Another Way to Earn Money as a Writer: Enter Writing Contests to Win Cash Prizes

Creating a great story, poem or essay is often its own reward for a writer. But wouldn’t it be even more satisfying if you made some money from your efforts? Maybe it’s time to enter your best work in writing contests that pay cash prizes.

There’s nothing wrong with writing contests that have a small entry fee. For example, Writer’s Weekly 24-Hour Short Story Contest costs $5 to enter. They email a topic or “starter” paragraph to all contestants at once, and you have 24 hours to write and submit your story (usually 500 to 2,000 words). The contest runs four times annually, and prizes include cash awards of $300, $250, and $200 for the top three finishers and free ebooks for dozens of other contestants.

Free Writing Contests

Of course, those $5 and $10 entry fees can add up. And let’s be honest; the odds of winning any particular contest are small. So you might want to limit your participation to those that don’t charge a fee. Fortunately, you have many to choose from, and the prizes are not insignificant.

For example, Utah State University English major John Gilmore won $10,000 in the Norman Mailer Nonfiction Writing Contest for his 8,000-word entry. There were more than 650 other college students in the competition.

You don’t have to be in college or even take first place to win big in many contests. High school teacher Kari Ballentine won $5,000 for her poem, “Midsummer’s Eve,” and that was for taking third place. Ballentine says she has won writing contest awards before, but never more than $75. Her big win came from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Contest, which awarded 30 prizes of $1,000 or more in 2013.

Here are a few more writing contests that don’t charge an entry fee:

Real Simple’s Life Lessons Essay Contest: An annual contest with a first-place prize of $3,000 for an essay about a “eureka moment” in your life. Entries are limited to 1,500 words or less.

Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize: Sponsored by the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival, this is a non-fiction essay contest with a $500 prize. The work has to be focused on Brooklyn and have a maximum of 2,500 words.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest: This contest is open to new and amateur writers (see their definition), and accepts short stories and novelettes in the science fiction, fantasy and dark fantasy genres. Every three months, they award prizes of $1,000, $750 and $500, and each year there’s an additional grand prize of $5,000.

New Voices Award: Entries are children’s books (fiction, nonfiction or poetry) up to 1,500 words. The first-place winner gets $1,000 and a publishing contract from Lee and Low Books. To be eligible, you have to be a writer of color who lives in the U.S. and has not previously published a children’s picture book.

More Contests has a list of creative writing contests with no entry fees. The deadlines shown suggest a few out-of-date listings, but many contests are annual, so click the links on the expired ones to see if you’ll have another chance coming up.

Poets and Writers Magazine has an online database of Writing Contests, Grants & Awards that they screen for legitimacy. Contests with entry fees are included, but you can sort the list to show only those with no entry fee (or those with a $1 to $20 entry fee).

Entering Writing Contests

For your stories, essays, books and poems to have the best shot at winning a prize, you should do the following:

Read the eligibility criteria closely: Many contests are set up for certain groups of writers. You might have to be young, old, unpublished, in college or meet other eligibility requirements.

Follow submission rules carefully: Some contests are very strict about their rules. If you’re two words over the limit, your entry might be sent straight to the trash.

Revise and edit: Don’t submit anything but a piece that has been revised and edited repeatedly, and is in its final form. The competition in most contests is tough, but if you lose with your best you at least have something ready to self-publish or to enter in another contest.

Enter many contests: The math is simple; if you have any chance of winning a prize with your writing, you increase the odds by entering more contests.

Track your entries: Note the dates that winners will be announced, so if you happen to lose you can quickly enter that story or poem in another contest or pitch that essay to a magazine.

Your Turn: Have you ever entered or won a writing contest?