For many people, getting published as a creative writer can seem daunting. Between mailing out manuscripts and paying for contest entry fees, the costs of pursuing your passion can quickly add up.
Thankfully, you can build your creative writing career without any real up-front costs, if you’re savvy about it.
Although many publications and organizations require fees, you can still find legitimate, free options. It just takes a bit of extra legwork.
I won my first literary contest at the age of thirteen—and, obviously, I didn’t have much (if any) cash to invest in the process.
Still, I was able to cement my first professional writing award, got invited to perform at the prize ceremony, was published in the organization’s anthology, and even got interviewed by The Toronto Star.
Over ten years later, I’ve now been published in numerous magazines/journals, won multiple literary awards, and written two collections of poetry with my publisher.
And I’ve managed to accomplish all of those accolades without spending much (if any) money at all.
So, regardless of where you’re at in your creative writing career, you can find ways to get your work out there—for free. I write poetry and creative non-fiction, but many of the principles will apply to other genres.
Here are my tips:
1. Find reputable, local publications.
The first step to getting published is to find the type of publication you’d want to get accepted by. For a poet, this will likely be in the form of a local literary magazine.
A good place to start is with your nearest college/university. Many schools have high-calibre literary magazines run by students. Although some require you to be a student to submit your work, many do not.
I’ve found that student-run publications usually don’t require entry fees (at least where I’m from).
For example, I studied at the University of Toronto, where I was published in several student journals—many of which I still submit to (even though I’m no longer enrolled there).
If you look hard enough, there are many reputable publications that charge no fees for submissions/contest entries. Here are some great examples, for Canadian writers:
Acta Victoriana (a digital and print literary magazine)
The Hart House Review (a print literary magazine with an annual literary contest)
Half a Grapefruit Magazine (an online literary magazine)
A simple Google search can help you locate calls for submissions in your area. Try using terms like “poetry contest” or “call for submissions” + the name of your city.
2. Prepare your submission.
Once you’ve found some solid publications to submit to, make sure that you read their guidelines. Thoroughly reading these instructions will save you—and the editor—a lot of time.
Be sure to find out the following:
Does this publication only accept submissions from local writers, or are they open to international work?
Do I need to be a student to qualify for publication here?
Is there a word limit for submissions?
Should I use a specific size/style of font?
What is the deadline to submit to this publication/contest?
Does this publication accept simultaneous submissions? (AKA: Am I allowed to send my entry to multiple journals at the same time?)
Find the important details, and follow them. There’s no use submitting to a publication you’re not eligible for.
It’s also a good idea to read samples/past issues of the publication you’re submitting to. Get a feel for their style, and figure out what kind of work they like.
Then, looking at your own work, strategically decide on which pieces you should send them.
Format everything according to their specifications, and be sure to note whether or not they accept simultaneous submissions (if they don’t, then make sure that you’re only sending that poem to one journal at a time).
3. Get ready for rejection.
I’m going to be totally honest: whether you’re a new writer or a seasoned pro, you’re going to get rejected at some point.
I often joke that 90% of being a writer is just getting rejected. There’s no use getting embarrassed about it, because every single writer has faced this reality.
Don’t expect to be published in every journal you submit to, because it’s not going to happen. The same thing goes for contests: you can’t possibly win every single one.
When you submit to a publication, go into it with the following mentality: It would be nice if I got accepted, but if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world.
And what to do when you get your inevitable first rejection letter? Shrug—and move on. So, you didn’t get in this time. You can always try again in their next call for submissions, or look into alternative journals.
You can build an entire literary career without ever spending a penny. All you need to do is spend some time researching local publications, and focus on the ones without any entry fees.
And as you submit to more journals, magazines, and contests, you’ll gradually find new avenues to publish your work.