Contest FAQ

Quick Reference:

New to the Contest?
How to Be a Winner in the OWFI Contest
Student Entries
Preparing Your Entries
Preparing Your Published Book Entries
Eligibility of Entries
Sending Entries
Unanswered Questions
Problems With Entries & Certificates
The After-Contest Blues
Giving Back

New to the Contest?

What does a first-time contestant needs to know?

  • If you’re not an OWFI member or a full-time student, you must join OWFI by February 1 to enter the contest.
  • Read the rules carefully. Each contest category has different requirements.
  • Remember that each entry needs to be mailed separately to the correct Category Chair.
  • Mail entries early. We recommend sending them by January 15. This will give the Category Chairs time to screen your entries for any rule violations (such as leaving your name on the manuscript). You’ll be given a chance to fix your entries if there’s time. Corrected manuscripts must be postmarked by the final deadline of February 1.
  • The more manuscripts you enter, the better your chances of winning.
  • If you have any questions after reading this FAQ, please ask! We’re here to help.

Who can join OWFI, and how do I become a member?
Our group is open to anyone, anywhere, with an interest in writing. See the Membership section of this web site for instructions and a membership form.

Do I have to attend the OWFI conference in May to enter the contest?
No. If you don’t plan to attend, include postage with your entries so your manuscripts can be mailed back to you after the conference, or ask a friend at the conference to pick up the entries for you. (See Item #19 in the contest rules.)

Do I need to pay a separate fee for each entry?
No. One entry fee allows you to enter as many categories as you want, including both unpublished manuscripts and published books. It’s one of the best deals around!

What are “Category Chairs”?
Category Chairs are volunteers who collect the entries for each contest category and prepare them for judging. Category Chairs don’t judge the manuscripts. They screen the entries for rule violations and help resolve any problems. They are available to answer any questions you may have about your entry in a particular category.

Why are the entry procedures so complicated? Why do I have to send each of my manuscripts to a different address?
Hundreds of manuscripts are entered in our contest. All contest officials are volunteers who juggle their OWFI duties with family and work responsibilities. The volume of entries is too huge for one or two people to handle. The category chair system makes the workload manageable and allows us to give each entry the attention it deserves.

Who judges the entries?
Judges are published authors or industry professionals (editors, agents, and publishers). Some are members of OWFI, and some are not. The names of the judges are not revealed until awards night in May.

What kind of feedback can I expect from the judges?
It varies widely. Some will write one very brief comment; others will make notes on almost every page; some will complete score sheets. Don’t expect detailed critiques on every manuscript, and be aware the some judges are more encouraging than others. You always take a risk when you offer a manuscript for critique, but sometimes a judge can give just the right suggestion to help you take your work to the next level. Many OWFI members say that getting feedback from the judges is one of the best features of our contest.

How many manuscripts are entered in the each contest category?
It depends on the category. The smallest categories may have only a dozen entries. The largest can have around 100 entries.

I’m not attending the conference. How will I know whether I won anything, and when can I expect to have my judged entries mailed back to me?
The winners’ list will be posted on our website soon after the conference. It will also be published in the summer issue of the OWFI newsletter. We try to mail entries as soon as possible after the conference in early May, but if we have a large pile of entries to return, it may take a few weeks to process them all.

How to Be a Winner in the OWFI Contest
What can I do to increase my chances of success?

  • Enter as many categories as possible.
  • Edit and revise your manuscripts. Send your best, most polished work.
  • Follow the rules to the letter.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread.
  • Stay informed of changes and trends in the writing world—publishers’ requirements in some genres, such as picture book, are very different than they used to be. Our judges are aware of these changes, and you should be, too.
  • Don’t overlook small categories where the odds are better. (See list below.)
  • Mail entries early so any problems can be found and fixed.

Which categories have the best and worst odds?
The numbers vary from year to year, but the following categories usually have the fewest entries:

  • Historical Novel
  • Western Novel
  • Play/Film/TV Script
  • Western Article

The categories with the most entries are:

  • Poetry (especially unrhymed)
  • Short Story
  • Short-Short Story

New winners emerge every year, even in the largest categories. Don’t avoid the big categories, but do stretch yourself and try the smaller ones, too. You may be pleasantly surprised on awards night!

How can I avoid disqualification and keep my manuscripts in the running?
The most common reasons for disqualification are:

  • Author’s name not removed from manuscript. Always check the header, too!
  • Manuscript too long or too short for the category.
  • Entry sent to the wrong Category Chair.
  • Self-addressed envelope missing or too small (must be at least 9x12).
  • Manuscripts not double-spaced (only poetry may be single-spaced).
  • Published book entries with the wrong copyright date (must be copyrighted the year prior to the contest).

