Welcome to my comprehensive guide to navigating the fascinating world of short story and flash fiction contests! Whether you’re a seasoned writer or just dipping your toes into the world of fiction, this resource is designed with you in mind. I’m here to demystify the process, offering insights based on my personal experience and answering the most commonly asked questions.
Short story and flash fiction contests can be an incredible opportunity for writers. They provide a platform to showcase your talent, a deadline to work towards, and the thrill of competition. Moreover, a win or honorable mention can give your writing career a significant boost, not to mention the often tantalizing prize money.
Yet, with myriad contests available and a plethora of guidelines to follow, the path can feel a bit daunting. Fret not! From understanding contest guidelines, crafting compelling narratives, managing word counts, to coping with rejection (we’ve all been there), we’ll cover it all.
So whether your queries are about the benefits of entering, how to choose the right contest, strategies for crafting a winning story, or understanding the do’s and don’ts of contest submissions—don’t worry. This guide is your one-stop-shop, offering practical advice to help you approach short story contests with confidence.
Let’s delve into the intricate dance of short story contests and, in doing so, unravel the beautiful journey of storytelling that lies ahead. Remember, the aim is not just to win—but to grow, to learn, and above all, to enjoy the art of writing. Let’s get started!
1. What is a short story contest?
A short story contest is a competitive event where writers from all over the world can submit their crafted tales according to the rules stipulated by the contest organizer. The rules typically cover factors like word count, theme, genre, and submission format. The beauty of these contests is that they provide a platform for writers to showcase their talents, share their worlds, and potentially receive recognition, publication, or monetary rewards. Short story contests can vary greatly in terms of prestige, from smaller local or regional competitions to internationally recognized events. Some are general, open to stories of any theme or style, while others might be genre-specific or theme-focused. Participating in these contests can not only earn writers significant rewards but also provide them with the opportunity to improve their craft, gain exposure, and even kickstart their writing careers.
2. How do I find short story contests?
The Letter Review Prize is awarded every two months in the categories of Short Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Manuscripts. We offer a total Prize pool of $3800 USD and publication for our winners. There are various resources to find short story contests. Some of the best sources include writer’s magazines like Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers, both of which regularly publish upcoming contests. Online databases such as Duotrope or The Grinder can also help you find contests. Online writing communities, forums, and social media groups often share opportunities, so it’s worth joining these. Additionally, websites of literary magazines, universities, and publishing houses may post about their ongoing contests. Remember to sign up for newsletters of organizations and websites that focus on writing and publishing as they often announce contest information. It’s about staying connected and keeping your ear to the ground in the literary world. There’s a wealth of opportunities out there, waiting to be found!
3. When is the best time to enter a short story contest?
The best time to enter a short story contest is typically as soon as you have a well-polished piece that fits the contest’s criteria. Having said that, it’s important to remember that each contest will have its own submission window and deadline. Some contests are annual, some biannual, others might occur sporadically. It’s crucial to keep an eye on these dates and plan accordingly. While it might be tempting to rush a piece to meet an upcoming deadline, quality is key in these contests. It’s better to wait for the next opportunity than to submit something below your best work. Many writers find it helpful to create a calendar of contests they are interested in, noting the submission periods, to help manage their time and submissions effectively.
4. How do I know if a contest is legitimate?
Identifying a legitimate contest can sometimes be a challenge, given the unfortunate reality of scams in the writing world. Reputable contests are typically organized by established literary magazines, publishing houses, universities, or literary organizations. Look for a clear set of rules, a transparent judging process, and a history of previous contests with recognizable winners. Be wary of contests with disproportionately high entry fees relative to the prize, contests that offer all entrants publication for a fee (often a sign of a vanity anthology), or contests that claim exclusive rights to your work regardless of whether you win or not. Check reviews and experiences shared by other writers online and in writing communities. It’s your work and your entry fee, so do your homework before you decide to submit.
5. Are there scams to watch out for in short story contests?
Unfortunately, as in many fields, there can be scams in writing contests. Some red flags to watch out for include extremely high entry fees with little return value, contests where all “winners” are offered a chance to be published for a fee (a common vanity anthology scam), and contests that retain rights to your work whether you win or not. Transparency is a key indicator of a legitimate contest – they should clearly state who is judging, what the prizes are, and what happens to your work after you submit it. If the contest is run by an unfamiliar organization, do some research. Check if they’ve run contests before and look for experiences or testimonials from past entrants. Be cautious and make sure you’re comfortable with all the rules and conditions before you submit your work.
