What I Did Last Summer Essay Contests

Summer is a season for adventure, fun, love and so much more. We asked our writers to share their best (or worst) summer vacation memories for this month’s writing contest — make sure to vote for your favorite!

While each year brings new changes, the summer heat is always something we can count on. Whether you’re going on a vacation or moving to a new city, summer is a time that can create the fondest of memories. As temperatures rise this month, we asked Scripted.com writers to share their best (or worst) summer vacation stories. Vote below the table of contents for your favorite story; the winner will be announced on June 30.

Update: We’d like to congratulate John C. for winning this month’s contest!

  1. Three Kids, Two Dogs, a Reptile, a Loving Husband and a Summer to Remember – Seth R.
  2. Disneyland – Jack O.
  3. Rocky Mountain Flood – John C.
  4. Tennesse Getaway – Lucinda W.
  5. My Tyrolean Summer – Ceejay T.
  6. Trip to My Grandparents’ House – Jennifer T.
  7. My Costa Rican Adventure – Ian E.
  8. Suburbanite, Award-Winning Milker – Michael N.
  9. Swahili Summer – Lisa J.
  10. Gulf of Thailand – Nick C.
[polldaddy poll=8120253]

Three Kids, Two Dogs, a Reptile, a Loving Husband and a Summer to Remember

Seth R.

I’m not going to start this with: “summer’s here, time for fun and relaxation!” There’s a world out there to experience. You all know that, perhaps we all do — and that maybe more than once we have caught ourselves staring out the window thinking: “Why am I here instead of spending an afternoon on a beach somewhere or in a wood cabin up in the mountains?”

Years ago it was easy for me to pack my bags for a weekend out of town — sometimes even taking a bus ride without planning ahead on where to go or what to do, but those days are over. And besides, my traveling companion is now busy being my husband and father to my three kids.

Now vacation means planning ahead, confirming reservations, packing bags and finding someone to feed the pets and water the plants — the list goes on. Going through each and every entry on the list is tiring. Writing the list was tiring.

We deviated from our yearly vacation plan and all decided to stay at home.

My husband and I both work at home. With school out, we were all everyday in one place, with the mall as our nearest refuge for leisure. There’s the movie theater, of course. And summer meant plenty of blockbuster action-packed movies. One after the other. After we had our fill of several buckets of buttered popcorn and soda, we asked, so what’s next?

It was quite ordinary, what we did everyday that summer. And that ordinary was what made it so special. That summer was when my husband and I had to prepare our daughter for college. That summer I also got to know my kids better. It was special because I became more than a mom to them. I became their friend.

I also got to learn how to cook. Not just plain cooking of tossing in proteins and veggies to make a stew. I cooked with my heart and served the dishes plated like how professional chefs would do. Surely my love for cooking must have outshone my inexperience in the kitchen for everyone seemed to love my kitchen concoctions.

Several years ago, my husband and I found a shared passion for reptiles. And we were able to find a pet iguana to adopt (with paper and license of course). I liked the idea of having an iguana at home because they’re vegetarians and it encouraged everyone at home to eat their veggies as well.

My husband trained the iguana ever so patiently. Finding out which types of leafy greens it loves best. Which gave me a reason to drag my husband along for our regular trips to the market.

We hopped from one market to the other, looking for the best greens in town. I loved those trips because I get to go home with loot bags filled with beetroot, passion fruit, chard, kale, edible flowers and other types of ingredients that are not normally sold in supermarkets. With new ingredients on hand, it meant more new recipes for me to work on.

That summer was also the warmest summer ever recorded. My plants withered, my dogs were sweating like crazy. It was fiercely warm and we all felt it. That was the summer our iguana died. Died from intense heat. Something that may have have been avoided. For sometime we all blamed ourselves for that. We miss the head-bobbing when it tends to claim its territory. It whipped its tail only once a when a cat strayed near its enclosure. He was the perfect iguana and we all miss him.


Jack O.

Summer vacation was always one of the best times of the year when I was little. My dad is a twin and my uncle’s family used to join us on our family vacations. I have lots of fond memories of my childhood vacations. Summertime meant celebrating my birthday, going on vacation and my dad having time to himself for a couple weeks.

When I grew up, though, my first summer after I started college wasn’t so great. I had not been getting along with my parents, which was one of the reasons I refused to go to the school ten minutes from my house even though it had a great reputation. I was 19 and thought I was ready to make my own decisions, live on my own and do whatever I wanted. Then summer came and I had to leave the dorms, the cafeteria where I lived on Lucky Charms (something I had never been allowed to eat as a child) and days spent doing what I thought was best or right.

