Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Tips for Entering Poetry Contests

by Susan

It's been my great pleasure this year to chair the 2017 WyoPoets Eugene V. Shea National Poetry Contest. Going through the entries has given me a few lessons in what to do and not do. If you're planning to enter a poetry contest, you may wish to keep these things in mind. Some are applicable to prose contests, too:

Who's holding this contest?
Before you fork over an entry fee, make sure the organization holding the contest is reputable. (I can vouch for WyoPoets, mind you.) In particular, read to make sure that you do not lose rights to your work simply by entering. Believe it or not, it happens.

Some contests announce who the judge(s) will be. If they do, take some time to learn more about who will be choosing the winners. This may influence which poems you choose to submit.

Read the guidelines and follow them carefully
I tossed out some fine poems because they exceeded the line length specified. Accepting over-long poems isn't fair to our judge, nor is it fair to the many poets who abided by the rules. Another poem was set aside because the poet failed to include the blind judge's copy. Don't let your poetry get tossed aside on a technicality.

A cover letter is probably not necessary
Unless requested in the guidelines (you read them, right?), a cover letter is not needed. The judge typically will never see it, as it's common for judges to receive nothing but the "blind" copies with no identifying information. 

If you're sending it by mail
Although many contests use electronic submission, some still want your entry by mail. You can generally trust your envelope will get there if you send it plain old USPS First Class. If you're nervous, you can get it tracked for an extra fee. Do not, however, get "signature required," forcing some poor soul to make a trip to the post office to retrieve it.

Your poems are considered individually
Unless it's specifically a chapbook contest, your poems will probably not be considered as a collection. Do not include a table of contents, number your pages, or include a name for your collection on your poems. And whatever you do, don't staple your poems together. 

Follow standard manuscript format
For poetry, this will be single-spaced, with an extra space between the title and poem and between stanzas. Bold your title, or put it in ALL CAPS. Left-justify your poem unless you have a specific reason, such as a shape-poem, for not doing so. (Centered poems are harder to read.) Keep in mind that most word processing programs will automatically capitalize the first letter of each line, so if you do not want them all capitalized, you will need to correct that.

Cool it on the fonts. You can't go wrong with 12-point Times New Roman. It should be plain and readable: no script fonts, no poems completely in italics, and, for heaven's sake, do not use Comic Sans. Make sure it's printed cleanly. A copy of a copy of a copy tends to get too faint to read easily.


BE IT RESOLVED! If one of your writerly resolutions for 2017 is to put yourself out there more and enter a few contests, there are many places to find them. Wyoming Writers, Inc. is accepting entries now. We'll try to put the word out here when WyoPoets and holds theirs. Find more opportunities from National Federation of State Poetry Societies, Aerogramme Writers' Studio, and Poets & Writers, or consider a paid subscription to Duotrope (there's a free trial version.) Happy writing, and good luck!


  1. Well, written, Susan. Having chaired the Shea contest and judged two national contests for NFSPS, I can vouch for every suggestion you made. I too pitched good poetry because it did not abide by the rules. I even had one poem that must have started life as rhymed couplets of average line length. To fit it into the "no more than 40 lines" requirement, the poem combined the lines of each couplet and cut the spaces between couplets. It was funny to read because the end of each line rhymed with the word in the middle. And the poem was still longer than 40 lines. Go figure. Good advice, Susan. I hope others pay attention to it.

    Consider sending this to Echo for the WyoPoets newsletter, unless you've also posted it to the WyoPoets website.

  2. Thanks, Art! I know you encountered the same thing -- I was on the phone to you asking sage advice. I wanted to be a softie, but it's not really fair to anyone to do so. Hadn't thought of sending this to Echo. Good idea. I'll do just that. :)

  3. I've read and heard that some judges/sources say Don't bold your title, and Don't put it in all caps. Most rules never specify, so how's a person to know what to do?

    1. I've Googled a few different poetry manuscript templates, and they vary. Most I've seen have the title in all caps. I don't like to use all caps, because sometimes I intentionally use lower case. I wish I could give you a definitive, but the research I've done doesn't seem to have one answer on this one. If it doesn't say in the guidelines, my recommendation would be to not sweat it too much. If you've heard not to all caps and not to bold, they should be able to figure out what your title is without those. It's not something that should make or break your entry.

    2. I've done that same reading and there seems no single way to do it. I have tried to be consistent using initial caps except for prepositions and articles and have my titles in non-serif bold font. Not that I've won that many contests, but I have had lots of poetry accepted in journals and anthologies that way. Hope this helps.


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