6. How important is it to follow the guidelines when entering a short story contest?
Let me paint you a picture: you’ve spent countless hours crafting a story that you’re proud of, and you’re ready to submit it to a contest. You quickly glance over the guidelines, figure your story is close enough to what they’re asking for, and hit ‘submit’. What could go wrong, right? A lot, actually. Guidelines aren’t just a suggestion; they’re the rule book. I’ve been on both sides of the contest table, and trust me, nothing disqualifies a submission faster than not adhering to the guidelines. Whether it’s word count, formatting, or theme, each specification is there for a reason. So, if you want your story to stand a fighting chance, following the guidelines isn’t just important, it’s a must.
7. Should I enter free contests, or should I focus on those with entry fees?
Ah, the age-old question. When I started out, I was torn between the two. Free contests were appealing because, well, they’re free! But those with entry fees often boasted bigger prizes and more prestigious judges. In the end, I found that both have their merits. Free contests can be a great way to dip your toe into the competition pool, especially if you’re new to the game. However, contests with entry fees tend to attract more serious competition, which can raise the stakes and push you to up your game. The key is to do your research, know what you’re getting into, and choose what aligns best with your goals and budget.
8. How do I deal with rejection from a short story contest?
Oh, the dreaded ‘R’ word. Rejection is tough, no two ways about it. It stings, especially when you’ve poured your heart into a story. But here’s the thing: every writer faces rejection. Even the greats like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have been turned down more times than they can count. The trick is not to take it personally. A rejection doesn’t mean your story is bad; it just means it wasn’t the right fit for that particular contest or judge. When I receive a rejection, I take a moment to wallow (we’re all human, right?), then I dust myself off and get back to it. Because the only surefire way to never win is to stop trying.
9. What rights do I retain if I win a short story contest?
Now, this is an important one. Winning a contest is great, but it’s crucial to know what happens to your story after you win. Most contests will specify this in their guidelines. Some might claim first publication rights, which means they have the right to publish your story first, after which the rights revert back to you. Others might request exclusive rights for a certain period (Like the Letter Review Prize). The key is to read and understand these terms before you enter. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the contest organizers for clarification. After all, your story is your intellectual property, and you should know where and how it’s being used.
10. Can I enter a short story contest if I’m not a professional writer?
Absolutely! In fact, short story contests can be a fantastic way for aspiring writers to make their mark. I remember the first contest I ever placed in — I was over the moon, not just because of the win, but because it gave me the confidence to start calling myself a ‘writer’. Most contests don’t require you to have a publishing history or a fancy writing degree. All you need is a good story and the courage to share it. So don’t let the ‘professional’ tag deter you. As long as you’ve got a tale to tell, you’re in the running.
11. What should I consider when selecting a short story contest to enter?
Choosing the right contest is a bit like matchmaking for your story. I always start by considering the theme or genre of the contest. Does it align with my story? Then, I look at who’s judging. Are they reputable figures? Do they write or appreciate a style similar to mine? The prizes are also worth considering. Beyond cash, does the contest offer publication, feedback, or exposure? Lastly, don’t forget to check out past winners if possible. It can give you an idea of the contest’s tastes and standards. Picking the right contest can take time, but it can significantly boost your chances of success.
12. How do I approach editing my short story for a contest?
I liken editing to sculpting—you start with a rough piece of stone (your first draft) and chisel away until a masterpiece emerges. Start with the big picture. Does the story make sense? Are the characters compelling? Is the pacing right? Then, move to sentence-level editing. Are there clunky phrases? Any grammar or spelling mistakes? Finally, look at it through the lens of the contest rules. Does it fit the word count? Does it align with the theme or genre? A fresh pair of eyes, like a friend or a writing group member, can be incredibly useful in this process. Remember, editing is just as important as writing, if not more so. A polished story speaks volumes about your dedication to the craft.