See “Causes for Disqualification” in the Contest Rules for other problems to avoid.

What’s the biggest mistake people make when entering this contest?
Many problems stem from completing and mailing entries in a last-minute rush. Take the time to revise, proofread your manuscript, and triple-check the rules.

Student Entries

Do full-time students get to enter for free?
No. Students don’t need to join OWFI or pay dues, but they must pay the $20 entry fee.

The rules say I have to provide “verification of full-time student status.” How can I do this?
Ask at your school office. Most schools can provide you with an official statement to send us, verifying your enrollment. If you can’t get a statement, send us a photocopy of your student ID along with contact information for your school.

Is there a minimum age requirement for student entrants?
No. However, students will be competing with published, professional writers. You should be prepared to handle disappointment and possible criticism. We recommend this contest for mature high-schoolers, college students, and adults.

Are student entries judged separately?
No, they are treated like any other manuscript. All unpublished manuscript entries are judged blind. The judge won’t know which entries are student-written.

Preparing Your Entries

I write under a pen name. Should I use my pen name or my real name for my contest entries?
We need your real name so we can verify your OWFI membership status and write your award checks if you win! If you really want to include a pen name, we suggest making out your entry form as “Mary Potter [real name] writing as Eleanor Rigby [pen name].”

I’ve read the definition of “editor ready” in Item 15 of the rules, but I’m still confused. I looked for more information, and all my sources say different things. Help!
Format your manuscripts as if you were submitting them to an editor for publication (but leave off your name). “Editor ready” includes:

  • Typed, using an easy-to-read font
  • Double-spaced (except poetry and novel synopses)
  • A header line at the top of every page except Page 1, including the title and page number
  • One inch margins all around

For more information, consult a recent edition of Writers Market (available at most libraries), or search “Manuscript Format” online.

There can be slight variations in manuscript formatting style. Different editors have different rules about what font to use or where to place the header. As long as you follow the broad guidelines above, your entry will qualify for our contest. When in doubt, we suggest you follow Writers Market.

I’m submitting an unpublished book manuscript. I’m not sure which parts should be double-spaced and what should be single-spaced. Item 15 of the rules says to “follow industry standard,” but I don’t know what the industry standard is.
For fiction and narrative nonfiction (such as memoir), the synopsis or outline may be single-spaced, and everything else should be double-spaced. For general nonfiction (how-to books, biography, self-help, etc.), it depends on the types of materials you want to include in your front matter or back matter. Before you submit your entry, do some research on how to format nonfiction book manuscripts. The most important thing to remember is that the main text of the book (prologue/introduction and chapters) is ALWAYS double-spaced.

How do I format my unpublished picture book entry? Do I need to include illustrations?
No. Just send your written manuscript, as for any other unpublished entry. Don’t include illustrations or storyboards, and don’t try to indicate where the page breaks in the finished book should be. Children’s Writers Market or any recent guide to publishing for children will give you more information about submitting picture book manuscripts.

I’m entering a rhyming picture book. Do I double-space or single-space?
Double-spacing is recommended. If your verse is broken up into stanzas, put an extra line space after each stanza.

The Poetry category descriptions say that epigraphs are not part of the line count. What’s an epigraph?
An epigraph is a short quote from another literary work that appears at the beginning of a piece of writing. If you choose to use an epigraph, most editors recommend keeping it short—just one or two lines.

I’m not sure whether my children’s novel belongs in Middle Grade or Young Adult. How do I decide?
There’s no firm rule on this. If your protagonist is 12 or younger, you’ll probably do best putting it in Middle Grade. For young teen protagonists, it depends on the book. Be aware that young-adult novels are edgier than they used to be, and some have very mature themes.

My manuscript fits into more than one category. How do I decide where to enter it?
Study the category descriptions and choose the one that is the closest match. If it’s a toss-up, use your best judgement. If you have questions about a specific category, check with the Category Chair or Contest Chair (First VP).

Can I submit photographs or illustrations with my nonfiction article or book manuscript?
There’s no rule against this, but remember you are judged on the writing, not the illustrations. Too many illustrations can make your manuscript awkward to handle and read, so if you include them, keep them to a minimum. Send copies only. Don’t include anything you can’t afford to lose.

How can I be sure my Script entry is formatted correctly?
Consult any recent book on script writing for basic formatting guidelines.

