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31 Free Writing Contests: Legitimate Competitions With Cash Prizes

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When I was about 12, I saw an ad in a magazine for a poetry contest that sounded fancy and impressive, something like “International Library of Poetry.” I bled poetry at that age, so I crossed my fingers and sent in a poem I’d been slaving over for weeks.

And, lo and behold, the people behind the contest quickly wrote back to tell me my poem had been selected as a winner!

I was speechless with honor. Of the thousands of poets who must have submitted to the contest — no doubt many of them adults much wiser and more skilled than me — my poem had been chosen to be featured in an exclusive, hardcover anthology! And honored on a something-karat-gold plaque!

Of course, I had to pay $50 if I wanted to see my work in print in the anthology, and I had to pay another $100 if I wanted the plaque. Those were the only “prizes.”

Even as a pre-teen, I sensed a scam.

Sadly, not much has changed when it comes to companies trying to take advantage of writers who want a chance at recognition and maybe a little bit of money. Google the term “writing contests,” and you’ll come up with approximately 128 million results. It can be hard for a writer to know where to start looking for competitions, and how to tell if they’re legitimate or not.

So we’ve done the legwork for you.

Here are 31 reputable, well-reviewed, free writing contests for poets, fiction writers, essayists and more. Some legitimate contests do charge a small entry or “reading” fee, but often a fee can be a red flag for a scam, so you may want to stick to free contests — and there are certainly enough of them.

Fiction and nonfiction writing contests

Ready to share your novel or personal essay with the world? Whether you’re a newbie or more established writer, you’re likely eligible for a few of these contests.

1. L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest

Whatever your feelings about L. Ron Hubbard’s work and philosophy, the prizes for this regular contest are nothing to sneeze at. Every three months, winners earn $1,000, $750 and $500, or an additional annual grand prize worth $5,000.

Submissions must be short stories or novelettes (up to 17,000 words) in the genre of science fiction or fantasy, and new and amateur writers are welcome to apply.

Deadlines: Quarterly on January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1.

2. Inkitt

This boutique publishing firm offers a prize of a publishing contract to its contest winner. Submit a novel of 20,000 words or more in any fiction genre (no fanfic, short stories or poetry).

Inkitt runs contests regularly, so be sure to check back often! And the judgments are partially crowd-sourced, with Inkitt community engagement and votes counting for 20% of your final score — so it’s got a unique kind of egalitarianism to it.

Deadline: See individual contest pages.

3. Drue Heinz Literature Prize

You can win $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press with this prize, awarded for a collection of short fiction.

You may submit an unpublished manuscript of short stories, two or more novellas or a combination of novellas and short stories. Your total word count should be between 150 and 300 typed pages. You must also have already published a novel or book-length work of fiction “with a reputable publisher,” or no fewer than three short stories or novellas in nationally-recognized journals.

Deadline: Annual submissions must be postmarked between May 1 through June 30.

4. Poetry Foundation Emily Dickinson First Book Award

If you’re an American poet who’s already celebrated their 40th birthday and has yet to publish your first collection, you’re in luck: you’re eligible to submit your manuscript to the Poetry Foundation’s first book contest, honoring Emily Dickinson — whose work, of course, also went unpublished for far too long.

The prize is offered on an “occasional” basis, but it’s worth checking back for updates: the winner receives $10,000 as well as publication and promotion by Graywolf Press.

Deadline: TBD

5. St. Francis College Literary Prize

This biannual prize honors mid-career writers who have recently published their third, fourth or fifth work of fiction. The winner receives $50,000 and may be invited to the St. Francis College campus in Brooklyn, NY to deliver a talk about their work or teach a mini fiction workshop to St. Francis students.

Deadline: Biennially; the deadline for prize submissions this year is May 15, 2019. (The shortlist will be announced by August 15.)

6. Young Lions Fiction Award

This $10,000 award recognizes “young authors,” which the rules define as any author aged 35 or younger. Submit any novel or short story published or scheduled to be published in the calendar year. Works must be written for adults; children’s or YA pieces are ineligible.

Deadline: Annually in the fall (most recently in August or September). Deadline for submissions for 2019 awards was August 31, 2018. Deadline for 2020 awards TBA.

