Creative Writing Short Story Essay Contest

The cash prizes. The chance to be published. The bragging rights over everyone who gives you that look when you say you’re a writer.

There are plenty of good reasons to enter writing contests, but there are also plenty of reasons to be careful about the ones you choose. How do you know if a contest is worth its entry fee? How do you know if it’s even a real contest?

Before you enter, here are eight big questions to consider.

1 Are the sponsors on the up-and-up? Look for contests sponsored by nonprofit literary groups, established publications, reputable publishing houses, colleges and universities. Some small presses run contests simply to find books to publish. While this can be legitimate, be wary of any that have said in past years that they didn’t find anything publishable—yet they kept the entry money. Annual contests should provide, either on their website or upon request, a list of past winners.

2 Have you read the rules carefully? Make sure the contest rules state the following: deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes, circumstances in which prizes will or won’t be awarded, judging and what rights, if any, you’re granting. Some competitions are for already published works, while others specify only unpublished writings. Is the deadline when entries must be postmarked or received? Are e-mailed entries accepted? Will the work be returned? Can you submit a work that’s won or placed in other contests? (If so, that’s a good way to wring more money or other perks from one good work.) Follow instructions. There will always be those who think the rules don’t apply to them—but if that’s you, your entry could be tossed before anyone even reads it. Finally, double-check all information to be sure it’s up to date, especially if it came from a book or magazine.

3 Is the entry fee reasonable? Most contests charge fees, usually ranging from $5 to $25. For one thing, it’s time-consuming to administer a contest, but sponsors may also want to make a profit. No harm in that, but you must consider what you’re potentially getting in exchange for what you’re giving. It’s not unheard of to see something like an entry fee of $25 for a prize of $30. Expect fees to be commensurate with the prize and how big the “names” are judging the contest.

4 Who’s doing the judging? Judges should be published writers, past contest winners, editors at publishing houses or representatives from known literary organizations. Sometimes sponsors won’t release the judges’ names, however, for privacy concerns. At a minimum, try to find out if the judges are professors at prestigious universities, authors published with recognized houses or the like. Another important element: Will the judges provide a critique? This can be arduous for the judges (said from personal experience) but highly beneficial to the often-solitary writer. Contests with constructive feedback are easily worth the entry fee.

5 Have you protected your rights? Don’t ever agree to give up the copyright to your work to enter a contest. For some competitions, if you win, you may have to license some of the rights—one-time publication rights, for example. But don’t sign all your rights away.

I can’t emphasize enough to read the fine print of the contest rules. Check if they’re doing a sneaky rights-grab. For instance, there are some contests where the main prize is the publication of your book. One such contest’s rules state that, although the winner keeps the copyright, the sponsor takes an “irrevocable, exclusive, royalty-free, time-unlimited, and world-wide right to use the work in whole or part for any and all purposes related to the commercial exploitation of the work.” And this is if you win?

Also, some contest rules state that you “shall receive a standard sponsor author agreement” if you win the book contract, an agreement that might even set forth the advance and royalty rates. But you’d probably be better off simply submitting the work through regular channels, and then being able to negotiate your contract like you always should.

Finally, see if you can submit your work elsewhere while the contest is being finalized. If you can’t, it could tie up your work for months.

6 Do you suspect a scam? In general, be wary of submitting to contests where your work is pub-lished only online (unless it’s a well-known website) or published only in an anthology that winners have to pay to receive. You may initially be excited to receive a letter saying your work has been selected to be included in a book, only to find you must buy a copy—preferably multiple copies—for your friends and family. In some cases, the “winners” could be everyone who enters the contest, and the sponsor makes money through selling the books to contest entrants.

Also beware of contests run by individuals who stand to profit from your work, such as book doctors, or literary agencies where the prize is representation but with heavy “editing fees.” Stay away from contests that reserve the right to award prizes on a pro rata basis (where the prize amounts are determined by the number of entrants). These exist simply to make money for the organizer.

7 Does your work shout, “Pick me! Pick me!”? It’s easy for judges to discard the bad and the mediocre. Then they have their stack of “good.” Once you’re in the good pile, how do you make it to the top?

