A Writer’s Guide to Online Contests

For aspiring writers, there are several different ways to connect with agents (and editors) to represent your work. By far the most common is cold querying (which, contrary to what some believe, does work). You can meet agents at writing conferences (I did)–and you can participate in online writing contests.

I love a good writing contest. Even though that’s not how I got my agent, online contests were a big part of my querying process.

Right now, with the Pitch Wars mentor blog hop going on and the Pitch Wars submission window just around the corner (August 17th), it seems like a great time to revisit online contests. (Full disclosure: I’m mentoring Pitch Wars this year. It’s a great contest, and if you have a polished manuscript, you should consider entering!)


Why should you enter online writing contests?

1. Get feedback

Most writing contests are a great way to get feedback–from judges, other writers, agents, even editors. Even if you don’t get “picked” for a contest, you can learn something by looking at the entries that do get in. Are they doing something different in the query? In their pages? Every contest I’ve entered has taught me something about how my pages are working.

2. Meet other writers

One of my favorite part of writing contests is meeting other writers. During Pitch Wars last fall, someone started a facebook group for the contestants. That group has been a mine of support, information, and feedback. (They even helped me with this post!) Not every contest will do that, but a lot of contests have a heavy twitter presence: find other authors hanging out on the hashtag and start chatting (#pitchwars, #pitmad, and more).

3. Get a sense of the market

Contests can be helpful to get a sense for what else is currently being queried. By looking at the winners of different contests, you can see what genres agents are interested in and which are oversaturated. Contests can also give you a sense of how competitive your work is: in my first online contest, I was shocked by how good some of the other entries were, and I learned to set my bar much higher.

4. Find representation

Of course, the goal of many of these contests is to find an agent who’s interested in your work. Some agents only accept work from contests, conference attendees, or referrals, so they can be a place to put your work before someone who might not otherwise see it. Sometimes contests get agents to see your work in a new light–I’ve had agents request who had previously rejected my query.

But remember, not all good agents participate in contests (mine doesn’t). Not all contest agents are good agents–do your due diligence before submitting to anyone who requests! And not all requests lead to offers.

For me, finding an agent would be the icing on the cake of a good contest–it’s great to have, but you can get a lot out of a contest even without that (see above).


What contests are out there?

Obviously, a post like this can’t be fully comprehensive. But here are some contests that I and some of my writer friends think are worthwhile. If you’re looking for a list of judged contests, like the RWA’s Golden Heart award, here’s a great list.

Monthly Contests

Miss Snark’s First Victim also hosts a monthly secret agent contest. MSFV invites all those who enter to comment on other people’s entries–I know Tasha, Elaine and I have all participated and had some good feedback this way. MSFV was one of the first contests I actually won–even though that partial request turned into a “no” it was a good confidence boost for me.

First Five Pages, sponsored by Adventures in YA Publishing, accepts the first five pages of a MG or YA novel the first Saturday of every month. Martina Boone, Lisa Gail Green, and/or a guest mentor will offer feedback on how the beginning is working. (This isn’t necessarily a contest, but a great way to get feedback). 

Operation Awesome’s Mystery Agent Contests: the first of each month, Operation Awesome hosts a contest where a mystery agent (identity revealed when the contest is over) picks their favorite pitch from that month’s entries. The entry requirements vary by agent. (The last one was in April, so follow their blog or twitter account to see when they start up again). 


Annual or Semi-Annual Contests

Pitch Wars might be the best known of the annual contests: last fall they had over 1200 applicants and expect that many or more this fall. Hosted by the indefatigable Brenda Drake (if you’re not already following her on twitter @brendadrake, you should! She knows tons and she hosts awesome contests), applicants are invited to submit their query and first chapter to five mentors. Each mentor (an agented or published author) chooses one mentee and helps them revise their *entire* manuscript before posting a pitch and first page for the agent round. I’m a mentor this year (for YA) and I couldn’t be more excited! Entries are due August 17th (though Brenda may open the submission window early). Check out #PitchWars for writing tips and more contest information.