7. Graywolf Press Walt Whitman Award and Non/fiction Prizes

One of the best-loved small presses in the creative writing world, Graywolf Press host a variety of contests for both established and up-and-coming writers. The Walt Whitman Award is a $5,000 prize awarded, along with publication, to an American poet with a winning first book manuscript. He or she also receives an all-expenses-paid six-week residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy, and a trip to New York City to attend the American Poets Prizes ceremony.

Graywolf also offers smaller fiction and nonfiction prizes, with genres rotating by year; 2018 was a nonfiction year, so fiction is up in 2019. These awards include a sizable advance — $12,000 in previous years — as well as publication with Graywolf.

Deadline: Contest is held annually with rotating genres; the 2018 deadline (for nonfiction) has passed, and 2019 information has not yet been published.

8. The Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans

Hosted by the prestigious Iowa Review, the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award is offered to U.S. military veterans and active-duty members writing in any genre about any subject. Manuscripts of up to 20 pages will be accepted, and the first-prize winner will receive $1,000 and publication in the Review. A second place prize of $750 is also available, as well as three runner-up prizes of $500 each.

Deadline: Biennially. The next contest will be held in 2020, and submissions will be read between May 1 and May 31.

9. New Voices Award

Presented by Lee & Low Books, an award-winning children’s book publisher, this award is given for a previously unpublished children’s picture book manuscript (of no more than 1,500 words) written by a writer of color.

The winner receives $2,000 cash and a standard publication contract, and an additional Honor Award winner will receive a cash prize of $1,000. You may submit up to two manuscripts.

Deadline: Submissions must be postmarked between April 1, 2019, and August 31, 2019.

10. Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

This contest aims to provide visibility for emerging African American fiction writers and to enable them to focus on their writing by awarding a $10,000 cash prize. Eligible authors should submit a work of fiction, such as a novel or short story collection, published in the calendar year. (Galleys for publication within the year are also accepted.)

Deadline: The contest runs annually, but this year’s deadline is August 15, 2019.

11. PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Honoring the best work of fiction published by an American author in a single calendar year, this award has been given to the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Ann Patchett. Novels, novellas, and collections of short stories are all eligible.

The winner receives a hefty cash prize — up to $15,000 in the past — and an invitation to read at the award ceremony in Washington, DC. Plus, there are no submission fees or application forms to deal with; just mail four copies of your book (or bound proofs) to the organization to be considered.

Deadline: Annually on October 31 for books published that calendar year.

12. PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers

This contest is a little different, because it requires you to already have published a short story in a literary journal or cultural website. But if you’ve made your debut (but gone no further), you may be eligible for the generous cash prize of $2,000, which is annually awarded to 12 emerging writers, whose works are then published together in an anthology.

Short stories of up to 12,000 words are eligible and must be published in the calendar year preceding the year in which the award is given.

Deadline: Contest is open annually between June and November.

13. Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

Fiction and nonfiction writers who have recently published a book that “contribute[s] to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of cultural diversity” are eligible for this award, which offers $10,000 cash as well media and publicity opportunities.

Submissions must be published in the prior year (so books published in 2019 are eligible for the 2020 award).

Deadline: Annual submission window is September 1 through December 31.

14. Marfield Prize (a.k.a. National Award for Arts Writing)

Presented by the Arts Club of Washington, this award seeks to honor nonfiction books that deal with the “visual, literary, media, or performing arts.” The prize is $10,000 and may be awarded to works of criticism, art history, memoirs and biographies, and essays.

Deadline: Annually in the last quarter of the year; the 2019 deadline has not yet been announced. (If you have questions, reach out to to Briones, Chair of the Marfield Prize 2018, at [email protected]m.)

15. W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction

If you’re a war buff, this competition is for you. It awards $5,000 — and a 24-karat-gold-framed citation of achievement — the best piece of fiction set during a period when the U.S. was at war (war may either be the main plot of the piece or simply provide the setting). Submissions may be adult or YA novels.

Deadline: Annually on December 1.

Don’t be taken in by scammy writing contests. Here are some fee-free options for your prose and poetry.

16. Friends of American Writers Chicago Awards

FAW presents two annual awards: an Adult Literature Award for literary fiction or nonfiction, and a Juvenile Literature Award for a children’s/YA book.

