Updated: Nov 3, 2020
I know contests are stressful, but I need to make this post about their virtues anyway. I mentioned to a college friend/Twitter friend (you know who you are) that shopping shorter pieces around (poetry and/or short fiction) for contests with literary journals is super emotionally cathartic. By this, I mean that not only does it potentially help us find a forever home for our beloved shorter pieces (because poetry is, again, my first love), but it is also a wonderful reprieve from the lengthy--and I mean LENGTHY--wait times for some journal submissions, literary agent queries, and so forth. Of course, it's only natural that some submission processes take longer than others. The more submissions, the more wait time. The more specific the query, the less likely the match.
But as creators, we crave feedback. I'm somewhat spoiled as an educator. I plot a lesson plan and receive immediate feedback--not necessarily from my colleagues, but always from my pupils. With writing, it can take much longer (temporally) to receive feedback, whether shallow or substantive.
So I encourage writers--especially those early in their writing careers, like myself--to jump on contests as opportunities for streamlined/prioritized feedback. Even a "form rejection" is valuable.
Contests are a fantastic way to broaden your horizons regardless. Oftentimes, they'll offer a themed call for submissions--sometimes related to current events or a general sentiment or concept ("loss," "sacrifice," or "nature," for example). Sometimes they are regionally specific, too! For example, a contest could be only for writers from the Northwest, or stories about the South. Not only does this potentially help you to direct your work to an issue/journal that could be more receptive, but it could be a great writing prompt, or a great way to challenge you! I have written some pieces based on a call for submissions, and then those pieces took on a life of their own beyond the original theme. It's a great way to test out your artistic skills!
Check out young journals, quirky journals, and small presses. Bust out of the cage of self doubt and you just may find your niche!
Again, invaluable resources include pw.org ("Publish Your Writing" and "Classifieds") and Submittable. ;)