13. Is it a good idea to explore challenging or controversial topics in my short story for a contest?
Writing about challenging topics can be risky, but it can also pay off big time if done right. I’ve found that stories that push boundaries, that make readers think, can leave a lasting impact. But, it’s a balancing act. Your story should explore the topic with sensitivity and respect. Be aware of the potential to unintentionally offend or hurt readers. Do your research, and if you’re writing about an experience that’s not your own, consider getting a sensitivity reader. Above all, remember that your responsibility as a writer extends beyond telling a good story. It’s also about contributing positively to the larger conversation.
14. How do I handle feedback or criticism from contest judges or readers?
Feedback, though sometimes hard to swallow, is a gift. It’s how we grow as writers. When I get feedback, I take a step back and give it some time to sink in. Then, I approach it objectively, as a way to improve my story. Remember, not all feedback has to be applied verbatim. You’re the writer, and ultimately, it’s your story. Use what resonates with you and aligns with your vision. As for criticism, distinguish between constructive criticism and plain negativity. The former can be a tool for growth; the latter is best ignored. Writing is subjective, and you can’t please everyone. Focus on your craft, keep honing your skills, and stay true to your voice.
15. Are there any resources or tools to help me write a winning short story?
Absolutely! There’s a plethora of resources out there. Letter Review has published hundreds of articles which writers find helpful (you can find these under Writing Advice in the menu at the top of the page). Books on craft, like Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or ‘Bird by Bird’ by Anne Lamott, offer invaluable advice. Websites like Writer’s Digest or The Write Practice provide tips and exercises. Writing software like Scrivener can help organize your thoughts, and grammar tools like Grammarly can help polish your prose. Reading widely, especially winning stories from past contests, can also be educational. But remember, while tools and resources are great, nothing beats the age-old advice: write, revise, rest, repeat. Perseverance is the most powerful tool in a writer’s kit.
16. Can I submit the same short story to multiple contests?
Submitting the same story to multiple contests, known as simultaneous submissions, is a tricky territory. Some contests strictly prohibit it, stating that the story cannot be under consideration elsewhere. Others are okay with it as long as you let them know if your story is accepted somewhere else. My advice? Always, always read the contest rules. If simultaneous submissions are allowed, go for it but be diligent in withdrawing your submission if it’s accepted elsewhere. Remember, a little courtesy goes a long way in the literary world.
17. What’s a common mistake to avoid when entering short story contests?
A common blunder I see (and have made myself!) is rushing the process—either rushing the writing or the submission. We all get excited when we see a contest, but it’s crucial not to rush your story just to meet the deadline. Crafting a good short story takes time. Similarly, rushing the submission process can lead to mistakes. You might overlook important guidelines, miss typos, or even submit to the wrong contest. So, slow down, take your time, and ensure everything is in order before you hit that ‘submit’ button. Your future self will thank you.
18. What strategies can I use to make my short story stand out in a contest?
To make your story stand out, it may help to think about writing something unique. It could be a fresh twist on an old trope, a distinctive voice, or a surprising character. Avoid clichés and overused plot devices. But remember, originality alone isn’t enough; it has to be coupled with good writing. Craft vivid characters, build engaging plots, create palpable settings. Also, pay attention to your first and last lines—they’re your first impression and parting shot, respectively. Lastly, ensure your story is well-edited. Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like a story littered with typos or grammatical errors.
19. How can I effectively manage my time when writing for a contest?
Time management can make or break your contest submission. I usually start by marking the deadline on my calendar and then work backward. Estimate how long you need to write the first draft, then set aside ample time for revisions and proofreading. Remember to factor in some buffer time for unexpected delays. I find setting specific writing hours each day and using productivity techniques like the Pomodoro method (25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5-minute break) quite effective. And remember, it’s okay to take breaks. A rested mind is a creative mind.
20. Can entering short story contests help improve my writing?
Absolutely, it’s one of the main reasons I encourage contests. They offer something that writing in a vacuum doesn’t: a deadline, a theme, a set word count—all of these parameters can push you out of your comfort zone and help you grow as a writer. Whether you win or not, the process of crafting a story to meet these criteria is educational. If the contest offers feedback, that’s another learning opportunity. Plus, contests give you a taste of dealing with both rejection and success. Both are integral parts of a writer’s life and can teach resilience and humility.
