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Playing the Odds
by Susan Denney
In my other life I teach high school, French to
be exact. I care about my students and try to give them good counsel about the
scholarships and contests which can help them finance college. It occurs to me
that the advice that I give them applies to writers who want to make money as
My students are always tempted to apply for
national scholarships that offer gazillions of thousands of dollars. The only
problem with this is that there are gazillions of thousands of applicants and
the forms these scholarships require are more complicated than your worst tax
How does this apply to the writing life? I think
some writers who are trying to break into big high-paying markets are like my
students who apply for those national scholarships. Sure, it would be great to
publish your first short story in The Southern Review but realistically, the
chances of that are small. If you are a non-fiction writer, it may be that the
editors at Atlantic Monthly are staying awake at night waiting for your
submission, but I doubt it.
My advice to my students is to look close to
home. Our high school and local community offer many small scholarships that are
easy to apply for and that have few applicants.
Writers can do this as well. Your chances of
publishing your story in a smaller circulation or regional literary magazine are
a lot better than in a prestigious national publication. Plus, some of those
magazines have a distinct focus. You can aim your story at a specific topic or
genre. There are hundreds of these markets and they all need writers. If you are
persistent, you will find a place for your work.
Instead of cold calling national magazines with
your non-fiction queries consider that your local newspaper may be actively
seeking new voices. Send an editorial to your local rag. Your published
editorial will give you confidence and exposure as well as influence over your
own community. After breaking into print, you can offer to write a one-time
column or feature for that local publication. This could earn you a check and
that valuable clip that will help you break into bigger markets later.
If you enter writing contests, look for local
competitions. Once you have found a contest in your region, learn to play the
odds of winning. In a recent Oklahoma Writers' Federation contest, the short
story competition received eighty-eight entries while the confession story and
young adult short story competitions received twenty entries each. It doesn't
take a calculator to figure out which categories provided the best chances of
winning. Also, when choosing contests, always compare your entry fee to the
monetary prize awarded. Is it really worth your time and effort?
Should you give up on the big contests and the
big markets? Of course not! Someone has to write for them and it might be you.
After my students have taken the time to apply for the scholarships that they
have a good chance of winning, I encourage them to apply for the national ones
as well. You should keep applying for those big markets and contests. But if you
want to make money, you should spend the bulk of your precious time where it
will pay off, close to home.
The last piece of advice I give my students is a
truth so obvious that it hurts. Maybe you can see this one coming. If you don't
turn anything in, you never get anything back. So class, you have homework.
© Copyright 2004, Susan Denney
Susan Denney is a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania. She has published childrens fiction and nonfiction as well as adult articles
on a variety of topics. Check out her website at www.susandenney.com.
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