 I know the rules, but I can’t make my computer obey them! My page numbers keep dropping off, the font doesn’t look the way I want it, and I can’t get the text to print correctly. Can I still enter my manuscript, even if I can’t format it exactly right?
We understand the headaches of working with computers. Unfortunately, we can’t bend the rules because of computer glitches. Any incorrectly formatted manuscript is at risk of being disqualified. Your best defense against these problems is to give yourself plenty of time before the deadline, and have someone on hand to help you if you need it.

Preparing Your Published Book Entries

Are self-published books eligible?

How do I submit my e-book?
Under the current rules, published e-books must be printed out as a hard copy before they are entered.

Can I enter a book I published a few years ago?
No. For your published book to be eligible, the copyright date must be the year prior to the contest. For example, if you’re entering the contest in 2012, your book must have a copyright date of 2011.

Can I enter a revised edition or reprint of a previously published book?

Can I enter a co-authored book?
Yes, if all authors are OWFI members. The writing team must pay a separate entry fee and complete a separate entry form. (See Items #8-10 in the Contest Rules.)

Some of the portions of my book were previously published in magazines. Am I still eligible to enter the book?
Yes, if the book as a whole has not been previously published.

Eligibility of Entries

Can I enter the same manuscript in more than one category?
No. See Item #10 in the contest rules.

My manuscript won a cash award a few years ago. Since then I’ve made a lot of revisions to the piece. Can I re-enter, since it’s so different from the original?
No. “Recycling” winning entries clearly violates the rules and is against the spirit of our contest. Instead of re-entering, we hope you’ll submit your revised work for publication.

Can I re-work a piece that won a previous cash award and submit it in another category (for example, turning my winning novel into a play)?
No. Again, this is a violation of the rules.

Can I re-enter a manuscript that has won honorable mentions?
Yes, as long as it hasn’t won a cash award (third, second, or first place) at OWFI.

Can I enter a manuscript that won an award in a different contest, but not OWFI?

Can I enter a manuscript simultaneously in the OWFI contest and another contest?
Yes, but read the rules of the other contest carefully to make sure it’s OK with them. Some contests allow simultaneous entries, and some don’t.

My manuscript was accepted, but the magazine folded and never published it. Can I enter it in the OWFI contest?
No. According to OWFI contest rules, the manuscript cannot have been accepted for publication before entry.

My manuscript was accepted for publication after I sent it in to the OWFI contest. Should I withdraw it?
No. It’s still eligible, as long as you entered it in the contest before the acceptance notice came.

Can I enter an unpublished manuscript category with work that was posted on my blog, web site, or another online venue?
No. Writing posted online is considered published. Even if you’re sure that nobody except your snoopy next-door neighbor ever visits your online venue, the work is still out in the world, available for anyone to read.

Sending Entries

How can I get confirmation that my entries have reached the Category Chairs?
Entries are very seldom lost in the mail. If you must have confirmation of their arrival, include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with your entry and ask the Category Chair to drop it in the mail to you.

I’ve already mailed my entry, but I’ve decided to make a change to my manuscript. Can I send in a revised version to replace the original?
No. Sending revised versions of your entries creates more work for our Category Chairs and causes confusion. You may only do this if you realize you’ve made a glaring error that will get you disqualified (such as leaving your by-line on the manuscript, or forgetting to double-space). If you’re not sure, consult the Category Chair or Contest Chair. All corrections must be postmarked by February 1.

How do I withdraw an entry?
Let both the Category Chair and Contest Chair know before February 1.

I forgot to list one of my manuscripts on the entry form. How do I fix this mistake?
If possible, send us a replacement entry form listing ALL your entries—both the previous ones and the new one(s). If you’re unable to send a replacement form, send a note to the Contest Chair advising him or her of the new entry. All entry forms must be postmarked by February 1.

Can I drop my entries in the drive-through mailbox at my local post office at 11:59 on February 1?
No. To get the February 1 postmark, you must take your entries to the post office before it closes for the day.

I missed the deadline because of circumstances beyond my control (the weather was terrible, the post office closed unexpectedly, my computer broke down). Can you make an exception?
No, the deadline has to stay firm for everyone.

Why can’t the deadline be moved when we have severe winter weather?
Our contest schedule is very tight. Judges need enough time to read the entries carefully, and then the first-place entries must be sent to another round of judging for the Crème-de-la-Crème award. The Category Chairs also need time to process the entries. Even a few days’ delay can make the whole schedule go haywire.

Unanswered Questions

I’ve read this entire FAQ and I don’t see my question.
Ask a fellow OWFI member, a Category Chair, or the Second or First VP. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll find it for you.

Problems with Entries and Certificates

There’s a misprint on my certificate. Can I get a corrected replacement?
Yes. Let the Contest Chair know about the problem, and ask for a new certificate. Please be patient. It may take a few weeks.