My birthday was coming, too. I decided to spend it in California, on the opposite coast. This wasn’t a random decision, either. I had met this guy online who was older than my parents, who was doing nothing with his life, and who had convinced me that he was the only person who would ever want me. According to him, I was broken, my fiery temper meant nobody could ever love me and he was a saint for putting up with our conversations on the phone, never mind in person. Sadly, my self-esteem was low enough in those days that I believed him.

So off to California I went for a week to visit him.

He picked me up at the airport and right away I could tell this was not the guy for me. It just didn’t feel right.

I don’t remember much about what we did. What I do remember is embarrassing. See, this guy had a girlfriend. I had told him that I did not want to be involved with someone who was with someone else. As usual in those days, though, I didn’t have the ability to speak up for myself. So when he decided we were going to stay at a hotel together but he wasn’t telling his girlfriend about it, I didn’t argue. He called her and made up some long involved story. He wanted his parents to wait outside while he finished this amazing piece of fiction so that she wouldn’t find out.

On my birthday we went to Disneyland, which I was very much looking forward to. It was not exactly an enjoyable trip, however. I’m not talking about the standard long lines and hot temperatures. As I recall there were sprinklers on the lines to keep everyone cool while they were waiting. The problem was that the guy I was with didn’t understand why I didn’t want to quit school to come live with him. His opinion was that being with me was vital to his life and that it was my job to “save” him from being with the woman he was currently with, so that he wouldn’t be miserable. School was not important because I could always go to school later.

We argued about this throughout the whole Disney adventure and throughout the whole performance of a circus that was in town the next day. We argued until I was tired of arguing and decided to give in.

Two days later, I was thankful to be able to go home, where he told me that he couldn’t hurt his girlfriend by leaving her and that he and I should just be friends.

Although that was probably the worst vacation and the beginning of one of my biggest relationship mistakes, I don’t regret it. Had I made better choices, it would have been the best vacation of my life because I would have either gone by myself to places I really wanted to see or would have told him in no uncertain terms that his behavior was unacceptable. I learned a lot about what not to do in a relationship from that whole mess, so in a way it was a great vacation and great birthday gift, even if I didn’t quite get it until several years later.

Rocky Mountain Flood

John C.

My girlfriend and I had planned for months to hike a portion of the Rocky Mountain National Park, known for its majestic beauty and ample wildlife. However, we had no idea that during our trip Colorado would face down flooding of historic proportions, leaving us caught right in the middle of a natural disaster.

Normally, early September in the Rocky Mountains features clear blue skies and perfect weather for hiking. Unfortunately, it had already been raining for nearly a day straight when we first set up camp inside the park, and much to our dismay, it kept raining the entire night.

The used tent we bought for $15 at a Goodwill Store wasn’t exactly waterproof, leaving us resting on a small puddle. The temperature dropped rapidly in the mountains, turning me into sleepless shivering heap inside a sopping wet sleeping bag. At least my girlfriend was doing much better. She’s the smart one who brought a waterproof sleeping bag. I knew I couldn’t sleep inside the tent anymore, but where could I go?

The only answer was the Rocky Mountain National Park men’s bathroom — not exactly the dream camping vacation spot I had in mind. Despite the buzzing fluorescent lights and cold floor, I eventually fell asleep until someone woke me up a couple hours later after stumbling upon my sad sleeping form — probably scaring him more than it scared me.

We quickly escaped the campground and rented a room in a hotel in the nearby town of Estes Park. Little did we know that during the night the rain would only pick up pace. The next day, the quaint Estes Park downtown was completely swamped with water, a truly sad sight to see, especially considering the impact on small businesses.

All this flooding meant every road leading east from Estes Park was essentially closed to traffic for days. There was only infrequent Internet and cell phone access as well. Unfortunately, all of this meant we missed our flight back home.

While we thought we had it bad, one couple said the fire department had to rescue them with a zip line after flooding turned their once peaceful stream into raging rapids. Others at our hotel told us that their summer cabin had been completely swept away in the flood, underlining how dangerous Mother Nature can be.

Although the trip was stressful and exhausting, we learned that tragedy can make communities stronger. People picked us up when we needed a ride, shared valuable information and worked together to make it through this epic disaster. In the end, the kindness of strangers was the best part of a bad trip.

Tennessee Getaway

Lucinda W.

My best summer vacation was a family trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. What started as a one night couple’s getaway for my husband and I turned into a week long trip with our son, too. Since it’s only about an hour from our house, we decided to drive back home and surprise our son with the trip. We don’t vacation much, so the look on his face as we crossed from the mountains of western North Carolina into the mountains of eastern Tennessee was priceless.

Since none of the vacation was pre-planned, we spent each night in a different hotel. Though most people would find packing and unpacking their stuff every night a hassle, it was fun to hop around the “strip” and check out each hotel.

On our date night, we enjoyed tasting local moonshine and whiskey, went souvenir shopping and had nice dinner together.