Just as you should read back issues of magazines you hope to write for, try to read previous winners’ work. Most contests list previous winners online. This way, you’ll know what the contest organizers seem to respond to. That’s not to say you should change your writing to make it similar to previous entries. But if the winners have a totally different style than yours, you may want to reconsider that contest.

Any contest sponsor is looking for an original voice, solid writing and a good story. But if it’s a publishing house sponsoring the competition, salability matters most. They’re looking for commercial viability, quality of research and presentation, and media potential.

Julie Weary, the grand-prize winner of the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition in 1997, now judges competitions and also continues to enter them. She says that the writer’s voice and “the ability to hook me right away” are what grab her when judging. “Weak openings and poor, predictable endings are a sure way to be knocked out of the running,” she adds.

When I judged a self-published books contest a few years ago, I discovered that looks do indeed count when narrowing down the choices. Presentation and appearance are extremely important. Whether you’re submitting a finished book or a short story, your package should be professional, clean and attractive. Don’t bribe contest officials; your work should stand on its own. No candy, baked goods or flowers (yes, this happens). No hand-written entries, no fancy fonts, no colored paper. Read your entry aloud from a hard copy before sending it in. You’ll be surprised at the typos and mistakes you’ll catch.

Don’t mistake these for minor details. If the judge likes your work, but it comes down to yours and another great entry that has excellent grammar and spelling, the professional work wins every time. As Weary says, “I know for a fact that if all things are equal, those missteps will mean the difference between success and failure.”

8 What do you really win: prizes, publication, publicity? Money is always welcome. But there are also prizes of publication (which, again, can be a mixed blessing, depending on whether you’re allowed to negotiate the contract), or having the opportunity to meet with agents or editors who can help your career. Prizes might also be products, like books or magazine subscriptions, or services such as publicity from an outside PR firm or manuscript editing. With these sorts of prizes, be sure the services are free to you and not some back-door way to get you to pay extra. Winning (or even placing in a contest that names runners-up) can generate invaluable publicity.

The proof is in the payoff

Entering good contests can pay off in some interesting ways, even if you don’t win. For example:

TEST MARKETING AND MENTORS: Romance writer Ruth Kaufman says she enters contests to get her work in front of editors and agents who are judging. This way, she gets an idea of what they think of her work before formally submitting to them—in some cases, she’s even received requests for more material. As an unexpected benefit, she’s developed friendships with co-finalists and authors who’ve judged her work. She even found a mentor in one of her favorite authors.

KICKSTARTS: Other writers don’t enter contests necessarily to win, but to give themselves deadlines and a particular assignment. Pat Remick took on a “3-Day Novel” contest to make a substantial start on a murder mystery she’d been mulling over for a while.

CREDENTIALS BOOSTER: Mary Hutchings Reed, a novelist, enters contests to provide credentials for her cover letter. She enters the well-known contests on the “off-chance something good will happen.” But generally she finds that those that have several winners—five to 10 runners-up—provide better bang for her buck. She’s won one first prize in a “first chapter” contest and some honorable mentions in smaller contests. Mostly what she’s gotten out of entering contests, she says, is “a lesson in perseverance.”

STEPPING-STONE: Weary met with four magazine editors in New York City upon winning the WD Annual Writing Competition. This led to an essay published in Good Housekeeping. She says that more than merely opening doors, however, winning “gave me the confidence to knock where I might not have otherwise knocked. As a consequence, one success led to another.” Also, Weary says an agent eager to see her work contacted her. This is a common occurrence for winners—agents pay close attention to the bigger contests for ripe pickings. Like Reed, Weary looks for contests that have more than one winner or those that provide a year’s subscription for the entry fee, so she can study the types of stories that are winning. With short stories, she says you’ll generally make more winning a contest than you would selling to a literary journal (of course, you do have to win). But it’s not about the money; “it’s about the validation.”

It helps to be pretty thick-skinned if you’re going to enter contests. But anyone who writes for more than pure personal satisfaction knows that rejection is part of the deal. As Remick says, “the creative experience is worth the risk.”

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In a world where J.K. Rowling’s manuscript of “Harry Potter” was rejected 12 times and Kathryn Stockett’s manuscript of “The Help” was rejected 60 times, it can be easy to become despondent about publishing your fiction, even more so for teenage writers aching to voice their thoughts to the world.

