Do you want to host a writing contest that helps connect you with talented writers and increases your organizations influence? You've come to the right place.
Why do you want to create a writing contest?
There are many reasons why you may want to start your own writing contest. One of the strongest is to develop active relationships with up-and-coming writers from around the world.
Writing contests serve as a magnet for hungry and talented writers from all backgrounds. Whether it is fictional or industry focused, when done well, contests are a proven method to connect and broaden your reach.
They may also serve to educate the public about your cause. This is a great tactic for non-profits and other organizations seeking new ways to gather people together around an issue. A famous example is the Profiles in Courage Essay Contest.
If you are a non-profit you may also use writing contests as part of your fundraising or even fund-distribution strategy. Providing grants and scholarship awards can be a great way to develop relationships with young and passionate future donors.
Let's assume you've debated the "why" within your team and you're ready to make it happen...
How do I host a writing contest?
Step 1: Choose a format
Not all writing contests are created equal. The first and most obvious question is, what are participants writing? Some options include
- Topic Essay
- Short Story
While you are thinking of the format, consider some unique options that may set your contest apart from the crowd. Two of our favorites are "Fairy Tales" by Blank Spaces and "Six-Word Story" by Narrative Magazine.
This architecture focused contest invites participants to write a 800-1400 word fairy tale and pair it with 5 original images that enhance the story. This combination of creative writing and visual arts leads to incredibly dramatic results that stun the design community every year.
This uber-short-story contest invites writers to craft an impactful narrative in ONLY 6 words. Imagine that challenge. Each word a player; everything intentional. While this may seem too simplistic, it is in fact the opposite; a true challenge of language mastery.
In the end, the format will be informed by your answer to the "why" question. Essays make more sense for an industry-focused contest while poems work better as artistic education.
Step 2: Choose a great topic
Selecting a topic that will resonate with your writers is a prime challenge that should be at the top of your list. Make sure the topic jives with the purpose of your contest, the format, and the writers you hope will participate. Here are some simple ideas:
- A recent trend in your industry/organization
- A recent victory or loss for your industry/organization
- Overcoming struggle
- Current events and politics
- Science Fiction
We suggest asking at least 3-5 people before selecting a topic. This is one element that cannot be changed after a contest has begun.
Connect with and observe publications who work with writers. They may have insights into what types of writing contests may be popular. You may find that their fans have been asking for a specific subject or type of contest that you would not have thought about.
We are fans of these publications, take a look and see what kinds of subjects people are commenting on and asking for.
- The New Yorker Page Turner
- Electric Literature
- Writer's Digest
- The Write Life
- Goins, Writer
- Writers Write
- The Millions
Step 3: Define the requirements
After you have a format and topic it's time to define some of the specific requirements for your writing contest. This includes very important components like length, language, timeline, and cost.
Submission length is typically given as a word limit, such as 1,500 words or less. The precise word limit will depend on what type of contest it is. Short stories are usually between 1,000 - 2,000 words. Essays can be a bit longer, reaching into the 3,000 - 5,000 range
When debating over length, try to see it from your writer's perspective. If they are highly-educated in a specific field; make it longer. If they are students writing for a scholarship; keep it shorter and more poignant.
Some contests will have minimum lengths but this is usually reserved for essay formats.
This may sound obvious but keep the contest in one language. Having writers submitting in more than one language will make things very difficult for your judges. The exception here is if the contest's theme itself has a bilingual nature.
Every contest needs a deadline. Make sure to start marketing your contest at least a month before the deadline. Make the deadline the last day of the month, to keep things simple. If this doesn't work, try a special date that coincides with an event your organization is hosting or that is relevant to your writers.
For example, an essay contest about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may choose to end on MLK Day.
You may choose to have sign ups end right up to the deadline or create submission gap. We suggest allowing people to register right up to the submission deadline. A lot of people will read the contest's rules but wait until the last day to register. This is human nature unfortunately.
The most important thing is to make it clear.
Here is a sample set of rules we use on our short story contests.