In two days alone — according to my fitness tracker — we walked 10 miles. We checked out a number of Ripley’s attractions, including the aquarium, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium” and the “Mysterious Mansion.”

We met with friends who just so happened to be in the area from our hometown at the same time and experienced our first fondue. The experience took hours as we moved through three courses, but memories made at that table over melting pots of cheese and chocolate will stay with me forever.

Though we spent a great deal of time together as a family, we also spent one-on-one time with our son, as well. While I rested and enjoyed the whirlpool in our suit to soothe my aching feet, my husband and son went to the Pepper Palace, where they sampled a number of hot sauces, and came back the hotel with plenty of bottles with which to stock our home kitchen. While my husband slept in, my son and I went out for breakfast and later in the day went for ice cream while my husband enjoyed the whirlpool.

Though we don’t vacation often, our experience last summer made me a fan of the spur of the moment approach. It was the perfect combination of rest and relaxation with touristy fun. Never again will I pack my schedule with so many things to do that I need an extra two days of vacation to rest from my vacation.

My Tyrolean Summer

Ceejay T.

Summer of 2010 in Austria’s Tyrol region stands out for me as the best summer vacation of my life. Having spent the season in more cosmopolitan destinations skywalking, surfing and souk-hopping, the Tyrolean vibe was a welcome change.

As expected, it was cold when we landed, but my friends and I immediately got a feel of the local warmth from the cheerful stewardess in the tiny Austrian Airlines plane we boarded from Frankfurt, the attentive owner of Sylvia’s Pizza in Brixlegg (surprising corner refuge for weary, kind-of-lost tourists) and the filial care of our cottage host.

First stop: Alpbach, dubbed the most beautiful Austrian village. It’s essentially a winter destination, but since our group are not winter people, we went in a drier season for the landscapes, the architecture and the farmlands. We crossed off mountaineering since it’s still way too chilly for us tropical children. It was a guten morgen every day, waking up to the smell of scrambled farm eggs, fresh milk, apple strudel and Staud’s marmalade. While all the lush panoramas in the world are the same to me, Alpbach stood out with castles jutting out — a welcome addition to the landscape.

Next on the list: Innsbruck. We made the centuries-old Baerenwirth Hotel our home and drove our car near the tram station that brought us straight to Old Town, where we satisfied our fetish for historical spots and al fresco risottos. Finally, there I was, staring at the Golden Roof (how touristy!), imagining Emperor Maximilian making eye contact with me. As if! While its shops and the cycling are rather common in other countries, Old Town is an architectural wonderland with the Helblinghaus, Cathedral of St. James — the works. It’s also a great stomping ground for baklava and about 50 variants of Margherita pizza. Simply put, it was all so delightful.

Next up, the customary shopping. It surprised me that you can actually request discounts in some Austrian malls for items not necessarily damaged referred to as “last piece.” Our lovely Asian friend Bei, who speaks fluent German, was the real deal maker, but nevertheless it was retail negotiation like I’ve never seen before.

The best thing about my Tyrolean summer? It made me realize worlds apart aren’t really so apart after all. There are things and people that instantly remind me of home: the Maypole Festival, the street parades, the patience of a local tour guide boy. These more than made up for all the skiing I missed. On a brighter note, there’s a reason to go back: I need a second chance to finally create my angel wing imprints on the Tyrolean snow.

Trip to My Grandparents’ House

Jennifer T.

I was a 10-year-old facing the long, lazy stretch of summer yawning before me, as only a 10-year-old can. The freedom from school and doing whatever I wanted were the ideas that thrilled me about my upcoming summer. However, the same reality had been worrying my parents. What was their solution to the problem? Grandparents. To my 10-year-old brain, summer with the grandparents sounded about as much fun as rolling around in a mound of fire ants. However, knowing how much power my 10-year-old self had over the ideas and inclinations of my parents, I just went with it.

The trip from Corpus Christi to Lago Vista, Texas used to take about 5 1/2 hours by car. The maximum speed limit in 1980 was 55 mph on the highway, so getting anywhere in Texas back then had this dream-like molasses quality to it. When we finally arrived, I was in full sulk mode. My grandparents let me spend a day in that state and then did something completely unexpected. They pulled me out of my funk with actions rather than words!

It began with scent. The scent of bacon sizzling gently and biscuits baking in the oven had my eyes popping open. This would happen every morning for the entirety of the summer. Not the same breakfast every morning mind you, but something delicious would be ready to greet us upon waking. Lunch and dinner were equally amazing! Coming from a home where homemade cooking was a foreign concept, this was a welcome change. My grandmothers cooking lessons and habits would influence my sister and I for the rest of our lives.

We made daily treks down the hillside towards the marina, where my gramps kept his boat. He showed us his fishing poles and the boat toys. How to bait a hook, fish, water ski and ride a wake-board were all lessons learned that summer. We swam in gorgeous coves and listened with rapt attention to the stories my grandparents would share with us — from the depression, stories from WWII and from their time overseas. This included all of the odd experiences they encountered over the years. Hours were spent on Lake Travis morning, noon and night — somehow we never suffered sunburns.

The thing about this first summer vacation with my grandparents is that is was the very first time I felt recognized and thoroughly paid attention to by an adult. They never treated us as if we were too young or too fragile to hear about and understand certain truths in life. For my 10-year-old self, it was magic and it was emotionally liberating!

My Costa Rican Adventure

Ian E.

I have been fortunate enough to go on quite a few vacations in my lifetime. My parents were incredibly generous with my sister and I — we’d frequently get invited to go on trips with them to places like England, France, Rome, Israel, New York and elsewhere. As I grew older, I realized that most of the places I had ever gone were either in the United States or other Western countries. I had the itch to venture outside of the safe and comforting confines of The First World.

A friend and I decided that we would backpack through Central America. Our Spanish was mediocre at best, neither of us had ever done a trip like this before and we were both completely in over our heads.

We should have known better.

The trip started off surprisingly well. We flew from Long Beach, California, to New York, to San Jose and Costa Rica (I’m not sure why that route was by far the cheapest, but it was.) After we landed, we went to a hostel where we met some amazing people, both locals and fellow Americans, who we decided to travel with for a while. For about two weeks, we toured the country, enjoying the scenic vistas that Costa Rica had to offer, until we eventually decided to say our goodbyes and part ways.

My friend and I headed to the beach cities on the Pacific side of the country. We ended up in a city called Playa del Coco, a somewhat whitewashed town that was breathtakingly beautiful. One night, after some particularly indulgent bar-hopping, my friend and I decided to go for a swim at the beach. In a moment of sheer idiocy, we left our backpacks (with ALL of our belongings, including our passports, phones, and cash) on the beach and went into the water. Four young locals saw the treasure trove we’d left for them, grabbed it and ran.

In a drunken moment that was as brave as it was idiotic, I decided to chase these four young boys down the beach, screaming “Por favor! Por favor! Es todos mis cosas!” After a couple of minutes of running, we ended up in a remote part of the beach. The four boys decided to stop running from a winded 24 year-old, turn around, and beat the crap out of me. Then, they stole ALL of my clothes.

I’d be lying if I said walking into the police station completely naked wasn’t embarrassing. But it didn’t stop me from spending another two months backpacking through Central America.

Pura Vida.

Suburbanite, Award-Winning Milker

Michael N.

My parents knew how to take advantage of every resource available. When it came to summer vacations that meant relying on the charity of my uncle, who managed a string of hotels across Southern Vermont. There was never a Hilton in the bunch, but they were solid places, joints where I could load up my plate with bacon at the breakfast buffet and then swim in the over-chlorinated pool.

For years, that was our only tourist destination when the school year ended. Some people had Disneyworld or Cape Cod; we had a two-hour car ride from Northern Connecticut to the Green Mountain State. My sisters and I got sick of it rather quickly. By the time I was 12, we’d seen just about all Vermont had to offer. We put our collective feet down when my parents tried to hustle us into the minivan for a trek out to the Cabot Cheese factory for the umpteenth, stomach-churning time.

“We can’t do it anymore,” we said. “We need something new. Our intestines are turning into cheddar.”

What could my parents do? Desperate, they dug through the hotel’s brochures, looking for anything new. Finally, they found one — a working farm in nearby Woodstock where visitors could go smell manure and watch chickens cluck. We reacted as a bunch of kids from suburban Connecticut naturally would.

“Hell no! Just bring us to the mall! Cows? Who cares?!?”

The pleas fell on deaf ears. We were going, my parents driven by novelty and some old-school 4-H nostalgia. So, for the first hour of the expedition, we moped. We hopped over cow droppings and drank whole milk (so much for the dairy avoidance) and sat around on stumps.

It was misery.

My salvation came from loudspeakers. “It’s time for the Visitor’s Cow-Milking Contest! All interested guests please come to the dairy barn!”

Oh, what the hell…

To this day, I don’t know what made me get up from that stump and walk over to that barn. The cure for boredom comes in mysterious ways. I shuffled over there, sat down on that stool, grabbed those pink udders and went to town.

I wasn’t just a natural, I discovered. I was a phenom. I was the LeBron James of milking. My little 12-year-old arms worked those things like Tyson working a speed bag. By the end of it, the pail was overflowing and I had an honest-to-goodness blue ribbon on my shirt and a big wide smile on my face.

Nearly two decades later, that blue ribbon still sits in my apartment. It’s a reminder that you can find the greatest bit of amusement in the places you least expect.

Swahili Summer

Lisa J.

From the first bouncing bus ride I took from the Kilimanjaro airport to the city of Arusha, I was taken aback by the way people blended into the scenery; it was hard to tell where the land ended and its people began. Open fields and abandoned shops appeared still until I noticed feet swinging where a child was perched atop a wooden barrel or a woman’s head bobbing as she ambled through tall rows of sugarcane.

Knowing I only had a month in Tanzania, I became transfixed on trying to put the people on every corner, peeking out from dilapidated shops with tall recycled glass bottles of Coca-Cola, into context. What was a day like for the woman sauntering down the street with a basket of grain on her head, her hands dancing in front of her in sweeping motions as she laughed with a friend? Where was the old man on the rusty bicycle pedaling to — and why was that ox following him? Who left that sheep tied to the light post? I wondered what they thought when they saw us mzungus riding through their town in a Land Rover.

I spent a month in Africa trying to put the daily lives of its people into a context I could understand, sometimes consciously, by asking awkwardly-phrased questions revolving around the few Swahili words I knew, other times by reflecting at night, under the halo of my mosquito net, on what I had seen and who I had met that day. In the end, no matter how many times I wished I could live by the sun and moon, dance to the rhythm my ancestors put in place long ago, or acquire a taste for salted goat meat, the truth is I am a blonde-haired mzungu who couldn’t balance an apple on my head, let alone a clay pot filled with water.

A year after my return, I’m still re-reading my weathered journal, examining the people in the background of my photos who went about their daily lives, unaware that their actions were captured and bound in a leather album that sits on a dusty bookshelf halfway around the world. I try to make sense of what makes people and places so vastly different and incomprehensibly familiar at the same time. I don’t have all the answers, but what I do have are fragments of vivid memory so alive I can smell the sweet corn blackened over sooty fires on the street corner and warm sweat on bodies dancing in the humid night — postcards from the real Africa. I may not have been born into the ancestral pulse of the ngoma drum, but I was lucky enough to be welcomed into it by an elderly Maasai woman who grabbed my hand firmly and led me in the dance our ancestors began long ago.

Gulf of Thailand

Nick C.

I woke up in a hammock on a white sandy beach with a clear view of the majestic turquoise waters. My girlfriend was back in the hut, snoozing. Apparently, I had stayed up to watch the sunrise. I don’t remember if I actually saw it. I went to the street, bought a coconut, had the vendor cut the top and insert a straw and headed back to the hut. I set the coconut beside TT. She was still sleeping. I gave her a kiss.

I took my bandana off and stepped back outside. I expected to be tired by this point. I expected bumpy 12-hour bus rides to take a toll on my body and mind. I expected to be ready to go home. Where was that? Wherever one could feel peace, I thought. In two days, it would be back to Bangkok and then on a plane back to my physical home. That meant saying goodbye.

The song “Pressure Drop” by The Maytals all of a sudden came on at the guesthouse’s bar. Staring out into the Gulf of Thailand from my humble hut in Ko Samui, it suddenly hit me why I had come to Southeast Asia. Yes, it was for the Pho in Hanoi. It was for paying way too much for lobster in Saigon. It was for the architecture in Phnom Penh. It was for Angkor Wat and staring at cows in the Cambodian countryside. It was for giving a pack of cigarettes as a tip (the waiter loved those American Spirits!). It was for waving glowsticks in the jungle at the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan. It was about all those things.

More importantly, it was about learning to love everything for what it was, and living life with open eyes and an embracing soul. It was about traveling and taking it all in with someone you love. I went back inside the hut. TT was drinking coconut. She smiled and offered me a sip.

At this moment, I became certain that this goodbye would not be permanent. Travel makes you gravitate toward the things you love. Yes, indeed! I decided I would have to get another coconut. I needed some time, and more coconut, to gather myself. I had a question to ask.

When I was about 12, I saw an ad in a magazine for a poetry contest that sounded fancy and impressive, something like “International Library of Poetry.” I bled poetry at that age, so I crossed my fingers and sent in a poem I’d been slaving over for weeks.

And, lo and behold, the people behind the contest quickly wrote back to tell me my poem had been selected as a winner!

I was speechless with honor. Of the thousands of poets who must have submitted to the contest — no doubt many of them adults much wiser and more skilled than me — my poem had been chosen to be featured in an exclusive, hardcover anthology! And honored on a something-karat-gold plaque!

Of course, I had to pay $50 if I wanted to see my work in print in the anthology, and I had to pay another $100 if I wanted the plaque. Those were the only “prizes.”

Even as a pre-teen, I sensed a scam.

