December 21, 2012

Interview with the Contest Editors

*Everything you always wanted to know about the Missouri Review Editor’s Prize Contest–super-intern Alex interviews Claire McQuerry and Mike Petrik*


It’s the contest season for TMR. For a few months there were near daily tweets and status updates about the contest throughout TMR’s social media network, and a little over a month ago we even interviewed the Contest Assistant about what differentiated the contest from normal submissions. As the Contest Editors for the magazine, can you tell us what makes TMR’s contest special, or why authors should submit their work to the contest opposed to the normal submission process? What rewards and prestige accompany winning TMR’s contest?

Well, for one thing, the $5,000 isn’t bad. Thanks to our generous donor, Jeffrey Smith, this contest has one of the largest prizes of any literary journal contest in the country. We also fly our winners out to Columbia for an awards gala and reading, and of course feature their work in our prize issue each spring. Additionally, the Editor’s Prize has been around now for 22 years, so it’s well-known—a prestigious contest to win. I know the contest has helped to kick-start a few writers’ careers. Winners range from first timers (last year’s winning story was a first publication for Yuko Sakata, for instance) to more established writers. Many of our winners, in fact, are emerging writers. And lastly, all entries are considered for publication in TMR, so even if a piece doesn’t place in the contest, it still may wind up as a feature in the journal. (Claire)

It has also been said, and tweeted quite frequently, that TMR’s contest is great for new writers:

Why is this, or why would the contest be a good place to start for newer authors? What sort of credentials accompany winning that can carry a new author into the world of literary publishing? 

This contest is great for newer authors for a few reasons. The first is the exposure it comes with. Not only do winners get their work distributed in the Editor’s Prize Edition of TMR to all our subscribers (which include all their fellow contest entrants), but TMR also pays for the winning authors to travel to Columbia, MO to read their work and be celebrated for a few days.

In addition a number of TMR’s contest winners have gone on to have their work anthologized in places like the Best American and Pushcart anthologies. Further, we believe that by winning our authors works are joining the ranks of a group of fantastic previous winning poets, essayists, and fiction writers. (Mike)

Would winning carry the same prowess for already established authors? Should established authors still submit to the contest?

We think that all the same dividends would be equally beneficial for established authors, and our previous winners include both writers for whom this is a first publication and those with multiple well-received books. Again, our prize is able to offer our winners exposure to our subscribers, who we think are pretty great. (Mike)

Considering submissions for the contest recently closed, what happens now?

Well, we’re working hard to judge the entries right now, so our contest entrants can expect to get the results in early January. In the meantime, folks who are interested in entering the 2013 contest can check out the guidelines here: and start working on those winning entries for next year. (Claire)

 Are the contest submissions kept separate from the normal TMR submissions? About how many manuscripts are generally received?

Yes—we have a separate email account, reading team (about 8 people), and even office staff for the contest submissions. If I told you how many submissions we receive, I’d have to kill you, Alex, and that would likely get me involved in a feud with Ari, which would slow down the judging of the contest. We get a lot though. What I want to know is why we get submissions from every state except for Hawaii. In my three years of coordinating this contest, I have only ever come across one submission from Hawaii. What do Hawaiians have against The Editor’s Prize? (Claire)

 How are the different manuscripts organized once received (e.g., genre, length, etc.)? As the review process starts, how are these manuscripts separated and eventually narrowed down to choose a winner?

We sort the entries by genre first. As we read, we set aside entries that might be finalist/winner potential in a special bin in our office. At the end of the initial screening cycle, we do a reading blitz in which we identify the top 20 or so manuscripts in each genre. These get passed on to Speer, and he selects winners and finalists out of these top contenders. (Claire)

Do you and your Contest Interns begin reviewing the contest submissions before the submission process closes?

Yes—we start reading in early September. However, entering earlier or later doesn’t change anyone’s chances of winning; early entries just make the judges lives easier. (Claire)

 To your knowledge, how does editing for contest differ from editing for normal publication?

Well, for one thing, because we’re having to read so many submissions in such a short timeframe, we don’t have the luxury of being able to respond personally to the submissions we can’t take. When editing for regular publication, I like to send comments if there’s something that particularly moves or interests me in a submission, but I don’t have the time to do that when reading contest submissions. Additionally, when considering general submissions, especially towards publication time, editors often begin to think in terms of the issue as a whole—is there a theme emerging, is there a good diversity of voices presented, etc. With the contest, on the other hand, we just want the strongest pieces of work we can find. (Claire)

Speaking of the Interns, while we frequently poke fun at the Intern stereotype on Twitter, in reality how instrumental are they in the contest selection and editing processes? What sort of responsibilities do the Contest Interns hold that differentiate them from other Interns at TMR? What sort of responsibilities do they hold that might simply be surprising to our readers?

Meh, we pretend that they are integral, but really we contest editors do it all. Ok, ok, we foresee a revolt if we don’t take that back. The interns are crucial to the contest process, and we are definitely lucky to have contest interns who are such competent readers in their respective genres. