How Poetry Book Contests are like Blind Dates: How To Make a Good Impression

I am finishing up reading submissions for the Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Contest and am amazed and impressed with how much good writing is out there.

Yes, you always hear the opposite--the terrible poets and their terrible poems. But let's just say after my first read-through of chapbook entries, I was left with a huge batch of "semi-finalists" before I brought it down to my top 15 (as I write this, I am STILL not down to my top 15--there is so much I like).

And this may sound odd, but in many ways, judging a chapbook contest is a little like going on blind dates and I've learned more and more, how to have your manuscript make a good impression. So taking a nod from "How to Have a Great First Date," here are some ideas that I hope will help you 

1) Make a Good First Impression:

If you arrived on our first date and said to me, a 40-something year old woman, "Hello Sir," I would not be pleased. But in reading poetry submissions, I have received so many cover letters with this greeting. (Spoiler alert: not every editor or judge is a man.)

Take a few moments to get to know the press & judge you are submitting to, otherwise it can look as if you didn't do your homework, which can look like you really don't care. 

At Two Sylvias Press, both editors are women and our judge this year, Keetje Kuipers, is also a woman. Our names are all over the website and contest page. If you are unsure who is reading (though usually, it's the editors of the press and/or the contest judge) and you want to go generic, at least start with "Dear Editors" and don't assume gender.

2) Be A Good Listener:

Submit your manuscript exactly as the guidelines specify. If they ask for Table of Contents, include one. If they ask for acknowledgments, include that too. Don't worry too much about the formatting, if you're chosen, the press will take care of that to their specifications. Just keep it neat, accurate, and clean (just as your appearance on a first date would hopefully be).

3) Continue to Make a Good Impression:

If you arrived on our first date with a misspelled word across your chest or a holding a bunch of photos of yourself, I may not be too impressed. But some cover letters and manuscripts come with misspellings, big mistakes, and strange photos, some even come with ads to buy the poet's book.

Keep it professional. We haven't even met yet, so don't be too casual. Don't use a "special font" --that's like too much perfume. Or put your cover letter or manuscript in a special color font because it will stand out, but in that bad way, the same way I wear socks with sandals-- I'm getting attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

4)  Keep the Conversation Interesting:

I will be upfront in saying that I have failed at this many times. I'm shy with people and presses that I admire. I become quiet and strangely awkward. 

When I'm writing a cover letter to a press, sometimes I keep it too lean, too stale, and too boring. When writing a book of poems, many times I put my most interesting or vulnerable in the middle of my book. Why? Because they feel safe there. I'm a little guarded, you need to know me before I start sharing.

But in poetry contests, that doesn't always work well for the poet.

Many times, the editors and judges are so overwhelmed with submissions and can have 2 feelings-- they want fall in love with a manuscript OR they want a reason to reject it.

Make sure your first poems are interesting and not "setting the mood." Think about if you were a judge/editor reading this book for the first time, what would you think?

Too many epigraphs?

Uninteresting title?
What's the very first line? 

What's the very first words/line that introduces your manuscript to a reader? 

And while you're at, make sure your cover letter is interesting too. For example, if you found out about our Two Sylvias Press contest or press because you had bought The Poet Tarot or one of our publications, let us know. Let the press know you are familiar with their work and what they are doing.

5) Be Your Best Self:

When you submit your work, submit the best version of the poem in the best order in the manuscript with the best title. Ultimately, it will come down to the poems, not where they were published, not your poetic resume, but the work itself.

For me, sometimes when I'm going back and forth about whether I feel a poem is strong enough for my manuscript, I have quote I fall back on: "When in doubt, leave it out." (Perfectionists out there, this is not a free pass to give up and say all your work is garbage and you shouldn't be writing anyway-- I mean, nothing is perfect, but within reason. If you have a poem that in your gut, you know isn't strong enough, then maybe leave it out. You can always add it back in at a later date.)

6) Little Things Do Matter:

Make sure you use an easy to read font (Times New Roman, Garamond, Calibri Rockwell, etc). If you're submitting in an MS Word format, chose a font you know comes with the basic software.

Personal notes to the press or editor *are* appreciated (nothing to weird like "You look real pretty on your website," but "I just purchased The Daily Poet from your press and I love how it inspires my work.")

Contact info on the cover letter, including phone number, best email, website, address, name.

Personal Turn Ons:

Speaking only for myself, here are some things I love seeing as a judge/reader--

  • An inviting opening poem.
  • A manuscript that makes me want to keep reading.
  • Poems that take risk in form, content, or style.
  • If it's a chapbook, I love it HIGHLY themed and focused.
  • Happy surprises-- not shocking, but surprising wordplay, intellect, even something clever.
  • Easy on the eyes manuscripts (good font, good spacing, clean, crisp, well-organized, etc.)
  • Wonderful titles
  • A sense that much care was taken with this manuscript
  • A sense of humor, vulnerability, honesty, insight, tight strong poems
  • Anything well-crafted on ANY topic can win me over. For me, it comes down to the craft of poem--not the topic or your past publications, but that the poem I'm reading is good.
  • Just strong writing -- I don't need a fancy formatted manuscript, and I honestly even don't need you knowing exactly what you're doing--if you make a mistake while submitting, it's okay, I'll forgive you--I just need amazing poems and I'll forgive and forget all of it.

Person Turn Offs:
  • Boring first, second, and third poem
  • Trying to be too whimsical 
  • The overly self-conscious manuscript (example: making oneself look like the hero or having the light fall ever so perfectly on your speaker, her hair is never mussed up)
  • Preaching-to-the-choir poems (yeah, we know war/racism/hate/cancer/etc is bad--show us something we don't know)
  • Separate documents when just one was asked for
  • Links to a bio or information, instead of a bio or the information that was asked for
  • Missing the big picture--not really seeing the book as a whole or the larger poem, just a bunch of poems brought together
  • Sloppiness and no self-editing 
  • Manuscripts that are too long (see sloppiness and self-editing)

~ Kells 

Want more on creativity, literary news & opportunities, and a glimpse into the literary life?  

Sign up for Electronic Postcards: 
an Every-So-Often Newsletter to inspire creativity sent directly to your Inbox


Don't miss a blog post: Subscribe to Book of Kells Blog by Email


Connect with Kelli Russell Agodon & Two Sylvias Press here:

Follow on: