6 Ways Winning a Writing Competition Helped Me Get Published

Winning the grand prize in the 80th annual Writers Digest Competition was easily the most thrilling experience of my writing career. Eleven thousand seven hundred entries and the judges picked my story, “Boy Witch”. I’m a full time writer now, but was still practicing dentistry when the call came through. My receptionist interrupted me in the middle of a procedure and said, “You’re going to want to take this.” I remember very little about the rest of the day.

biggs-featuredPS_coverFront_10-1-14-2This guest post is by John Biggs. Biggs is a broad-spectrum fiction writer. His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies that run the gamut from literary to young adult and everything in between. He has published two novels with strong contemporary Native American content that blur genre borders between literary and speculative fiction. John was the grand-prize winner of the 80th annual Writers Digest Competition, as well the winner of the 2012 the Storyteller magazine’s People’s Choice Award, OWFI’s Crème de la Crème award, 3rd prize in the 2011 Lorian Heminway short story contest. His second novel, Popsicle Styx was a finalist for the 2015 Oklahoma Book Award. You can visit John at  johnbiggsoklahomawriter.com and his FB author page.


I’d written about eighty short stories before the WD win on the advice of an editor I met at a writers’ conference. He told me I showed promise but needed to stop working on novels for a while and hone my skills on short fiction—easily the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

For the next three years I wrote short stories, submitted them to markets, and entered them in contests. By the time WD’s 80th annual competition rolled around, I’d won several contests but had managed to publish only four stories. Three of those were in a writers’ conference anthology with about 100 subscribers, and one was in a small literary magazine, The Storyteller.

[Click Here to Enter One of our Writer’s Digest Writing Competitions Now]

Since the WD grand prize I’ve published sixty short stories and two novels. I have another novel and a linked short story collection coming out this year, and a contract on a fourth novel for 2016. Here’s how winning a single major contest made the difference:

1. Breakout psychology

After my story had been picked in a selection process as rigorous as the Annual Writers Digest Competition I knew I was a writer. Rejections still hurt (they haven’t stopped coming) but that big win carries me through a lot of hard times, and keeps me writing and submitting.

2. Fresh Eyes and Old Work

I used to believe something was intrinsically wrong with every piece of short fiction an editor rejected. After the WD win I gave those manuscripts another serious look. Some were well written and deserved to find a home. After minor modifications and several more submissions they did. Some had serious flaws that were obvious to me after a letting them rest a few months. Once identified, most of those problems could be corrected. Without the WD writing competition, my once rejected manuscripts might never have seen the light of day.

3. Prestige

Not every good story has a blockbuster start. Editors read hundreds of submissions and they seldom give manuscripts more than a couple of pages to capture their attention. A narrative with a slow opening will usually wind up in the rejection pile. Fortunately for me, most submissions include a short author bio. If that bio includes winning a Writers Digest competition, a slow starting manuscript is likely to get a more in depth read.

[Click Here to Enter One of our Writer’s Digest Writing Competitions Now]

4. Editorial Feedback

After the WD win, rejections—at least some of them—became more personal. “Your story was excellent but, not right for this collection.” I received invitations to submit again, or sometimes to re-submit the same story for a later edition or another publication. Comments varied from a single word rejection, “close,” to a more enigmatic, “We were torn by this one.” Some editors made specific suggestions and accepted stories contingent on changes. Editors are more likely to want a relationship with an author who has won a major contest. Once that relationship is established they will likely read future submissions in a very favorable frame of mind.

5. Recycled Characters

Once I have well-developed characters I never let them go. Danny Riley, the protagonist of my grand prize winner, has been featured in several subsequent stories. You can bet I include Danny’s past successes somewhere in my submission. My soon to be released novel, Cherokee Ice, actually picks up Danny Riley’s life where “Boy Witch” leaves off. Publishers are enthusiastic about tapping into a fan base a popular protagonist might have developed.

6. A Not So Perfect Pitch

Summing up a story in five minutes seems to be beyond my grasp no matter how many blogs posts I read that tell me exactly how it should be done. One editor at a writers’ conference actually stopped me in the middle of a pitch. But he looked over my resume and agreed to read a draft my first novel. Afterward he offered me a contract. That editor sat through a lot of pitches and asked for very few manuscripts. If I hadn’t had a major contest win, he probably wouldn’t have asked for mine.

Winning the Writers Digest competition gave me a strong push through the very steep climb at the beginning of my writing career. Partly, or perhaps chiefly because of that contest my short story publication resume has blossomed and I have established a relationship with two small publishers (Pen-L Publishing and Oghma Creative Media). I’m still looking for a way into major New York publishing house. Maybe my WD win will help me with that too.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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12 thoughts on “6 Ways Winning a Writing Competition Helped Me Get Published

  1. laurenruiz05

    I read this post all the way through: being able to carry someone through a blog post, since posts can be so easily skimmed, is another indicator (aside from winning such an awesome prize) of writing prowess to me. 🙂

    I’ll be sure to share this post with my editing clients and to internalize the major points for use in my own writing career!

  2. James Stack

    Thank you for this article. I’m submitting poetry and short stories to competitions, receiving mostly rejections. But this article has helped lift me up, so I will keep submitting. One day soon….

  3. Amaria

    Your article was inspiring. I have been writing poems for some time now and recently short stories. I feel I’m ready to take it to the next level. I will keep this article in mind. Thanks again for sharing your story.

      1. Amaria

        Hey Varun. I am by no means an expert but I find this website very informative for people who want to get serious about their writing. There are many good articles and blogs you can follow, such as “Poetic Aside” if you like poetry. I also find the creative writing prompts that are posted weekly to be very helpful. The people are very friendly and helpful when need tips on improving your writing, because we are all trying to be better writers. But I do recall one poet saying the best thing a writer can do is read. And when they’re done reading, reading some more. And it is true – when you not writing, you should be reading. And when you’re not reading, you should be writing. The best of luck to you.

  4. Rodney H. Rowe

    Thanks for sharing your experience! I like learning some new approaches on how to improve writing skills. As I understood if your work is excellent it doesn’t guarantee its success. You need to do more to win the competition and not to sit and wait for the moment when someone says you are good writer and wants to publish your book. I have recently read the article about how current education is failing our would-be writers and have to say it is worth reading.

  5. Kim Bailey Deal

    Great article and hello to another Oklahoman! I lived there for nearly 25 years and much of my writing, especially the novel I’m working on now, is colored by that experience. Thank you for sharing your experience. I have known for some time I need to begin submissions to contests and journals, but of course, I’ve hesitated and procrastinated. Your words have inspired me to go for it. Thank you!


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