However, there’s an abundance of writing competitions year round for teens and writing contests for high school students  — you just need to know where to look. 

Here, I compiled a list of 33 writing contests for teens. Genres include: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, screenplays, and plays.

Some of these contests may sound like the competition is too stiff, especially if the organization receives thousands of submissions every year. But speaking from personal experience, you never know unless you try. Rejections will pile up for young authors, but so will acceptances accompanied by whoops and fist pumps.

Additionally, the experiences offered by certain teen contests such as working with professionals, revisiting your work, and perhaps even seeing it come to life either in a publication or on stage is indescribably rewarding and gratifying. 

So, young writers, submit on!

1. Ocean Awareness Student Contest

The theme is “Making Meaning out of Ocean Pollution,” and it challenges you to research, explore, interpret, and say something meaningful about the connections between human activities and the health of our oceans. Prizes range from $100-$1,500.

Grades: Middle school – High school

Deadline: June

2. Rattle Young Poets Anthology

This is an anthology to look back on the past and view your younger work with pride. The author of the poem must have been age 15 or younger when the poem was written, and 18 or younger when submitted.

Ages: 18 or younger

Number of submissions: “Thousands” are submitted, 50 are chosen.

Deadline: June


3. Inkitt Novel Contest

If you have a novel over 20,000 words, submit it to this contest where a community of readers will read your story. The more they love it, the better chance you have of winning a publishing deal.

Think of it as American Idol for your novel.

Plus, all published authors with Inkitt receive these great perks:

  • $6,000+ invested into your book launch
  • 25% royalties on every copy sold
  • Cover design and professional editing
  • Publicity on Amazon (over 90% of their books become bestsellers right after launching)

This is a fantastic contest that can get you a ton of exposure and even result in a book deal. Read the reviews on their website and submit today. It’s free and easy to upload your manuscript and have readers start reading your work immediately.

4. Hypernova Lit

Any and all types of writing are welcome. Long short stories, short short stories, prose poetry, traditional poetry, blackout poetry, creative accounts of your life and experiences, essays about yourself, essays about what you love, plays, scripts, letters, lists, rants, lyrics, journal writing.

Ages: All

Deadline: Open Year-round


5. Princeton University Poetry Contest for High School Students 

The Princeton University Poetry Contest recognizes outstanding work by student writers in the 11th grade. Prizes: First Prize – $500, Second Prize – $250, Third Prize – $100.

Grades: 11

Deadline: Fall

6. The Bennington Young Writers Awards

Students in the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades enter in one of the following categories: poetry (a group of three poems), fiction (a short story or one-act play), or nonfiction (a personal or academic essay). First-place winners in each category are awarded a prize of $500; second-place winners receive $250.

Grades: 10-12

Deadline: Fall


If you’ve wanted to publish a book for as long as you can remember, I can help.

I’m John Matthew Fox, founder of Bookfox, and I help writers improve their books so they can find their dream publisher.

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7. Canvas Literary Journal

Teen literary magazine published quarterly.

Seeking writers ages 13-18 to submit fiction, novel excerpts, poetry, plays, nonfiction, new media, and cross-genre.

Ages: 13-18

Deadline: Fall


8. The New Voices One-Act Competition for Young Playwrights

Submit your best one-act play (one per playwright!) to the New Voices competition and you can potentially win cash, software from fabulous sponsors Final Draft and Great Dialogue, and even publication!

Ages: 19 or younger

Submission period: Fall

9. Princeton University 10 Minute Play Contest

Eligibility for this annual playwriting contest is limited to students in the eleventh grade. Prizes: First Prize – $500, Second Prize – $250, Third Prize – $100. The jury consists of members of the Princeton University Program in Theater faculty.

Grades: 11

Deadline: Fall

10. Jet Fuel Review

Through Lewis University, Jet Fuel Review is run entirely by students under the supervision of faculty advisers Dr. Simone Muench and Dr. Jackie White.

Jet Fuel Review is looking for quality in writing, whether it be in poetry, prose, non-fiction, or artwork.

Submission periods: August to October; January to March


11. Scholastic Art & Writing Awards

Since 1923, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards have recognized the vision, ingenuity, and talent of our nation’s youth. Through the Awards, students receive opportunities for recognition, exhibition, publication, and scholarships. 

Students across America submitted nearly 320,000 original works during our 2016 program year across 29 different categories of art and writing. 

Grades: 7-12

Submissions period: September to December

In this handbook for young writers, “Spilling Ink,” professional authors give advice to teens who want to become authors.

By mixing personal anecdotes with practical advice, this book offers everything a young author will need to create incredible stories.

12. One Teen Story

One Teen Story is an award-winning literary magazine for readers and writers of young adult literature. Subscribers receive one curated and edited work of short fiction each month in the mail or on their digital devices.

Ages: 13-19

Submission period: September to May

13. The Claremont Review

The editors of the Claremont Review publish the best poetry, short stories, short plays, visual art, and photography by young adults. We publish work in many styles that range from traditional to modern. 

We prefer pieces that explore real characters and reveal authentic emotion. 

Ages: 13-19

Submission period: September to April


14. Nancy Thorp Poetry Contest

Sponsored by Hollins University, the Nancy Thorp Poetry Contest is in its fifty-second year. The contest awards prizes for the best poems submitted by young women who are sophomores or juniors in high school or preparatory school. Prizes up to $5,000 are awarded to winners. Winners are chosen by students and faculty members in the creative writing program at Hollins.

Grades: 11-12

Deadline: October

15.VSA Playwright Discovery Competition

Each year, young writers with and without disabilities, in U.S. grades 6-12 (or equivalents) or ages 11-18 for non-U.S. students, are asked to explore the disability experience through the art of script writing for stage or screen.

Writers may craft scripts from their own experiences and observations, create fictional characters and settings, or choose to write metaphorically or abstractly about the disability experience. Winners in these divisions will receive $500 for arts programs at their schools.

Grades: 6-12 OR Ages: 11-18

Deadline: October

16. YoungArts

The National YoungArts Foundation identifies and nurtures the most accomplished young artists in the visual, literary, design and performing arts and assists them at critical junctures in their educational and professional development. 

Additionally, YoungArts Winners are eligible for nomination as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts, one of the nation’s highest honors for high school students who exemplify academic and artistic excellence. 

Ages: 15-18 OR Grades: 10-12

Deadline: October 

17. The Critical Junior Poet’s Award Contest

The Critical Pass Review is now accepting submissions online for its Critical Junior Poet’s Award Contest, an editor’s choice award for exceptional promise in the art of poetry. Applicants between the ages of 13 and 18 can enter for free. The winner will receive a $100 cash prize, a $20 iTunes card, a CD of master poets reading their poetry, publication of his/her winning work in The Critical Pass Review‘s Summer 2016 issue, and more.

Ages: 13-18

Submissions period:November to March

“Leap Write In!” is from acclaimed author Karen Benke, who does a fantastic job helping teen writers to generate ideas for their next story.

This book has an amazing spread of writing prompts, all designed to get your heart on the page and the reader’s heart in their throat. 

18. The Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers

The Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers recognizes outstanding young poets and is open to high school sophomores and juniors throughout the world. The contest winner receives a full scholarship to the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop.

Grades: 10-11

Deadline: November

19. Santa Fe University of Arts & Design High School Creative Writing Competition

The Glazner Creative Writing Contest is an opportunity for high school juniors and seniors to compete for a chance at publication in Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s online journal, Jackalope Magazine. To enter, students must submit up to 10 pages of work in any genre to our contest email address (ude.y1520979317tisre1520979317vinue1520979317fatna1520979317s@tse1520979317tnoc1520979317).

Grades: 11-12

Deadline: November to December

20. Young Authors Writing Competition (Columbia College Chicago)

The Young Authors Writing Competition is a national competition for high school writers of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry. It began as a local contest in 1995, and since then has expanded into a national competition that has received tens of thousands of submissions from students across the country. 1st Place: $300, 2nd Place: $150, and 3rd Place: $50.

Grades: 9-12

Submission period: November to January

21. Odyssey Con

The OddContest is an annual competition for speculative (science fiction, fantasy, or horror) stories or prose poems no longer than 500 words. Prizes: $50 to first place; Odyssey Con membership and free books to top 3.

