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10 Tips for Young Writers Entering Contests

  1. Follow directions

Picture this: You are having dinner with friends at a restaurant. You order a cheeseburger with fries. The server brings out the food and hands you a plate with lasagna and salad. You kindly tell the server: “My order is inaccurate. I asked for a cheeseburger and fries.” 

The server replies: “I know, but here’s what the cook made. Here’s the bill. Enjoy.” Server walks away. More than likely, you would contact the manager to rectify the issue. You would not eat and pay for a meal you did not order. And just as you were baffled and a tad bit annoyed when the server gave you an order that was incredibly wrong, the same effect occurs when you don’t follow directions. 

If the contest rules say, submit 5 poems. Don’t submit 6. Rules and guidelines are established for specific reasons. For example, when you are directed to not include your name on the submission. Most likely, the organizers want to reduce or eliminate bias or favoritism in the selection process. They hope to be objective. This works in your favor because your work will receive greater consideration. 

You work hard (hopefully) in creating your work so don’t let your efforts be in vain by being disqualified for not following the rules.

2. Refine the title.

Although some judges may skip over your title, most will read it first. They will be introduced to your poem by way of the title. Make a good impression. Spend time crafting and revising your title. One of my biggest writing struggles is creating titles. I had a professor who advised reading through the table of contents of various poetry books and making a list of titles that stuck out. Those titles became models for my own. This is a simple way to grow in your title-writing ability. 

3. Revise the work. 

In journalism, we were taught to “kill our darlings.” This means removing text that you may love but isn’t serving the piece well. You can only do this by being objective when reviewing your work. You have to train yourself to not be overly attached to your words. Keep a journal where you catalog your darlings. They may be bettered suited in other poems. 

4. Revise your work. 

Yes, I intentionally listed this twice because I think it’s that important. Most writers – even those with Pulitzer Prizes and national awards – revise their work. The process is unique, but it is done nonetheless. Revision is your way to make your work stronger, clearer, bolder. You improve as a writer and the piece improves as a work of art. Don’t neglect this step. Here’s an example of a prominent poet, Nikky Finney, who extensively revised her work.

5. Ditch filler words

Just because a word sounds cool or fancy doesn’t mean it belongs in your work. Every word should carry weight. This requires you to be intentional as a writer. I have noticed with young writers the trend of sprinkling swear words or sexual innuendos throughout their writing that does not aid the piece. Language is a vast, beautiful field. No need to solely rely on four-letter words and f-bombs to convey emotion. Turn to the dictionary, not the swear jar. 

6. Heal before sharing. 

Many writers, particularly poets, enter writing by way of trauma. Counselors often incorporate journaling into therapy to help clients process pain. Writing is a place where the broken can heal. However, it is possible to share work that is undeveloped because the creator hasn’t healed from the traumatic event(s). In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown, writes: “I only share when I have no unmet needs that I am trying to fill. I firmly believe that being vulnerable with a larger audience is only a good idea if the healing is tied to the sharing, not to the expectations I might have for the response I get.”  

7. Study form.

Many young poets have not studied forms, so they opt to write in free verse. This is fine. I write mostly in free verse. However, what makes poetry poetry is that there is a rhyme to the reason. It is not random. Form is a cornerstone of poetry. Line length should be intentional. Line breaks should be intentional. Stanza should be intentional. ‘I just felt like starting a new line’ is NOT an intention. It’s laziness. Everything you do in your poem should be tied back to the heartbeat of the poem. 

8. Cut cliches

Poems with them are boring to read and are unoriginal. Your poem can easily stand out by using original, fresh language. This will stem from a rich vocabulary. Read vastly and often. Start a notebook where you gather interesting words. Strive to learn knew words and incorporate them into your daily speech. 

9. Read poetry. Real poetry.

I may step on toes with the following statement. But it must be said. A lot of what is circulating around on social media as ‘poetry’ is short, life advice you would find in a fortune cookie. They are proverbs at best. 

Just because I call something poetry doesn’t make it poetry. No matter how many likes I get on social media or how many of my friends tell me it’s great. Poetry should be poetic. Poetry should have rhythm and rich language. Poetry should have form. 

I know it’s popular to redefine terms and push the envelope of what is poetry. I respect that. At times, definitions have been used to restrict, confine and even keep folks out. It is useful to re-examine definitions. People’s misuse of definitions doesn’t mean definitions are bad. 

Make sure you’re not calling your writing poetry simply because of laziness or a rebellion in learning the form. This leads to my final point.

10. Learn the craft.

I recently did a writing workshop, and I shared work from four respected poets. One of whom was Joy Harjo, the U.S.’s first Poet Laureate who is Native American. Most of the students had never heard of the poets I shared. Granted, I don’t expect young writers to know the name of every well-known poet. But, reading is the single best way to learn about the craft. Read poets from various periods of history and parts of the world. Learning the craft improves you as a writer. How you ask others to read your work when you are actively reading and supporting the work of other writers?

Hopefully, these tips will help you as you send your poems out into the world. 

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