- Submissions must be 1,500 words or fewer
- Submissions must be in English
- May be fictional or non-fiction
- Must be an original short story, written by the submitter
- No previously published short stories
- Deadline to submit: February 28th 11:69 PM PST
- Winner will be announced on March 31st
- Participants retain rights to their submissions.
- Participants grant us allowance to share short stories online on the Blog. We will not publish your work without further approval.
- Standard participant is open to anyone from anywhere
- Student participant must be currently enrolled in K-12 or University
Step 4: Choose a Price
The decision to charge or not charge depends on the goal of the contest and your organization. Some organizations rely on competitions to bring in business to other primary products and therefore will make contests free to bring in the greatest amount of traffic.
If you need to charge an entry fee to cover the cost of the contest, how much do you charge? While their is no set rule, most contests seem to charge between $15 - $30. The most common amounts are $20 and $25. This amount is just a suggestion, use our Break-Even Analysis to help determine what you should charge.
This is another circumstance where it is important to keep your writers in mind. A pricey contest geared towards professionals is probably OK, but if you have mostly high school and college students submitting consider their financial realities.
For our writing contests we used a tiered system for different types of participants. All received a chance at the Grand Prize but we felt it was fair to charge less for students, active-military, and seniors.
55+ and Active-duty Military: $19.99
Step 5: Choose Award Amounts
All contests need an award. The award does not have to always be monetary but money always talks, so consider carefully if you plan to offer something different. Determining the correct award is a balance of finances and incentive. Too small of an award and your contest may not be taken seriously, too high and you risk losing money.
As a guideline, determine your entry fee and award simultaneously. An entry fee of $25 gives room for a grand prize award of $500-$1,000. This comes out to about 20-40x the entrance fee.
If you have tiered awards consider a 1:2:4 split between the amounts. For example: $1,000 for the grand prize, $500 for 2nd place, and $250 for third.
Important: Always end your reward amounts with a whole and round number. Never put $499 instead put $500. It sounds more impressive.
Should I charge more as the deadline gets closer?
Some contests will have an early-bird fee that increases as the submission deadline gets closer. The logic behind this strategy is that the lower price will incentivize people to sign up earlier out of fear of having to pay more later.
In general I think this is an unfair practice that hurts your customer experience. GoArchitect will never do this for its contests.
Can running a writing contest be profitable?
Running a contest has simple economics that can be determined using a break-even analysis. The income from the number of entrants multiplied by the entrance fee must exceed your liabilities.
We have created a simple break-even analysis to help you make sure you have your bases covered.
As you can see from our document it is important to account for all your liabilities, including the credit card fees that you’ll pay with each entrant.
If it makes sense for your organization, seek a contest partner. Their may be a brand willing to co-sponsor the writing contest with you. This increases your marketing reach and can add to the legitimacy of your campaign.
Choose wisely however and make sure each party understands its role early on. Ask questions like:
- How will expenses be divided; such as reward costs?
- What marketing strengths does each partner bring?
- How will each brand be represented on contest material and marketing?
Step 6: Find Judges
Deciding on who will judge submissions can be one of the more challenging aspects of running a writing contest. You may think, "I don't know any literature PhDs. Who can I possibly get to judge." That is fine, you don't necessarily need them.
Your judges should be people who are known and respected in your community. They make be donors, teachers, professionals, politicians, actors, whoever makes sense for your contest's theme and participants.
If you have notable judges, take advantage of this in your marketing! Spread the word that famous person XYZ will be a judge; their position within the community can be a great boost for your contest.
Even if you can't get notables judges, post what criteria will be used to determine a winner. This helps set the record straight from the beginning.
Step 7: Find the right technology
You may be asking yourself, "What technology do I need to run a writing contest?" The truth is, you do not need. Depending on your needs to may choose a full-service platform or try to piece together your own. Each has it's advantages and drawbacks.
Full Service Contest Platforms
A quick Google search will give you several full-service contest management systems. As a matter of transparency, we have not tried any of these platforms for a contest on GoArchitect. If you have worked with any of these companies, please let us know about your experience in the comments below.
