’s always something useful in there: about agents, inspiration, perspiration, publishers, competitions, etc.

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