21. Should I consider the judge’s writing style or preference when writing for a contest?
I’ve found it helpful to consider the judge’s tastes when crafting my story. If the judge is a renowned author, reading some of their works can give you an idea of their style and preference. However, don’t get too caught up trying to mimic their style or write what you think they’d want to read. Remember, authenticity resonates. So, use your voice and tell your story. A good judge appreciates a well-written, authentic story more than a contrived attempt to please them. Tip: I’ve found many good stories make you laugh and cry. Can you relate?
22. What are the benefits of entering a short story contest, besides the chance to win a prize?
Prizes are great, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Contests push you to write, to meet a deadline, to work within a theme or word count—these constraints can fire up your creativity. They also expose you to the highs and lows of a writer’s life—rejection, anticipation, maybe even success. If your story gets published as part of the contest, that’s a bonus. It’s something you can add to your writing resume. Plus, the process of preparing your work for submission can be a great learning experience.
23. What do I do if my short story doesn’t win a contest?
Rejection can sting, but remember, it’s a part of the writer’s journey. If your story doesn’t win, don’t be too hard on yourself. Winning a contest depends on so many variables— the judge’s preferences, the pool of entries, even the mood of the judge on the day they read your story. Instead of seeing it as a failure, treat it as a learning experience. If the contest provides feedback, use it to improve your story. Consider submitting the story to other contests or publications. Remember, one contest’s rejection could be another’s winner.
24. How do I interpret and use feedback from a contest?
Feedback is like gold—it can help you polish your story until it shines. If you receive feedback from a contest, consider it carefully. Do the comments resonate with you? Could the suggested changes improve your story? It’s important to remember that feedback is subjective. It’s advice, not a mandate. Take what aligns with your vision for the story, and discard what doesn’t. Also, it’s okay to sit with the feedback for a while, especially if it feels overwhelming. Time can offer a fresh perspective.
25. Should I start my short story with a powerful scene to catch the judge’s attention?
Not always. Different stories call for different beginnings. Starting slow and gentle might be just what your story needs. However, starting with a bang can certainly grab attention! I’ve often found that a strong, compelling opening can hook the reader – in this case, the judge – right away. You could start with an intense scene, a surprising statement, or an intriguing dialogue. However, make sure it’s not shock value for the sake of shock value. It should serve your story, setting the tone, and giving a taste of what’s to come. And remember, after the powerful start, you have to keep the momentum going. Your entire story should be as compelling as your opening.
26. How much dialogue should I include in my short story for a contest?
There’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to dialogue. Some stories thrive on it; others, not so much. Dialogue can bring characters to life, show their personality, and drive the plot forward. But it needs to be done well – it should sound natural, not stilted or expository. On the other hand, too much dialogue can make your story sound like a screenplay. I’d say, use dialogue as a tool in your toolbox. Use it when it enhances your story, and don’t when it doesn’t. It’s all about what serves your story best.
27. Can I write my short story in the first person for a contest?
Absolutely! First, second, third – you can write your story in any point of view as long as it serves the story and is done well. First person can offer a deep, intimate look into a character’s thoughts and feelings. It can make the narrative voice strong and compelling. But it also comes with limitations – you can only narrate what this character knows, sees, or feels. Whatever point of view you choose, be consistent and make sure it complements your story.
28. Can I write my short story in a non-linear structure for a contest?
You sure can. I’ve seen non-linear structures work brilliantly in short stories. It can add an element of surprise, make your narrative more engaging, or reveal your characters more deeply. But a word of caution – don’t do it just for the sake of being different. The structure should serve your story, not confuse your reader. If you choose a non-linear structure, make sure the transitions are clear, and the storyline remains coherent. A well-executed non-linear short story can certainly make you stand out in a contest.
29. How can I make my characters stand out in my short story for a contest?
Characterization is a crucial aspect of short stories. Even within a limited word count, your characters need to feel real, rounded, and relatable. Start by giving them clear motivations – what do they want? What’s stopping them? Throw in some quirks or traits that make them unique. Let their actions and decisions drive the plot. Dialogue can also reveal a lot about a character. And remember, showing is often better than telling. Show your character’s personality through their actions, decisions, or how they interact with others. A well-crafted character can make a judge remember your story long after they’ve read it.