Pitch Madness is also hosted by Brenda Drake (along with her minions and slush zombies). Here again writers submit a pitch and their first 250, then the contest coordinators chose 64 to vie for agent attention. This usually alternates with Pitch Wars (a fall contest) and is held in the Spring.The contest schedule for both Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness can be found here.

 Adventures in YA Publishing has hosted a variety of different contests. Last fall, I participated in #pitchplus5. Fifty applicants submitted their first five pages, which were then posted for comments from the community. Bloggers picked the top 25, which were revised and posted again with a short pitch. Published authors picked the top ten, which were again polished and posted for the agent round. Their most recent version of this was a pitch plus the first page, also with feedback. I had a lot of fun with this contest last fall: I got some great feedback and several agent requests (a few that turned into offers)–and the two of us who were the grand prize winners now both have three-book contracts. I’m just sayin’. 

Write Inclusively is a brand new contest focusing on manuscripts that address at least one diverse aspect: class, race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. The submission window opens September 4-6.

Pitch Slam, a newer contest hosted by L.L. McKinney is a bi-annual contest (usually March and October) involving 35 word pitches and the first 250 words of a manuscript, which you revise for the agent round.

Nightmare on Query Street has been held the last two Octobers; I assume it will go again this fall but I’m not sure. The entries required standard genre and wordcount information, the first page, and a paragraph about the main character’s biggest fear. Follow the hashtag #NightmareQuery for more information.

Nest Pitch, like the Writer’s Voice, asks for short submissions (35 word pitch, 300 word entry) that are then claimed by various teams who compete against each other for the most agent requests. In the past, this contest has been held in April.

The Writer’s Voice, hosted by Mother.Write.Repeat, along with LoveYA, Cupid’s Literary Connection and Brenda Drake each May. For this contest, each of the sponsoring blogs chooses a “team” of strong writing entries and compete for agent attention. One of the cool things about this contest was that even those who weren’t chosen had an opportunity to have their submission posted on a blog and get feedback from other entrants. Follow @monica_bw for details.
Query Kombat involves 64 entries, facing off against one another in single-elimination tournament style. Fair warning: while I have writer friends who have done well in this contest, others have found the elimination style hard on their writing ego. This contest is held every few months, so follow the blog for updated information.

Pitch to Publication is another contest that, like Pitch Wars, offers a full manuscript critique for selected entries, followed by an agent round and a publisher’s round. This contest is currently ongoing, so follow Samantha Fountain’s blog for details of the next contest.

Miss Snark’s First Victim retired her The Baker’s Dozen last fall, but she periodically does in-house critiques and rumor has it there’s something in the works to replace Baker’s Dozen, so keep an eye on her site. 

Twitter Pitch Parties

There are lots of different twitter pitch parties out there, which generally give you a window (usually 24 hours) to tweet pitches using a hashtag. You can search the hashtags for more information. Some of the most common include

  • #pitmad (following Pitch Madness), 
  • #sffpit (exclusively for Sci-fi/fantasy), 
  • #adpit (for adult novels), 
  • #pitchmas (usually July and December), 
  • #kidpit  November 12, for children’s books (picture books-YA)

Gina Denny has an awesome post on twitter pitches that you  need to read if you’re thinking of pitching.
Not enough for you? Here’s an even more comprehensive list.

What contests have you entered and enjoyed? What questions do you have about writing contests?

5 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide to Online Contests

  1. Thank you so much for this. I am just getting into the writing community and it seems difficult to break into. It is a very tight knit community, which is great but challenging. I thought I might just write for fun but if there are contests open to anyone, I might just give myself a shot and take this seriously.

    Lucius Cambell @ Skild


  2. What an excellent resource! Thank you for the advice and the encouragement. I was thinking of spreading my wings more, and I like a challenge! I almost wonder if I should not be a professional challenge organizer, but first, I need to take on my goal of succeeding and writing professionally and impress the heck out of my family!

    Lucius Cambell @ Skild


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