Sadly, not much has changed when it comes to companies trying to take advantage of writers who want a chance at recognition and maybe a little bit of money. Google the term “writing contests,” and you’ll come up with approximately 8 million results. It can be hard for a writer to know where to start looking for competitions, and how to tell if they’re legitimate or not.

So I’ve done the legwork for you.

Here are 31 reputable, well-reviewed, free writing contests for poets, fiction writers, essayists and more.Some legitimate contests do charge a small entry or “reading” fee, but often a fee can be a red flag for a scam, so you may want to stick to free contests — and there are certainly enough of them.

Fiction and nonfiction writing contests

Ready to share your novel or personal essay with the world? Whether you’re a newbie or more established writer, you’re likely eligible for a few of these contests.

1. L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest

Whatever your feelings about L. Ron Hubbard’s work and philosophy, the prizes for this regular contest are nothing to sneeze at. Every three months, winners earn $1,000, $750 and $500, or an additional annual grand prize worth $5,000.

Submissions must be short stories or novelettes (up to 17,000 words) in the genre of science fiction or fantasy, and new and amateur writers are welcome to apply.

Deadlines: Quarterly on January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1.

2. Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

Awarded to “the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre,” this prize provides a $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf Press.

If you live in the U.S. and have published at least one book (in any genre), you’re eligible to submit a current manuscript in progress for consideration. The judges look for winners who push the boundaries of traditional literary nonfiction.

Deadline: Contest is every other year, with the last one running in 2016. The 2018 deadline has not been announced.

3. Drue Heinz Literature Prize

You can win $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press with this prize, awarded for a collection of short fiction.

You may submit an unpublished manuscript of short stories, two or more novellas or a combination of novellas and short stories. Your total word count should be between 150 and 300 typed pages.

Deadline: Annual submission window is May 1 through June 30.

4. Tony Hillerman Prize

Presented by St. Martin’s Press and WORDHARVEST, this prize awards the best first mystery novel set in the Southwest with $10,000 and publication by St. Martin’s Press.

It’s open to professional or non-professional writers who have not yet had a mystery published, and there are specific guidelines for the structure of your story: “Murder or another serious crime or crimes must be at the heart of the story, with emphasis on the solution rather than the details of the crime.”

Deadline: TBD

5. St. Francis College Literary Prize

This biannual prize honors mid-career writers who have recently published their third, fourth or fifth work of fiction. The winner receives $50,000 but must be able to appear at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY to deliver a talk on their work and teach a mini-workshop in fiction to St. Francis students.

Deadline: Biannually; the deadline for work published between June 2015 and May 2017 is May 15, 2017.

6. Young Lions Fiction Award

This $10,000 award recognizes “young authors,” which the rules define as any author aged 35 or younger. Submit any novel or short story published or scheduled to be published in the calendar year. Works must be written for adults; children’s or YA pieces are ineligible.

Deadline: Annually in the fall (most recently in August or September). 2017 deadline not yet announced.


This boutique publishing firm offers a full-fledged publishing deal to its contest winner. Submit a novel of 20,000 words or more in any fiction genre (no fanfic, short stories or poetry) and if it’s selected, Inkitt will provide you with professional editing, a cover design, and 25 percent royalties. They also have a strategy to get you into the Amazon Top 100. (Not too shabby.)

Inkitt runs contests regularly, so be sure to check back often!

Deadline: See individual contest pages.

8.Real Simple’s Life Lessons Essay Contest

Have you ever had a “eureka” moment? If you have, and you can write a compelling personal essay about it in no more than 1,500 words, you may be able to win $3,000 in Real Simple’s annual essay contest.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

9. New Voices Award

Presented by Lee & Low Books, an award-winning children’s book publisher, this award is given for a previously unpublished children’s picture book manuscript (of no more than 1,500 words) written by a writer of color.

The winner receives $1,000 cash and a standard publication contract. You may submit up to two manuscripts.

Deadline: Submissions must be postmarked by September 30 each year.

10. Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence

This contest aims to provide visibility for emerging African American fiction writers and to enable them to focus on their writing by awarding a $10,000 cash prize. Eligible authors should submit a work of fiction, such as a novel or short story collection, published in the calendar year.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

11. PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Honoring the best work of fiction published by an American author in a single calendar year, this award has been given to the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth and Ann Patchett.

The winner receives $15,000 and an invitation to read at the award ceremony in Washington, DC. Four finalists also each receive a $5,000 award.

Deadline: Annually on October 31 for books published that calendar year.

12. Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize

Presented by the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival, this annual prize awards $500 cash for “the best Brooklyn-focused non-fiction essay which is set in Brooklyn and is about Brooklyn and/or Brooklyn people/characters.” (So it’s Brooklyn-centric, if you haven’t picked up on that yet.)

Submissions should be four to 10 pages (up to 2,500 words), and five authors will be chosen to read and discuss their submissions at the annual December event.