One of my manuscripts was not in my envelope after awards night. How do I get it back?
Sometimes manuscripts are mixed up and put into the wrong envelopes. Unfortunately, we don’t have a guaranteed way to get a lost manuscript back to you. If someone else received the manuscript, he or she might send it on to you; or you can try posting a message on our Yahoo or Facebook groups.

I received someone else’s manuscript by mistake. What do I do with it?
If possible, get in touch with the other author and return the manuscript. All members’ contact information is listed in the Member section of the website. If you can’t access the directory, or can’t reach the author, let the Contest Chair know.

I did not attend the conference. It’s almost June, and I still haven’t received my manuscripts back in the mail. When do I panic?
If there’s a large stack of manuscripts to be returned, it may take a few weeks to process them. Please allow at least a month before contacting the Contest Chair.

I received my manuscript back, but it looks like it’s been through a war—torn and stained. What happened?!
The manuscript passes through several sets of hands, including the category chair, the judge, and the VPs. Some of these contest officials have kids, grandbabies, pets, and/or non-spillproof coffee mugs. Envelopes can also be mangled during mailing. We try to keep manuscripts safe, but we can’t guarantee against every disaster. Never send your only copy of your piece to a contest!


Why didn’t the judge give me more feedback?
This is one of the most common questions/complaints about our contest. Our judges are volunteers, and most of them are busy professionals. We ask them to provide some feedback on the entries. They may not have time to offer extensive critiques. If you do receive thorough, line-by-line comments from a judge, consider yourself fortunate—but be aware that not all our judges can provide this level of feedback.

There wasn’t any feedback at all on my entry. Did the judge hate my work? Was it even read and judged?
The lack of comments doesn’t mean the judge hated your work. It means the judge failed to do his or her job. If you receive an entry with no comments or scores at all, please let us know. Judges who routinely fail to give feedback are not invited to work with us again.

The judge’s comments were unfair, inappropriate, and mean. Can I file a complaint?
Emotions run high right after the contest. Set this manuscript aside for awhile and then look at the comments again, or ask an objective outsider to read them. If they still seem inappropriate, let the Contact Chair know. We do look over the entries as they come back from judging, but we can’t always inspect every single manuscript. We may not know there’s a problem unless you tell us.

My eight-year-old could do a better job than some of your judges. Where do you dig up these people?
We work hard to find good judges who will give our entrants helpful feedback. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes a judge may be well-qualified but may not click with your manuscript. Again, if you have a bad experience with a judge, please tell the Second VP or the First VP/Contest Chair.

One of the judges gave extremely helpful feedback. Can I write her a thank-you note?
Yes, please do! The Contest Chair can either give you the judge’s contact information, or forward your comments to the judge.

How do you pick the judges?
We choose judges based on publishing/writing experience, judging experience, and reliability and promptness. Some judges have worked with us before. Some are known to that year’s Contest Chair from other writing venues. Others are invited to judge based on recommendations from OWFI officers, members, or other judges.

Why are some people chosen as judges over and over again?
Most Contest Chairs choose a mix of new and repeat judges. Good judges aren’t as easy to find as you might think! We welcome familiar faces because we can trust them to take good care of your manuscripts and get them back to us on time. But we also invite new judges every year. While we can’t promise judging slots to everyone, we’re always open to recommendations for well-qualified judges.


How does the disqualification process work?
The Contest Chair/First VP is the only one who can officially disqualify an entry. Usually, a judge or category chair will spot a potential problem and contact the Contest Chair, who will make a ruling on whether the entry qualifies.

I was DQed for a small formatting error. My friend’s manuscript was not DQed, even though she made the same error! Why can’t you be more consistent?
We have many volunteers helping with the contest, and we process a huge number of entries in a short amount of time. Sometimes errors slip by us in spite of our best efforts.

I followed the rules and used a 12-point font, only to have my manuscript DQed because the font was too small. How did that happen?
Not all fonts are created equal. Some 12-point fonts appear smaller on the page than others. Your best defense is to stick with Times New Roman or Courier fonts.

I was DQed for 1 ½ line spacing. I don’t even know what that means.
It’s halfway between single spacing and double spacing. You can change the line spacing in Microsoft Word and other word processing programs. If you’re unsure how to do this, ask a computer-wizard friend or relative to help you.

Everything I entered was disqualified. Can I get a refund?
Unfortunately, no. The entry fee is nonrefundable.

Why are the rules so persnickety?
Although it may not seem like it, all our rules exist for a reason. For example, page numbers are required so we can easily re-assemble a manuscript if the pages become separated. An easy-to-read 12-point font is required so the judges won’t get headaches trying to decipher manuscripts in tiny type. Editors and publishers have the same requirements for manuscript formatting as we do.

