The Benefits of Entering Writing Contests

Aug 19, 2019 | Posted by Marci Harris


I started IEW when my twins were in fifth grade. I bought my Teaching Writing: Structure and Style (TWSS) in the spring. Truth be told, I was a little intimidated to begin, so I put it up for a while. Once my co-op found out I had the TWSS, I was quickly volunteered to teach others’ kids. After all, they reasoned, I was teaching my twins anyway! I cracked open my box and started watching DVDs. Much to my surprise and delight, Andrew Pudewa made it seem easy. The teacher instructions were straightforward. “I can do this!” I thought.

After a year of IEW, I started looking for ways for my own kids to use their IEW skills. We wrote for history class, for literature class, for bible class. Then I stumbled upon a local writing contest. Why not? We discussed the prompt, and I sent them to their desks to work on a draft. Aside from reminding them to add style and checking their grammar, I didn’t critique the content. Although they didn’t win, they did receive recognition for their entries. Thus was born their foray into competitive writing. They entered local writing and speech competitions. They entered national competitions. They lost lots. However, sometimes they won. As junior high students, they started collecting scholarships and sometimes cash winnings. None of the awards were momentous, yet each award bolstered their confidence and determination to keep trying. Years down the road when it came time to write essays for university scholarships, they were well practiced writing prompt-based essays with word limits.

Motivated by my own kids’ successes, I started requiring my co-op IEW students to submit contest entries. One student won. Then another. Before long, I was delighted to see that many of my IEW students had won writing contests. This continued through three different co-ops. One year, with three different local branches of a writing contest, IEW students won eight of the nine awards. Was it that I was an amazing teacher? Of course not. The impact of a strong writing program made all the difference.

While I rejoiced with each phone call from a student that started with “guess what,” I was most moved by those students who were my reluctant writers, the kids who thought they couldn’t write well, the kids living in the shadow of an older sibling who was a natural writer. Winning impacted those students beyond a certificate and monetary reward. Those students stood a little taller, wrote a little more willingly, believed in themselves a little more. There was the student who grudgingly completed each of his IEW assignments, often at the last minute. He decided to write for a patriotism prompt and threw his whole heart into it. That fall as the winner for the state of Indiana, he joined a group of his peers for an all-expense-paid trip to Valley Forge for a youth seminar. There were the students who faced their public speaking fears to read their winning essays to a group of Optimists who offered words of encouragement. There was the student who won a citywide contest we participated in as a class. She went on to write for further contests on her own, earning scholarships for her university studies.

Why do IEW kids win writing contests? First, they have learned to ask their brains questions to pull out information (IEW Unit 7). They have learned to key word outline their thoughts so that there is a flow and an organization to their ideas. They add style to their writing, using strong vocabulary and a variety of sentence openers. They know how to follow instructions because they work with checklists. Time after time I have heard feedback from judges’ panels about how well my IEW students express their ideas. Other IEW teachers have had similar experiences.

How can you encourage your students to participate in writing contests? Find local competitions. Often, these do not draw heavy participation, so students have strong odds of placing or winning. I have a list of favorites for my students each year, but I am always on the lookout for new contests. Once you identify a contest, look at the submission date and make sure your student has time to walk through the process without being rushed. Length dictates structure. Almost all writing contests have a word count. Help your students identify how many paragraphs they will need for their entry. Next, discuss with your students who the audience is. If they are writing for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, their entries will be judged by men and women who have served their country with the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. That’s an important fact students should bear in mind as they approach the writing process.

At that point, guide your students through asking questions about the prompt. Is it asking for a personal connection? Do they need to find a historical example? Is there research involved? Once students have brainstormed (We did this as a co-op class.), send students on their way to develop their key word outlines. Students should write from the inside out: First outline and write body paragraphs; then follow IEW’s structural models for the introduction (attention getter, background/context, topics) and conclusion (topics, most important and why, strong final sentence, title rule).

While there will not be a formal contest checklist, such as what you would see with a traditional IEW writing assignment, the reality is that judges respond more favorably to an essay with strong stylistic elements. Did students use colorful vocabulary that paints word pictures? Show—don’t tell! A variety of sentence openers provides richness to the essay. Additionally, all good writers have an editor. Students should submit their contest entries to an editor to review for grammar and spelling. Hands off content! Finally, students must review the submission guidelines one more time. Title page? Name on entry or not? Double spaced? Prompt at top or a creative title? Judges limit what they need to read by first getting rid of entries that don’t follow submission guidelines. It is a shame for students to work hard on their entries only to have them disqualified because they left something off the entry.

For reluctant writers and for students who may already have a heavy academic load, writing for a contest may be intimidating or seem to be overload. Encourage them. Students will practice their writing skills and internalize the process a bit more. I remind all my students that no one will ever call them and offer a prize because they had a great idea but didn’t follow through. There will be times they enter and don’t win. However, if they don’t enter, they won’t win.


Earning her B.A. in psychology from St. Olaf College and her M.S. in psychology from Old Dominion University, Marci Harris has found her degree most helpful in her role as a homeschool mom.  Once her co-op found out that she owned TWSS twelve years ago, the die was cast for her to teach it to all the kids.  Since then, she hasn’t looked back!  She found that IEW’s style and structure made her reluctant writer a strong writer, and it turned her strong writer into an excellent writer.  Marci has taught IEW as a homeschool mom, as a co-op teacher, and as a private tutor.  Considering writing to be one of the foundational skills necessary for everyone, she holds a deep appreciation for the tools IEW provides to equip students to write proficiently in all areas of life. Although her season for homeschooling has ended, she continues to teach at homeschool groups and serves as an academic coach to several high school students.  Marci is excited to join the online team for the 2016-2017 school year.

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