Kick Starting Your Writing Career | Resources | Tips for Winning Short Stories

Marie Hannan-Mandel

Entering writing competitions is a great way to get yourself writing. I’ve been a competition junkie since I entered the Cosmopolitan Young Journalist Contest when I was in secondary school. We’d been on a school tour to England and had purchased a Cosmo. It was difficult to get that sort of magazine in Ireland at the time, and we felt very sophisticated. I entered and was runner-up, received a telegram, which as it coincided with my Leaving Cert results made me think, for a few minutes, that the Minister of Education had written urgently to warn me how bad my results were going to be. My piece and my picture appeared in Cosmopolitan. I was famous, for a minute or two.

Did I do anything with that win? No, not really, but it showed me that I wasn’t totally mad in thinking I could write. I spent years chipping away at one project or another, entering competitions when the mood struck me, and not writing very seriously.

When I came back to it in earnest, I found carefully chosen contests to be a great way to kick start my writing. Competitions, by their nature, give you a deadline. If you’re like me, a deadline is crucial. Give me two years, I’ll take two years. Give me two months–and two months it is.

Fast forward to this January when I entered the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger contest. I’d been working on the book for a long time and thought it was done, having been polished it to within an inch of its life with the help of my writing group. If you don’t have a writing group, join one. If you can’t find one, start one. But that’s another article…

The news that I’d been short listed came at just the right time. I’d been tortured with thoughts that I had wasted my energies on writing when I wasn’t good enough.

A week or two later, still high on the thought of heading to London to hear if I’d won the Dagger (the event is on July 15th), I made the long list for the Crime Bake short story competition and it seemed as if I was suddenly on the right track. Without these contests and all the ones before them, I might still be wondering.

So, what do you need to keep in mind when entering competitions?

Follow the rules. Yes, they do mean it. And why risk having your work thrown away before it’s even read?

Don’t enter every writing contest that comes your way. Evaluate what the competition will do for your writing. Does one of these apply?

  • Do you need low stakes (i.e. small local competitions) writing practice? Tick.
  • Do you find the topic interesting and believe you can do a good job? Tick.
  • Do you think you’re ready to move onto the next level (whatever that is)? Tick.
  • Do you want the cash prize? Half-tick. I’m afraid I’m one of those purists who believe that if you’re not writing for writing’s sake you should go off and become a gold prospector. The chances of you making money are higher in that line of business than they are for making a lot of dosh writing.
  • You want to be published at any cost? No tick. You don’t. At least you probably don’t. There are quite a number of competitions for unpublished authors. If you win one of these and it’s not a major prize, you’ve lost your opportunity to submit to a better venue. Here’s an example: as an attendee of the upcoming Bouchercon Mystery Convention I could enter a contest for an unpublished writer of fiction. The prize is publication in the Bouchercon program book and acknowledgement at the Reception. That’s lovely. However, it means that for many other unpublished short story competitions I would then be deemed ineligible. How many people are likely to read the program? And does it look like a serious credit? Maybe, or maybe not. Don’t take yourself out of the running for a more useful win unless you’re really sure it’s the right win for you.

Be careful about entry fees. Entry fees are required by most competitions, so don’t give an important one a miss because of this. However, think about the potential reward when sending off these fees. Is it worth the price?

Verify that the contest is genuine. With few exceptions, a competition should have a website attached to it. Don’t send money blind. Does a website mean it’s genuine? Not necessarily. Check with resources which list competitions (see below) and if a competition does not appear anywhere else, be cautious.

Where do you find out about contests?

I have a few suggestions, and while this list is by no means exhaustive, it will send you in the right direction.

Why not start where you are? is a great resource. I sit in my office at a college in upstate New York and read it avidly. Check their competitions page, but also their submission opportunities pages for magazines (online and in print) looking for stories, poems or articles.

There are two major UK writing magazines: Writer’s News and Writers’ Forum which have contest information and are available by subscription and in major booksellers like Easons.

Are you interested in US competitions? There are a few American writing magazines – Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poets and Writers. Each has a very useful website which you can access for free whether or not you subscribe to the magazines. A great web list to join is CRWOPPS which sends out frequent notifications about competitions and writing opportunities in all genres. You can join at

Competitions are a great way of writing with discipline and purpose. They can be challenging and fun. As long as you know what you’re getting into and consider every submission a step along your writing path, these contests could well bring you closer to your writing goals.

About the author

Marie Hannan-Mandel, raised in Ireland, lives in Elmira Heights, NY with her husband, two partially-launched adult children, and a Chorkie, Horace. She summers in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry. She is editor of the Noose, the newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America–New York chapter.

Marie has been short listed for the 2013 Crime Writers’ Association (UK) Debut Dagger Award. An Assistant Professor in English at Corning Community College, Marie received an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine.

You can contact Marie on Facebook

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