Do you dream of getting your first publication credit or book out into the world?
Then, writer, I have a question for you:
Are you submitting your work to CNF contests?
For many writers, literary awards aren’t really on their radar. They may know they exist, but they aren’t including contests as part of their publication strategy. Many don’t believe their work will place in a contest—they have no chance of winning, so why bother?
CNF contests are worth submitting to, even if you’re a new writer. In fact, they’re a fantastic place to start. If your hope is to one day publish a book, you need to build up your literary CV. Award nominations, like publication credits and contest wins, prove to a potential publisher that your book proposal has merit.
Everyone expects the path to publication will include rejections. It can take time to get that first acceptance from a literary journal. But your chances of appearing on a long or shortlist and winning a contest are likely far better than you realize. Most writers focus on submitting to journals; far fewer writers think to enter contests, especially in the early stages of their careers. A smaller pool of contest entries means your polished piece has a much better chance to stand out and shine!
I did some research on literary contests, asking editors in the U.S. and Canada about the number of entries they typically receive for CNF contests. The answer was unanimous: The number of CNF entries is typically far fewer than entries for fiction or poetry contests. Your odds of placing in a CNF contest are 2-3 x higher than if you were to enter a contest in the other genres.
If that’s not enough to include CNF contests as part of your overall strategy to achieve your big writing goals, here are a few more reasons to start submitting now, and a few tips to help your work rise to the top:
1. Longlists can be, well, long.
It’s not uncommon for a contest longlist to include the names of up to 15 or more writers. Landing on a longlist is an award nomination. Sounds impressive, right?
This is an important point to remember. You don’t have to win a writing contest for it to matter. A nomination is an honor in and of itself. Take the nomination, add it to your CV, share the good news on social media and keep submitting. Maybe the next longlist will lead to being selected as a finalist, or your piece will win.
2. Keep track of your submissions
The writers whose names consistently appear on contest shortlists share something in common: they’re organized and consistent.
I recommend setting up a simple system to help you keep track of each piece you’ve submitted, and a “Plan B” for where you’ll submit it if it doesn’t win. That way you won’t waste time figuring out your next move; each piece is always in circulation, being considered for its next literary home.
On my contest tracking spreadsheet, I include my essay title, contest entry date, acceptance/rejection date, and a list of possible contests to re-direct each piece to next.
3. Don’t skip this step
Although the pool of entries for CNF contests is smaller than fiction or poetry, you’re still going to have to find a way to stand out among at least 100 other entries.
The most effective way I know to do this is to turn your attention to your story’s shape.
In Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction, I wrote about how experimenting with structure—particularly the visual essay—could help writers explore their material in surprising and powerful new ways.
This playful experimentation has been the key to my success, and the high success rate of my students when it comes to awards and publications.
When writers experiment with form, they innovate, pushing the boundaries of the essay further—creating something so unique in the process they surprise themselves. As you craft your next story, think about how form and content can work together to amplify your story’s meaning. How might you use the element of surprise to capture a judge’s attention as you tell your story in a way no one has told it before?
For more ideas and inspiration, check out the resources I’ve included at the end of this article.
Good luck, Writer – I can’t wait to read your name on a contest shortlist soon!
CNF Contest Resource
Free video training: