Whether you’re a new or experienced writer, winning a writing contest can be a hugely rewarding experience. It shows you’ve been vetted and recognized by publishing industry professionals. Hooray, validation! Clearly, you’ve been doing something right. But do contests really count in your submission to agents and editors?
Yes and no. I know, you hate that answer! But it depends on a lot of factors; for example, on whether it was a well-known contest or a fledgling one nobody has heard of (yet!). Or whether the agent you’re querying has seen fruitful projects come out of contests in the past.
Based on my agency experience, both as a submissions reader and a contest judge, I take a measured stance here. Writing contests alone won’t make or break your query. Unless you won or finaled in a top contest in your genre (say, the Golden Heart for romance, or Glimmer Train for short literary fiction), agents are not going to fall all over themselves asking for your work. Why? Because they’ve already seen any number of contest references in their slush pile this week. So don’t go broke entering every contest you can find (in fact, my advice is to start out with the minimal entry fees or none at all). But if you’ve already got a pretty strong query, a contest win could provide the extra oomph needed to get you that manuscript request.
One thing is clear—mentioning a contest win in your query is not likely to lose you points with an agent. That’s because, regardless of the contest, the fact that you entered means you’re serious about your writing and willing to open yourself up to criticism—and that’s always considered a step in the right direction. It also shows you may have gotten professional feedback on your work; many contests ask their judges to provide constructive criticism to the top entries. And it demonstrates, at the very least, that you have a firm grasp of your craft—you’re not a novice.
So where should you talk about your contest win in a query letter? My advice, as always, is to put the most important information in your opening paragraph (in case the agent wouldn’t have made it to the end). So if the contest is prestigious, mention it right away. If it’s a lesser known one, it’s probably best to make your pitch paragraph the strongest element of your query and weave in the contest win toward the end.
A few resources for finding legitimate contests:
Poets & Writers (A variety of genres, but usually with a literary bent.)
Writers Digest (Contests for a variety of genres and levels of publishing experience.)
Writers of the Future (Short form sci-fi/fantasy; specifically targeted to new or unpublished writers)
Romance Writers of America (Many local/chapter contests for all subgenres of romance)
Preditors & Editors (A good place to find out about scam contests to avoid)