30. How important is the setting in a short story for a contest?
Setting can play a vital role in your short story, and it can do much more than simply tell the reader where the story takes place. A well-developed setting can set the mood, and reveal character. But just like with any element of your story, be judicious. A short story doesn’t give you much room to elaborate, so ensure every detail about the setting serves a purpose, be it driving the plot forward or revealing something about the characters. When I write, I often ask myself, “How does this detail further the story?” If it doesn’t, I leave it out.
31. Is it better to write a dramatic/tragic short story or a feel-good one for a contest?
There’s no definitive answer to this, as it really depends on the contest and its judges. I’ve seen contests won by heart-wrenching tragedies, uplifting feel-good stories, and everything in between. What matters most is that the emotion in your story feels genuine and is effectively conveyed. That being said, don’t shy away from happy endings if that’s where your story naturally leads. A well-crafted feel-good story can be just as impactful and memorable as a dramatic one. Always stay true to your story and your characters—that’s what will make your short story stand out.
32. How can I effectively end my short story for a contest?
Ah, endings—the cherry on top of your short story sundae. An effective ending should feel satisfying. It doesn’t necessarily have to tie up all loose ends—some of the best short stories leave you wondering—but it should bring your narrative arc to a close. It could be a resolution, a revelation, or a reflection. Surprise endings can be effective, but avoid them if they feel forced or out of sync with the rest of the story. Personally, I find that the best endings echo or resonate with the beginning in some way, giving the story a sense of completion and wholeness.
33. How much should I revise my short story before submitting it to a contest?
Revision is key to polishing your story. It’s where you refine your plot, deepen your characters, and clear out any kinks. My initial drafts often look nothing like the final version. However, avoid the trap of endless revisions. It can be easy to get stuck in a loop of tweaking and adjusting, always finding something to change. At some point, you have to let it go. So, revise thoroughly, but set a limit. Maybe it’s three drafts, maybe five—find what works for you. And always leave time for proofreading. Nothing irks a judge more than sloppy errors in a submission. Do the best you can in the time that you have, then hit send.
34. Can I get someone else to proofread my short story before submitting it to a contest?
Absolutely, and I highly recommend it! A second pair of eyes can catch errors you’ve overlooked, and provide feedback from a reader’s perspective. They might spot inconsistencies, confusing sections, or areas that need more clarity or detail. However, make sure you trust the person’s judgment and that they understand your vision for the story. Also, be open to criticism—it’s part of the process and will only make your story stronger. Once you have their feedback, it’s up to you to decide which piece of advice to take on board.
35. Can I submit a short story that has already been published to a contest?
Again, this depends on the contest rules. Many contests require that the submission be an unpublished work, while others may allow previously published stories. Always check the guidelines carefully. If you submit a previously published story to a contest that requires unpublished works, it could result in disqualification. My advice is always to err on the side of caution and respect the rules of the contest.
36. How much importance should I place on the theme of the short story contest?
The theme of a short story contest is usually there for a reason and should form the backbone of your story. I’ve always found themes to be an exciting challenge—they can focus your creativity and inspire you to write something you might not have otherwise. But remember, it’s not about shoehorning the theme into your story. Instead, allow it to organically weave itself into the fabric of your narrative. The best thematic stories are those where the theme is explored in depth and adds an extra layer of meaning to the work.
37. What if I feel my story isn’t good enough to submit to a contest?
Doubt is a writer’s constant companion, and it’s perfectly normal to feel this way. But remember, you are your own harshest critic. What you might see as imperfections could be the very things that make your story stand out to a judge. It’s important to recognize these doubts but not let them hold you back. Take the plunge, submit your story—you might be pleasantly surprised. Remember, every great writer started somewhere, and every story you write, whether it wins or not, is a stepping stone on your writing journey.
38. What if my short story exceeds the word limit for a contest?
If your story exceeds the word limit, it’s time for some ruthless editing. Contests are generally strict about word limits, and exceeding them could result in disqualification. Look for redundancies, unnecessary details, or scenes that don’t contribute to your story’s core. It can be hard to cut words, especially when you feel every single one is vital, but remember: brevity is the soul of wit. Through this process, you’ll likely end up with a sharper, more focused story. It’s an essential skill in writing, particularly in short fiction.