Authors must reside in the state of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota or Wisconsin — or they must set their book in one of those locations. Prize amounts vary from year to year, but all winners are celebrated at the organization’s May luncheon.

Deadline: Annually at the end of the year; 2019 deadline has not yet been announced.

17. Hektoen Grand Prix Essay Contest

Hektoen International, an online journal dedicated to medical humanities, offers two prizes annually for essays of no more than 1,600 words in two categories: $3,000 is awarded to the winner and $800 to the first runner-up. Eligible topics are broad so long as they have a relation to medicine, and may include art, history, literature, education and more.

Deadline: Annually; April 15, 2019 is the most current deadline.

18. Biopage Mini-Essay Writing Contest

There’s no denying it: social media is a huge part of our 21st-century lives. It’s easy to get used to limit our communications to 140-character, emoji-strewn snippets, which is why this marketing firm is hosting an essay writing contest to “remind people of the benefits of writing.”

Essays of up to 5,000 characters (roughly 1,000 words) will be accepted, and can tackle just about any topic you want. The grand prize winner will receive $1,000, and three runners-up will be awarded $200 each.

The contest is free to enter, but you’ll need to register for a Biopage account to be eligible.

Deadline: June 30, 2019

19. Minotaur Books / Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition

Writers 18 and older who have never had a novel published (in any genre) are eligible for this prize, awarded for an original book-length manuscript where “murder or another serious crime or crimes is at the heart of the story.” The winner receives a publication contract with Minotaur Books and an advance of $10,000 against future royalties.

Deadline: Annually in the last quarter of the year. The deadline for 2019 awards was January 11; the deadline for 2020 awards has not yet been announced.

20. ServiceScape Short Story Award

ServiceScape, a platform matching freelance writers, editors, and graphic designers with clients (i.e., a great place to look for paid writing work!) offers a yearly Short Story Award of $1,000 to a winning fiction or non-fiction work of 5,000 words or fewer. The winner will also have their story featured on the ServiceScape blog, which sees thousands of readers each month.

Deadline: November 29, 2019.

21. Stowe Prize

This biennial prize of $10,000 honors an American author whose work has had an impact on a critical social justice issue (as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

Deadline: Biennially; although there will be no winner for 2019, nominations for the 2020 prize will be accepted “very soon.”

22. The Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Non-Fiction

Creative nonfiction essays of no more than 5,000 words on any subject are eligible for consideration for this award, whose winner receives $250 and publication in Lunch Ticket, the literary and art journal produced by the MFA community of Antioch University Los Angeles.

Works must not have been published elsewhere. Award winners are required to submit a 100-word biography, recent photo and a short note thanking the Woods family for their generosity and support.

Deadlines: Biannual reading periods are the month of February for the Summer/Fall issue and the month of August for the Winter/Spring issue.

23. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms Essay Contest

Each year, this Canadian organization offers three prizes, ranging from $500 to $1,500, to the essay with the most thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments around a specific human-rights theme. (For example, 2018’s prompt was, “Should Canadians be required by law to use gender-neutral pronouns? Why or why not?”

The contest is open to Canadian college and university students, and essays should be 2,500 words or less in length.

Deadline: Annually; 2018’s deadline was October 31st.

24. Write the World

For young writers ages 13-18, these cool contests also serve as mini workshops. Recognizing that “a first draft is never perfect,” submissions actually receive peer review by authors, writing teachers and other experts and writers are given the chance to revise their pieces based on this feedback before submitting them for final prize consideration.

Contests vary each month, but there’s a $100 prize for the winner and $50 for the runner-up (plus $50 for the best peer-reviewer). All three are featured on Write the World’s blog alongside comments from a guest judge. And since each month’s prompt is from a different genre, developing writers get a chance to test out different styles.

Deadline: Monthly.

25. Prose.

Stuck with writer’s block and looking for a way to jumpstart your escape? Prose offers weekly challenges meant to spark your creativity; many are just for fun, but look for the weekly numbered challenges posted by Prose (rather than community members or sponsors) for a chance to win money.

Prizes are typically between $100 – $200 and word counts are low — some as low as under 150, some as high as 500, but all say “quality beats quantity.” So even if all you get from the prompt is a chance to flex your brain, it’s not a bad deal.

Deadline: Weekly.

Poetry contests

Curious about opportunities for poets? Your stanzas — rhyming or not — could be worth a fair amount of money in these competitions.

