5 Tips for Winning Your First (or Next!) Literary Award

Monday, March 25, 2024
Nicole Breit

By Nicole Breit

When I got serious about getting published, the advice I received from my mentor was game changing. 

Enter writing contests.

An award-winning poet, novelist and former lit mag editor, she had an insider’s perspective on the literary market. I wasn’t sure my work was good enough to enter in a contest, but she convinced me to give it a try.

Even if I didn’t win a contest an award nomination would open doors for me. It could even streamline the publication of my book. Mentioning a literary award in my cover letter would help my manuscript stand out in the slush pile.

I took her advice, entered some contests and hoped I might land on a longlist or two. To my surprise and delight I won three literary awards in 2016.

Previously an unknown writer, I was now invited to speak on panels with established authors. I was reading at literary events. I was embraced by my local writing community. Authors whose work I admired expressed interest in my book.

After years of wondering how I’d ever become an author I finally felt like a “real” writer.

Since 2017 I've helped hundreds of writers produce their best work in my Spark Your Story programs. I give those aspiring authors the same advice my mentor gave me: I encourage them to enter contests as part of their bigger publication strategy.

Many have gone on to win awards for the writing they produced in my courses and advanced their careers. 

Want to learn how to rock writing contests?

Here are my top 5 tips for literary award success:

1. Enter creative nonfiction contests

Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing literary genre and yet far fewer writers enter essay contests than submit to fiction or poetry contests.

That means your odds for placing in a CNF contest are much better than if you submit to contests in other literary genres.

Never written a personal essay? Don’t let that hold you back. Creative nonfiction relies on literary devices from fiction and poetry to bring personal storytelling to life.

You’ve got this!

2. Include the element of surprise

Typically contest readers are tasked with ranking anywhere from 100 to several hundred entries to narrow down a longlist.

So here’s the question: how will your entry stand out?

I write and teach experimental story structures for creative nonfiction writers. Here’s what I’ve learned about the work that rises to the top. It’s not what a story is about but how it’s told

I’m not talking about writing style - although I’m not discounting style as an important element of craft. I’m talking about the role structure and form play in creating an unforgettable piece.

In my award winning essay “An Atmospheric Pressure” I messed with chronological order so the essay moves backwards and forwards in time, echoing the grief loop this narrative is really about.

Atmospheric Pressure by Nicole Breit

In “Spectrum” (which won the 2016 CNFC/carte blanche creative nonfiction award) each subheading was formatted a different color of the rainbow. That artistic choice echoes the title and reinforces the meaning of the essay as well.

Spectrum by Nicole Breit

3. Follow contest entry guidelines but trust your gut

Do I recommend you follow contest guidelines to a tee? Yes, absolutely. You don’t want to be disqualified for any reason.

However, I do think genre category can be a bit of a grey area.

Let me be clear: I don’t suggest entering a work of fiction in a CNF contest. Misrepresenting a fictional story as lived experience is both unethical and unwise.

I’m talking about increasing your chances of success by submitting your CNF in more than one category when appropriate.

Some prose poems could be considered flash CNF, for instance. Then there’s multi-genre work like this quilt essay by Shirley Harshenin published in Compressed Journal of Creative Arts. I think a piece like this could be considered for a flash essay contest or more niche categories like short form, visual essay and hybrid storytelling contests.

4. Do your research…

When I looked into Room magazine’s 2016 creative nonfiction contest I lit up when I read their online interview with judge Kate Braid.

I was a fan of Braid’s books Journeywoman and A Well Mannered Storm: the Glenn Gould Poems. I felt a kinship with this lyric writer who, like me, wrote poetry and CNF.

When I read that she was looking for a piece to “grab her by the heart and gut from the start and hold her tight to the end" I felt my best chance was “An Atmospheric Pressure” which won the contest and was selected as a Notable by Best American Essays.

Another good reason to do your research? Contests typically aren’t free to enter. Find out who the judge is, the kind of work they like to read and write, and decide on your next step accordingly.

5. It’s not just about quality… or numbers …

Your entry may be beautifully crafted and exactly the kind of piece you think a judge will love - but, of course, there are other factors that are out of your control.

You can’t predict the overall number of entries received, the quality of submissions or whether your piece makes the first cut.

Please remember: if a piece isn’t longlisted it doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. Keep submitting! You never know when it might be nominated for another award or published at a later time.

More than once I was disappointed when I thought a piece would place in a contest but didn’t… only to win an award later. Strong work will eventually find its literary home.

If there’s one quality that separates professional writers from the rest it’s persistence. Keep writing with the intention of improving your craft and adding new work to your portfolio. Submit, submit, submit… and keep submitting!

Want to produce a portfolio of award-worthy CNF with guidance + support?

I’d love to see you in the Spark Your Story Lab, my online self-guided program for writers who want to craft powerful personal essays and share them with the world!

Designed to spark your creativity, transform your writing, and shape your memories into powerful stories, you’ll experiment with 10 essay forms: the collage, hermit crab, list, visual, photo essay + more!

By the end of the program you’ll have mastered the skills to move past blocks, craft innovative new work, revise + submit your work like a pro. Sign up here to save $250 for a limited time!

PS Not ready to join me in the Spark Your Story Lab? Sign up here for my on-demand workshop “How to write award-worthy essays (even if you only have 30 minutes a day)”. Enter coupon code WOW27 at checkout for FREE access and more valuable tips to craft the kind of essays contest judges are looking for!


Nicole Breit is an award-winning author and writing instructor based in Gibsons, BC, on the ancestral territory of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) people. Her work has been widely published in journals and anthologies including Brevity, The Fiddlehead, Room, Hippocampus, Pithead Chapel, Event, Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories and Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. Nicole’s Spark Your Story courses and workshops have helped hundreds of writers celebrate their first publication credits and awards.

Sign up for Nicole’s newsletter: https://www.nicolebreit.com/newsletter

Check out Nicole’s writing programs: https://www.nicolebreit.com/spark-your-story-programs


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