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.
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!