26. Free Spirit Publishing African American Voices in Children’s Literature ContestTony Hillerman Prize

Open to writers of African American heritage who are over the age of 18 and Minnesota residents, this contest, hosted by Free Spirit Publishing, seeks to fill the need for African American representation in children’s and young adult books. Original board and picture books for children aged 0-8 are eligible, provided they feature contemporary African American characters and culture and focus on character development, self esteem, community, and other aspects of positive childhood development.

Three prizes, ranging from $250 to $1,000, will be awarded, and the first place winner will be “seriously considered” for publication, though it’s not guaranteed.

Deadline: June 30, 2019

27. James Laughlin Award

If you’re already a published poet, this is the award for you; it’s given for a second book of poetry due to come out in the forthcoming year. The winner receives $5,000 and an all-expenses-paid week-long residency at The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. In addition, copies of her book are distributed to approximately 1,000 members of the Academy of American Poets.

Deadline: Annual submission window is January 1 through May 15.

28. African Poetry Book Fund Prizes

The APBF awards three prizes annually for African Poetry. The Glenna Luschei Prize for Afican Poetry gives $1,000 for a book of original African poetry published in the prior year.

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets gives $1,000 and a publication contract for a book-length collection of poetry by an as-yet-unpublished African author.

The Brunel University African Poetry Prize is a new prize that grants £3,000 to a poet who was born in Africa, is a national of an African country or has African parents, who has not yet had a full-length book of poetry published. (U.S. citizens qualify.) To submit, you’ll need 10 poems.

Deadlines: See individual prize pages.

29. Tufts Poetry Awards

Claremont Graduate University presents two awards each year to poets they deem to be “outstanding.” The Kate Tufts Poetry Award grants $10,000 for a published first book of poetry that shows promise.

The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award grants a mammoth $100,000 for a published book of poetry by an established or mid-career poet.

Deadline: Books published between July of the previous year and June 30 of the current year are eligible for the following year’s prize. For example, books published between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019 will be eligible for the 2020 award; an entry form must be completed and submitted by no later than July 1, 2019.

30. The Restless Books Prize For New Immigrant Writing

First-generation immigrants have a chance to win $10,000 and publication by Restless Books for telling their stories (real or imagined). The contest alternates annually between fiction (novel or short story collection) and nonfiction (memoir, essay collection, narrative nonfiction). In 2019, it will go to a work of nonfiction of at least 25,000 words; 2020 will be nonfiction.

Deadline: Annually; submissions for the 2019 Prize in Nonfiction will be accepted from September 1, 2018 until March 31, 2019.

Writing contests with multiple categories

Some contests accept submissions in multiple categories, so you could submit a novella as well as a poem or other work.

31. Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition

(Editor’s note: We were so excited to include this competition that we overlooked its entry fees. We’ll leave it in the post for those interested in submitting their work, but please note that this contest is not free.)

One of the longest-running writing competitions — it’s now in its 88th year — this contest spotlights up and coming writers in a number of categories, including Memoirs/Personal Essay, Print or Online Article and Genre Short Story.

The Grand Prize winner gets $5,000, a feature in Writer’s Digest magazine, a paid trip to a writing conference and more. Runners-up earn prizes in first through tenth places.

Deadline: Annually; (The deadline for 2019 was May 6th.)

Where to find more legitimate, free writing contests

Looking for more opportunities to submit your work to writing contests? Here are a few great sites to keep an eye on.

Winning Writers

A number of the contests found on our list came highly recommended by this site, which compiles some of the best free literary contests out there. Along with a wide range of recommended contests for writers of all stripes, Winning Writers also lists some contests and services to avoid — which is just as useful!

They also offer a handful of contests themselves, including the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest (which sounds delightful).

Poets & Writers

Another fantastic source for legitimate writing contests we consulted when compiling this list, Poets & Writers vets competitions, contests, awards and grants to make sure they’re following legitimate practices and policies. It’s worth checking out regularly as it features both annual and one-time contests.

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

This post was updated in March 2019 so it’s more useful and relevant for our readers! It was originally written by Kelly Gurnett and updated by The Write Life team. 

The post 31 Free Writing Contests: Legitimate Competitions With Cash Prizes appeared first on The Write Life.