The primary benefit of these types of systems is that they are specifically made to save contest organizers time and effort; although this may come at the cost of a high fee or limited creative control. These platforms offer the ability to collect payments and submissions, send marketing material, and serve as an online face for your writing contest.
Here are some of the best ones we have found based on features.
Most of these platforms seem to charge a per-event or per-entry fee. These are costs you will need to account for in your break-even analysis.
Again, if you have used any of these apps, please let us know about your experience in the comments below.
I want to create my own system
If using a full-service platform doesn't work for you, try building your own system. Here are some basic components you will need.
- A website to display the details
- A sign up form to accept participants
- An payments method to charge an entrance fee, if it’s not free
- An email to let people know they have been entered
- A link to an online location where writers can submit their entry
- Paypal to send the winners their awards
A writing contest can easily be run through a website builder like Squarespace or Shopify site. All you need is a page to display information about the contest, the rules, and a way for participants to sign up.
Sign Up form & Payments
Their are many ways to manage this. If your contest is a product on Shopify or Squarespace, you can automatically gather the entry fee and email for the participant.
For a different approach, consider Typeform. This beautiful online form can do payments and include a full questionnaire to gather info from your participants. You can embed a Typeform on any webpage or have it sit on its own URL.
Mailchimp is a free way to send emails to your participants. This will help you send reminders to participants when they first sign up and when the deadline is getting near. Mailchimp connects to Shopify, Squarespace, Typeform, and many other online tools. This prevents you from having to do copy-and-paste emails between platforms.
After a participant has signed up they will need a place to submit. Dropbox File Requests is one option or Drive Uploader if you use Google Drive. Both methods will give you a secure link where participants can submit their files. This can also be accomplished with a simple email like email@example.com
Paypal is the easiest way to distribute award money. All you need is the email of the winner. Go into your Paypal account and send the money to their email. They will receive a notification that the money is waiting for them.
Step 8: Market to the right people
What kind of marketing should I do for my writing contest? Everything will depend on your target audience. You really only need to answer two questions.
Question 1: Where is my target audience hanging out?
If you don't already have a list of people waiting to enter your contest, don't worry. Start with the basics and reach out to blogs and publications that target your audience and notify them of the contest. Make sure to explain the rules and ask them to share it with their readers. Many sites will already have a special page for ongoing contests.
Make sure to connect with blogs and individual bloggers in your niche, not just any random subject. For example, GoArchitect seeks to connect with designers and other people in the architecture industry. We want to foster healthy relationships with online publications who are interesting and trusted amongst professionals and students in our field.
Consider using social media like Facebook Groups, Twitter, and LinkedIn Groups to notify people that the contest has started. Do not underestimate personal messages; asking someone directly to take a look and providing that personal touch can be very effective.
As a minimum, submit to a few writing competition lists. Here are some of our favorites.
- Aerogramme Writing Studio
- Almond Press
- Poets & Writers
- Kudos Wall
- The Writer Magazine
- and more on Published to Death
If your contest is free to enter reach out to:
Question 2: Why would my target audience participate in my writing contest?
People participate in writing contests for numerous reasons. Perhaps they are students looking to build up their portfolio. Some are amateur writers seeking recognition. Others might only be interested in the prize money.
Whoever they are, try to determine what drives them and give them what they want. This could mean boosting your reward money or even offering a certificate of participation for their school.
If you don’t know the answer to this question, do a survey on social media or just email a few people you think would participate and ask.
Once you know what their motivations are, it will be easier for you to determine which blogs, publications, social media groups, or events you should market your contest towards.
Hosting your own writing contest can be one of the quickest ways to develop active relationships with up-and-coming writers from around the world. These guys are hungry, talented, and want to get their name out there. So whether you're doing it for a non-profit, a professional industry, or education take a leap and give it a try.
Remember to use the super-useful Break-Even Analysis this will save you lots of headaches when it comes to make sure your contest will be a successful.
If you've used this guide leave a comment below! We would love to hear about it.
If you have any questions, please put them in the comments below. We will respond to them or add the answers to this article. Thank you for your input.