We realize the rules can seem overwhelming, especially if you haven’t entered other contests or submitted your work for publication. Please remember that the VPs are always glad to answer questions and help you get your manuscripts formatted correctly.

Why can’t you lighten up and let some of these little mistakes go?
We do. If we disqualified every entry that didn’t follow the rules exactly, dozens of manuscripts would be tossed out of the contest. The actual number of disqualifications is far lower than that.

I feel I was disqualified unfairly. What can I do?
Let one of the VPs know what happened. Although we can’t reverse a DQ decision after it’s already been made, we do take your comments seriously. We are always working to improve the contest.

The After-Contest Blues

I thought I was a pretty good writer… until I saw the comments from your judges. Now I feel like burning all my manuscripts. How do I go on?
You’re not alone. Negative comments from the judges can be very upsetting. We hope you won’t really burn your manuscripts, though. Every writer faces discouragement. As strange as it may seem, the best cure for blocks and doubts is often to get back on the horse—or the computer—and keep writing. Set aside the contest manuscripts for awhile, and work on something else. It also helps to get support from people who believe in you and appreciate your writing.

I didn’t win anything. I told myself I was prepared for this, but now I feel incredibly discouraged. Is that normal?
Yes. It happens to entrants every year. Some people bounce back quickly. Others need more time to get over a disappointing contest finish. Again, we recommend that you get some support, and try to keep writing. It shortens the recovery time… really.

I got one miniscule award, eighth honorable mention. Should I be proud, or embarrassed?
Be proud. Remember that HMs are awarded at the judges’ discretion—they don’t have to give any HMs at all. In a category large enough to offer eight HMs, you were competing against dozens of experienced writers. Don’t hide that certificate in the closet—frame it!

I’ve entered the contest several times and never won a thing. When do I call it quits?
That’s completely up to you, but many OWFI members enter the contest for years before they start winning awards.

Why should I bother with the contest at all, when all it does is depress me?
You shouldn’t. Contests aren’t for everyone. There are plenty of other ways to use and develop your writing talents, both within and outside OWFI. You can always try the contest again in a few years—or not.

I’ve done well at contests but can’t get much work published. Who’s wrong, the judges or the editors?
Nobody is wrong. Editors are looking for work that fits the requirements for their publications. Sometimes these requirements are very specific. Your writing may be brilliant, but if it doesn’t match what they’re looking for, it will be rejected. If your goal is publication, your best strategy is to carefully study the magazines, online journals, or book genres you want to break into. Then work to make your writing fit their needs.

The judge hated my piece, but it was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. What’s going on?
Judges, editors, and other publishing professionals are human beings with their own preferences and prejudices. They often disagree. We’re glad you found a home for your writing!

Giving Back

I love the OWFI contest and want to help. What can I do?
We appreciate your interest! Here are some of our ongoing needs:

  • Sponsors support the contest financially. It’s $105 to sponsor a full category, $52.50 for a half category. Gifts of any amount are welcome. Individuals, businesses, or affiliate groups can donate.
  • Category Chairs gather the entries and prepare them for judging. If you’re well-organized and good at meeting deadlines, we would love to find a spot for you! Contact the Second VP. If you don’t hear back, follow up; sometimes names of potential volunteers get lost in the shuffle.
  • Judges should be well-published, experienced writers. These positions are usually assigned by the First VP/Contest Chair. If you’re qualified, contact the First VP. This is a volunteer position.
  • Contest VPs have a huge but rewarding job. This is also a volunteer position, and a two-year commitment. The Second VP/Assistant Contest Chair coordinates the category chairs. The next year, he/she moves up to First VP/Contest Chair and is responsible for overseeing the whole contest. Contest VPs must meet the same requirements as any other OWFI officer. (Check the by-laws for current requirements. Usually, officers must have prior experience as an OWFI delegate or committee chair.) Some VPs go on to serve as president the following year, but this is optional.

I can’t take on a volunteer position. How else can I show my support?
Send an encouraging note or e-mail to a category chair, judge, or VP. Show up on awards night and cheer on the winners. Offer your suggestions for improving the contest. Enter your own writing, especially in the smaller categories that sometimes struggle to make. (See the list in the “How to Be a Winner” section in Part 1 of this FAQ). Or, simply contact a VP and ask how you can help. Sometimes jobs come up that the VPs don’t have time to do themselves. Even if there’s not a need at the moment, the VP will appreciate the gesture.

THANKS for entering and supporting our contest!