Top 10 Things to Consider When Sending Your Work for a Contest or Residency

Rule #1 - Stand Out
This week I have judged two poetry contests and reviewed residency applications back to back. It's a perfect time to consider what makes a judge put your work into the "read again" pile rather than the "no thank you" pile. As a poet who has been on both sides of the desk, here's what I've learned.

1. Subject matters. The poems I'm reading for this contest are almost exclusively: natural world is transformative, loss of a loved one, a childhood memory. Any poem that goes outside that triad I put in the "read again" file.

2. Humor is great when it works... Oftentimes it doesn't. Maybe check-in with writer and non writer friends to see if what you think is funny resonates.

3. "Poetry" words (such as dance, twirl, illuminate, or any gemstones) need to go. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

4. As a general rule, poems shouldn't go beyond one page. This was my feeling as I read hundreds of entries.

5. One line that's off, one word that's off, can make a difference.

6. Endings need all your attention. So many poems begin strong and then falter as they move towards the middle of the poem. The end of the piece is what leaves a lasting impression.

7. Judges are fickle. What I am telling you as a judge of chapbook prizes and residency programs might be very different than what another judge would say. Each year judges change and so your chances for the same contest will be fresh each year.

8. Winning is, in part, a numbers game. The poets I know who seem to be winning everything apply for at least 5 times more than they win. They are actually terrific losers. They just aren't afraid to play.

9. Persistence pays off. The poet Spenser Reece who this year is up for a National Book Award had his first manuscript rejected over 200 times. 200 times.

10. Believe in your work; send wild cards. Every time you send your work into the world you are saying Yes! to possibility. Yes to mystery. Yes to deserving an audience. My poems that have won contests were never the ones  I thought were contest worthy. Always it has been a surprise poem that I sent as a wild card.

If you have added tips and suggestions, please add them in the comments box. A community of helpful writers is beneficial to us all. Get your poems out now --- contests are waiting for you.


  1. Susan, these are great. Would you mind if I reprint them (with appropriate attribution, of course) in the Olympia Poetry Newsletter? Chris Dahl

  2. Chris, that would be fine -- with appropriate attribution ;-)

  3. I don't write poetry, but I think this advice holds true for any kind of writing submitted for contests and publication.

  4. I think Anonymous is right; in fact, I think this holds true for any type of artistic competition.

  5. this rings true to me. thank you. always good to have a reminder too.

  6. Thank you for share this informative post.


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