39. Can I write a genre short story for a contest?
Absolutely! Genre stories—whether sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, or horror—can make fantastic entries in short story contests. The key is to ensure your story is compelling and well-written, no matter the genre. Keep in mind, though, to always check the contest guidelines. Some contests may specifically ask for literary fiction or restrict certain genres. As always, understanding your audience (in this case, the judges) is vital, and delivering a story that fits within the guidelines while showcasing your unique voice and vision will increase your chances of success. The Letter Review Prize for Short Fiction accepts stories of all genres. Click here to Enter.
40. Is it better to write about what you know for a short story contest?
Writing about what you know can certainly add a layer of authenticity and depth to your story. However, don’t limit yourself. Fiction is a space to explore, to empathize, to step into other lives and worlds. Don’t be afraid to research, imagine, and write about what you don’t know. The key is to do it respectfully and convincingly. So yes, start with what you know, but don’t be afraid to venture into the unknown.
41. Should my short story for a contest have a moral or a message?
Not necessarily. While stories can certainly convey morals or messages, it’s not a requirement. The goal of your story should primarily be to engage and resonate with your reader. If you do choose to incorporate a moral or message, ensure it’s woven subtly into the narrative. Nothing turns a reader off faster than feeling like they’re being preached to. In my experience, the most potent messages are those that emerge naturally from the plot and characters, not those that are forced upon the reader.
42. What are common mistakes to avoid when entering a short story contest?
Oh, where to start! Some common mistakes include not following the submission guidelines (I can’t stress this enough), not proofreading your work (typos and grammatical errors can be off-putting), submitting your first draft (always revise and polish your story), and telling rather than showing (a crucial writing technique). Also, avoid cliches, be wary of unnecessary adverbs, and ensure your dialogue is natural and engaging. And lastly, stay true to your voice.
43. What is a common reason short stories get rejected from contests?
Rejection can be a result of several factors, many of which are outside of your control—like the personal tastes of the judges or the immense competition. However, some common reasons within your control include not adhering to the contest guidelines, grammatical errors, lack of originality, or weak characterization or plot. I’ve also found that stories that don’t evoke an emotional response or make us laugh often don’t make the cut. Remember, every rejection is an opportunity to learn and grow as a writer.
44. Are contests looking for a specific writing style or voice?
While certain contests might lean towards a particular genre or theme, most aren’t looking for a specific writing style or voice. In fact, diversity and originality in voice and style often stand out to judges. So, my advice is to hone your unique voice and style instead of trying to fit a perceived mold. That being said, it’s always good to familiarize yourself with the contest and its past winners to get a sense of what the judges might appreciate.
45. What’s the value of winning a short story contest?
Winning a short story contest can bring numerous benefits. It can give you significant exposure, help build your writing resume, and open doors to further opportunities. It can also provide valuable external validation and boost your confidence as a writer. Moreover, some contests offer cash prizes, publication, or even mentoring as part of the prize. But remember, the journey is as important as the destination. Every contest you enter, win or lose, is part of your growth as a writer.
46. What should I do if I don’t win a short story contest?
First, remember that not winning isn’t a measure of your worth as a writer. Contests are highly subjective and competitive. If you don’t win, take it as an opportunity to learn. Seek feedback if it’s offered, and apply it to your future work. Keep writing, keep refining your craft, and keep submitting. Persistence is often the key in the writing world. From personal experience, I can tell you that every “no” brings you one step closer to a “yes.”
47. Any last pieces of advice for entering short story contests?
One piece of advice I’d give is to enjoy the process. Writing for contests can be an exciting creative challenge—embrace it. Make sure you’re writing stories you’re passionate about, not just what you think judges want to read. Write, revise, submit, and then keep writing. Every word you write is progress, and every story you finish is an achievement in itself. And most importantly, never stop believing in yourself and your work. You’ve got this!
The Letter Review Prize is open for submissions. Our writing contest is awarded every two months, with a total Prize pool of $3800 USD and publication for our winners. 20 writers are Longlisted, and the winners are considered for submission to the Pushcart Prize and other prestigious anthologies. All entries are considered for publication. The categories are Short Fiction (up to 5000 words), Poetry (up to 70 lines), Nonfiction (up to 5000 words), and Manuscripts (Novels, Story Collections, Poetry Collections, and Nonfiction).