Deadline: Annually in mid-November.

13. Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

Fiction and nonfiction writers who have recently published a book that “contributes to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures” are eligible for this award, which offers $10,000 cash as well media and publicity opportunities.

Submissions must be published in the prior year (so books published in 2016 are eligible for the 2017 award).

Deadline: Annual submission window is September 1 through December 31.

14. Marfield Prize (a.k.a. National Award for Arts Writing)

Presented by the Arts Club of Washington, this award seeks to honor nonfiction books that deal with “any artistic discipline (visual, literary, performing, or media arts, as well as cross-disciplinary works).” This may include criticism, art history, memoirs and biographies, and essays.

Deadline: Annually in the last quarter of the year; the 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

15. W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction

If you’re a war buff, this competition is for you. It awards $5,000 to the best piece of fiction set during a period when the U.S. was at war (war may either be the main plot of the piece or simply provide the setting). Submissions may be adult or YA novels.

Deadline: Annually on December 1.

16. Friends of American Writers Chicago Awards

FAW presents two annual awards: an Adult Literature Award for literary fiction or nonfiction, and a Juvenile Literature Award for a children’s/YA book.

Authors must reside in the state of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota or Wisconsin — or they must set their book in one of those locations. Prize amounts vary from year to year but are typically between $500 and $2,000.

Deadline: Annually at the end of the year; 2017 deadline has not yet been announced.

17. Hektoen Grand Prix Essay Contest

Hektoen International, an online journal dedicated to medical humanities, offers two prizes annually for essays of no more than 1,600 words in two categories.

The Grand Prize of $1,200 is given for an essay suited for their Famous Hospitals section, while a Silver Prize of $1,000 is given to the best essay suited for the sections of Art Flashes, Literary Vignettes, Moments in History or Physicians of Note.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 has passed and 2018 deadline is not yet announced.

18. Nelson Algren Short Story Award

Presented by the Chicago Tribune, this award presents $3,500 to one grand prize winner, $1,000 to four finalists and $500 to five runners-up for a short fiction story of less than 8,000 words.

You may submit up to two short stories, but note that your name must not appear anywhere on your submission as the process is anonymous.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 has passed and 2018 deadline is not yet announced.

19. Minotaur Books / Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition

Writers 18 and older who have never had a novel published (in any genre) are eligible for this prize, awarded for an original book-length manuscript where “murder or another serious crime or crimes is at the heart of the story.” The winner receives a publication contract with Minotaur Books and an advance of $10,000 against future royalties.

Deadline: Annually in the last quarter of the year. The deadline for 2017 awards has passed; the deadline for 2018 awards has not yet been announced.

20. FutureScapes Writing Contest

Want to change the world? Then listen up.

FutureScapes is looking for concrete, substantive pieces that “can provide a roadmap for cities, states, and nations to follow.” If you just want to write the next Hunger Games, this isn’t the contest for you, but if you’re inspired by politics and civic issues, you’ve found the right place. (Case in point: the inaugural theme, “Empowerment Cities,” features a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville.) First place wins $2,000; second place $1,000; and four runners-up will get $500 each. Oh, and did we mention publication in an anthology that will be “distributed to mayors, governors and members of the U.S. Congress”?

Deadline: Annually; deadline for 2017 is TBD.

21. Stowe Prize

This biennial prize of $10,000 honors an American author whose work has had an impact on a critical social justice issue (as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

In addition to submitting a copy of your book or written work, you must also complete a 250-word statement that describes the tangible impact your piece has made in the world and outlining any social justice work you perform outside of your writing.

Deadline: Biennially in odd-numbered years. The deadline for 2017 awards has passed, and the deadline for 2019 have not yet been announced.

22. The Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Non-Fiction

Creative nonfiction essays of no more than 5,000 words on any subject, are eligible for consideration for this award, whose winner receives $250 and publication in Lunch Ticket, the literary and art journal produced by the MFA community of Antioch University Los Angeles.

Works must not have been published elsewhere. Award winners are required to submit a 100-word biography, recent photo and a short note thanking the Woods family for their generosity and support.

Deadlines: Biannual reading periods are the month of February for the Summer/Fall issue and the month of August for the Winter/Spring issue.

23. Words & Brushes

This contest seeks to foster collaborations between artists and writers. Select a piece of artwork from the gallery provided and submit a short story inspired by it and you could win $350 — plus a spot in a future art book showcasing these collaborations. Short stories should be between 2,000 – 5,000 words.

Deadline: Annually; 2017 has passed and 2018 deadline is not yet announced.