Ages: 18 or younger

Deadline: January

22. Young Playwrights INC.

Selected writers will be invited to New York, expenses paid, for our Young Playwrights Conference to work with some of this country’s most exciting professional theater artists, and to hear their plays read in our Off-Broadway Readings Series.

Ages18 or younger

Deadline: January

23. University of Iowa – Hemingway Festival High School Writing Contest

Accepting Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Essays.

Winners and Finalists will be recognized at the 7th Annual University of Idaho Hemingway Festival, and cash prizes will be awarded in each category. Winners will also be considered for publication in an online University of Idaho publication. There will be one winner and one Finalist in each category with one Overall Grand Prize Winner. Cash prizes up to $500.

Grades: 11-12

Deadline: January

24. Interlochen Review

Interlochen Arts Academy is a high school boarding school and summer camp. It online literary journal accepts submissions from high school students in five categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry, Screen/Stageplay and Hybrid form. Up to 6 pieces total.

Grades: 9-12

Submissions Period: February to March

25. Aerie International Journal

Aerie International was born of a desire to offer outstanding young writers and artists an opportunity to share, edit, and publish their work internationally. What makes this journal unique is that it is designed, edited and published entirely by high school students. Students whose work is selected received $100 in addition to a copy of the magazine.

Grades: 9-12

Deadline: February 

26. Chapman Art and Writing Holocaust Contest 

Focusing on themes central both to the Holocaust and to ethical decision making in our world today, the contest gives students from public, private and parochial schools the opportunity to share their creative works in response to survivors’ oral testimonies.

Participating schools may submit a total of three entries from three individual students in the following categories: art, film, prose, and/or poetry.

Grades: 9-12

Deadline: February 

“Writing Magic” is for every young author who wants to create a world that magically transports the reader.

She focuses on the core advice every writer needs: how to write beginnings and endings, how to create unforgettable characters, and how to write snappy dialogue that keeps readers laughing and crying.

27. Writopia Lab Worldwide Plays Festival

The festival includes plays written in workshops at Writopia’s labs across the country and plays submitted to our competition from playwrights around the world from playwrights in 1st through 12th grade (ages 6 to 18). Plays are professionally produced in New York.

Grades: 1-12 OR Ages: 6-18

Deadline: February

28. The Blank Theater’s Young Playwrights’ Festival

Since 1993, 12 plays are chosen by a panel of theatre professionals from submissions across America. Winning playwrights are provided careful mentoring and direction from industry professionals to help prepare their work for public performance and hone their skills, talent and confidence. Nowhere else in the nation can young playwrights receive the prize of seeing their vision come to life on stage in a professional production featuring known actors from film, television and theatre. The plays are crafted by seasoned professional directors and each is given several public performances in a month-long Festival.

Ages: 9-19

Deadline: March

29. Austin International Poetry Festival (AIPF)

Each year the Austin International Poetry Festival (AIPF) recognizes youth poets by publishing their work together in a truly diverse anthology. We welcome international poets from kindergarten through high school grade level or age to submit up to three poems.

Grades: K-12

Deadline: March 

30. Winter Tangerine

Winter Tangerine is a literary journal dedicated to the electric. To the salt. The sugar. We want bitter honey, expired sweets. We want catalysts. Accepting submissions of poetry, prose, drama, visual art, and short film.

Ages: All

Submission period: April to October 


31. The Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose

The Adroit Journal, published at the University of Pennsylvania is open to all writers. The Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose are awarded annually to two students of secondary or undergraduate status whose written work “inspires the masses to believe beyond feeling the work.” In other words, we strive to receive the absolute best work from emerging young writers in high school and college, and the best of the best will receive these two lovely awards.

Grades: 9+

Submission Period: To be announced


32. Hanging LooseMagazine

Hanging Loose Magazine is a professional magazine that welcomes high school submissions. Payment plus 2 copies. Send 3 to 6 poems, or 1 to 3 short stories, or an equivalent combination of poetry and prose to High School Editor, Hanging Loose, 231 Wyckoff Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217. Identify yourself as a high school age writer.

Grades: 9-12

Deadline: Open Year-round



Other Resources:

Poetry Space

An online publishing opportunity for young writers.


The New Pages Young Author’s Guide

A resource for young authors to find places to submit their work!

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