Friday, April 22, 2016

8 Best Practices for a Successful Writing Competition

In my previous job, I had the pleasure of running a teen writing competition for three years. Our first year, we had 35 participants. Our last year, we had over 100! So, we learned a few tricks over the years that we are very happy to share.

In A Nutshell, This is How We Ran It:

We had four categories: Middle School Poetry, Middle School Fiction/Memoir, High School Poetry, High School Fiction/Memoir. Each category had first place ($100), second place ($25), and honorable mention. The fiction/memoir was limited to 1,000 words and the poetry was limited to 30 lines.

Teens filled out an application and emailed it to us. (They could also drop three copies off at the library if they didn't have/want to email.) We printed out three copies and mailed them to our judges, which were local reporters and writers, and retired school librarians. They filled out a rubric for each submission and then met at the library to decide on the winners.

We notified all winners that they were finalists in the writing competition. They and their families were invited to come to the Spotlight program, where we announced which place they made, handed out checks and certificates, and gave them the opportunity to read their work to the audience. (Begin the event announcing high school winners. Middle school winners are too shy to read first but then they get caught up in the fun.)

From this whole process, we learned so much!

1. Be Specific in Your Rules/Application

Your rules should specify all important details in clear bullet points. If you want to drive something specific home (i.e. word count), make them fill it out in the application (Total words in your submission?).

In our application, we asked for contact info (name, address, phone, email, grade, school, title of piece, word count). Our last question asked them if they wanted to know about our Teen Writing Group and we'd email them more info. Unfortunately, that didn't find us new members, but I tried! I've since taken it off the application. (Maybe it'll work for you?)

Since our judges were volunteers, we held firm with the word count limitation.

Here is a sample of our Writing Competition Application, which I believe was heavily inspired from the Darien Public Library's application (which popped up when I googled Teen Writing Competition Applications, desperate for any ideas to help get started. Thanks for making it public!):

2. Finding Judges

We emailed all of the local authors in our area and asked them if they would be willing to participate. We were excited when two people said yes! To fill up the rest of the judge panel (three for each age group), we extended our search to local reporters and retired school librarians (Don't understate the celebrity factor, especially if the school librarian was beloved). We promised we wouldn't send them more than 50 entries for their age group (25 poetry/25 fiction/memoir). Most of the time, this wasn't a problem. The last year, we read all of the entries and had to weed out some of the submissions.

We had a core group of judges who were willing to do this every year. I tried to have an odd number of judges in each group so they could easily come to a conclusion on the winner. Usually I had to hunt for two more people to join each year, which was doable.

2. Create a Separate Email Account

We learned this our first year. I have a Teen Room Assistant who helps with the writing competition. The first year, I had to forward all of the submissions to her and she printed them out. The second year, we shared the same generic email address AND I had it set up to provide an automatic response so people would know we received their submission and for those who needed confirmation for their teachers. (That was 102 emails I didn't have to send last year!)

3. Deadlines

We catered to grades 6-12. Through trial and error, we learned that having a deadline in March for Middle School and a deadline in April for High School worked the best. Our best guess is that our previous deadlines fell around standardized testing, where teachers were more focused on the test than our competition (which makes sense!).

4. Advertise on Your School's Social Media

We followed our local schools on Facebook and tapped into them for advertising. (I also hear some schools are very active on Twitter, too) On Facebook, I sent messages to them asking them to share the following post and I wrote it all up so they can just copy and paste. One school had a Facebook Group which they allowed me to join, so we had a direct line to teens AND parents.

5. Email English Teachers, School Librarians -- and History Teachers

We always try to reach out to the teachers in the appropriate field connected to our program, so we've emailed English Teachers and School Librarians about the contest. Our last year, though, we decided to include History Teachers since they are also interested in stories. It made a huge difference! We also mentioned that we would accept homework assignments, if teachers wanted to give extra credit. *Hint, Hint* Note: This is the reason why we had to say "Memoir" instead of "Nonfiction". We did get some homework assignments that didn't fit into our rubric.

6. Email Previous Participants

We saved the email addresses of those who participated and emailed them again the next year, inviting them to participate again.

7. Make It Easy for Your Judges

We mailed the submissions to our judges and a rubric to help them judge on the same values (See below for an example.). They had about three weeks to read and fill out the rubrics. Then we invited them to attend a meeting where they could discuss their favorites and select the winners. I had lots of snacks, coffee, and I always gave them a small gift card to Dunkin' Donuts and a large piece of chocolate that said "Thanks!". I think it was the Winner Selection meeting that helped us create such a core group of judges -- they really got into dissecting the teens' writings to come to an agreement on the winners. The energy in the air was always filled with excitement and wonderment. They were always impressed with the submissions!

8. Celebrate Your Winners!

The teens always came excited to the Spotlight program, where we announced what award them had won, handed out certificates (great for their portfolios!), and checks. We also distributed a booklet of the winners' writing, arranged together alphabetically by the author's last name. The winners had a chance to read a portion of their work to the audience, which is a thrill all on its own (especially since we dimmed the lights, had a spotlight on the podium and a microphone). We shared the winners' writing online and in our newsletter. We also emailed the teachers the list of winners and what school they came from so they can congratulate their students. And, since we did it consistently for many years, teens and teachers started planning ahead for it.

That's it for my tips. Good luck with your competition!


  1. Thank you. Now I know what to do this summer

    1. I'm glad you found it helpful. Let me know how it goes! :)

  2. Hey Jess! I was hoping I could talk to you a bit more about this. I'm the new Consultant (formerly known as Advisor) at the MA Library System and I have a proposition for you. Can you email me at christif at masslibsystem dot org?

    1. Hi Christi, I will send you an email. I am intrigued!