24. Write the World

For young writers ages 13-18, this cool contest also serves as a mini writer’s camp. Recognizing that “a first draft is never perfect,” submissions actually receive peer review by authors, writing teachers and other experts and writers are given the chance to revise their pieces based on this feedback before submitting them for final prize consideration. There’s a $100 prize for the winner and $50 for the runner-up (plus $50 for the best peer-reviewer). All three are featured on Write the World’s blog alongside comments from a guest judge. And since each month’s prompt is from a different genre, developing writers get a chance to test out different styles.

Deadline: Monthly.

25. Prose.

Stuck with writer’s block and looking for a way to jumpstart your escape? Prose offers weekly challenges meant to spark your creativity; many are just for fun, but look for the weekly numbered challenges posted by Prose (rather than community members or sponsors) for a chance to win money.

Prizes are typically between $100 – $200 and word counts are low — some as low as under 150, some as high as 500, but all say “quality beats quantity.” So even if all you get from the prompt is a chance to flex your brain, it’s not a bad deal.

Deadline: Weekly.

Poetry contests

Curious about opportunities for poets? Your stanzas — rhyming or not — could be worth a fair amount of money in these competitions.

26. Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award

Open to African American poets, previously published or not, this award provides a $500 prize and publication by Boardside Lotus Press for the best book-length collection of poems (approximately 60 to 90 pages).

Deadline: Annually on March 1.

27. James Laughlin Award

If you’re already a published poet, this is the award for you; it’s given for a second book of poetry due to come out in the forthcoming year. The winner receives $5,000 and an all-expenses-paid week-long residency. In addition, copies of her book are distributed to the 1,000 members of the Academy of American Poets.

Deadline: Annual submission window is January 1 through May 15.

28. African Poetry Book Fund Prizes

The APBF awards three prizes annually for African Poetry. The Glenna Luschei Prize for Afican Poetry gives $5,000 for a book of original African poetry published in the prior year.

The Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets gives $1,000 and a publication contract for an unpublished book-length collection of poetry by an African author.

The Brunel University African Poetry Prize is a new prize that grants £3,000 to a poet who was born in Africa, is a national of an African country or has African parents, who has not yet had a full-length book of poetry published. (U.S. citizens qualify.) To submit, you’ll need 10 poems.

Deadlines: See individual prize pages.

29. Tufts Poetry Awards

Claremont Graduate University presents two awards each year to poets they deem to be “outstanding.” The Kate Tufts Poetry Award grants $10,000 for a published first book of poetry that shows promise.

The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award grants a mammoth $100,000 for a published book of poetry by an an established or mid-career poet.

Deadline: Books published between July of the previous year and June 30 of the current year are eligible for the following year’s prize (i.e. award for 2017 was for works publishing between between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016). Deadline for 2018 awards has not yet been announced.

Writing contests with multiple categories

Some contests accept submissions in multiple categories, so you could submit a novella as well as a poem or other work.

30. Binghamton University Book Awards

Sponsored by the Binghamton Center for Writers — State University of New York, this competition offers a $1,000 prize for work published in the previous year in two separate categories. The John Gardner Fiction Book Award goes to the best novel or collection of fiction, while the Milt Kessler Poetry Book award goes to the best book of poems.

Deadline: Annually on March 1 for books published the previous year.

31. Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition

(Editor’s note: We were so excited to include this competition that we overlooked its entry fees. We’ll leave it in the post for those interested in submitting their work, but please note that this contest is not free.)

One of the longest-running writing competitions — it’s now in its 83rd year — this contest spotlights up and coming writers in a number of categories, including Memoirs/Personal Essay, Magazine Feature Article and Genre Short story.

The Grand Prize winner gets $5,000, a feature in Writer’s Digest magazine, a paid trip to a writing conference and more. Runners-up earn prizes in first through tenth places.

Deadline: Annually; May 5, 2017.  

Where to find more legitimate, free writing contests

Looking for more opportunities to submit your work to writing contests? Here are a few great sites to keep an eye on.

Winning Writers

A number of the contests found on our list came highly recommended by this site, which compiles some of the best free literary contests out there. You can sort contests by recommendation level (Highly Recommended, Recommended or Neutral), view plenty of info on requirements and even see which contests are better for beginners, intermediate writers and pros.

They also offer a handful of contests themselves, including the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest (which sounds delightful).

Poets & Writers

Another fantastic source for legitimate writing contests I consulted when compiling this list, Poets & Writers vets competitions, contests, awards and grants to make sure they’re following legitimate practises and policies. It’s worth checking out regularly as it features both annual and one-time contests.

Cathy’s Comps and Calls

Writer, poet and editor Cathy Bryant sources legitimate, free-to-enter writing contests and calls for submission. She releases a new list of contests and calls each month, so check back monthly for new opportunities.

Are you planning to enter any writing contests this year? Which ones?

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

This post originally ran in February 2016. We updated it in March 2017.

Filed Under: Craft


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