Maybe one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to submit your work for fellowships and residencies, to contests, or for publication. Maybe you’ve got a project ready to go. If so, yay! Good on you. Before you hit send, let’s review some best practices to help you vault over that slush pile.
I asked some writers who’ve worked the other side of Mount Slushie: What snapped your glazed eyes to attention?
They’ve read hundreds, sometimes thousands of entries, and unanimously, they said one thing: Strong beginnings.
Not just polished beginnings. Not just vivid or well-written or clever. Your opening must make the reader need to read the second page.
Gotham instructor Shahnaz Habib—who’s read for the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships (2,000 to 4,000 entries a year)—said, “So many essays and stories get rejected by the end of paragraph one.”
What keeps a judge reading is….wait for it…suspense. When Shahnaz submits her own work now, “I try to choose writing samples where the first paragraph and the first page work hard at keeping the reader intrigued.”
Suspenseful beginnings, check. What else?
Kim Liao, who has read for lit mags and Black Lawrence Press, said too often, while enjoying a story, she got lost in the who, what, when and where. “It’s super important to situate the reader in the story in a clear way.”
The writer Jessica Seigel, who’s read applications to the Hedgebrook residency (1,000 to 1,500 entries a year), said she looks for details revealing the human behind the story. “I always add that I’m an expert manual dishwasher and like doing it. Whenever I get accepted, I always figure that’s what got me in.”
Last, be bold in your writing, but careful with your money.
“Increasingly I have been reading about contests that rack up entrance fees and pay out very little,” Shahnaz said. “So do some digging around before you send your work.”
A legitimate writing contest, Shahnaz says, “will be transparent about their process, and publish previous winners, judges’ bios, and statistics such as how many people applied in previous years.” You should be suspicious of contests where there’s no real prize, where winners pay to see their work published, or with nearly as many “winners” as entrants.
If it seems like we’re saying, take risks but be careful, well, we are. To get judges to notice you, be daring in your work, share freely of yourself. But don’t send something out before it’s ready, and do your homework before you send it. Like so many other things in life, a successful submission strategy requires balance.
Dean of Faculty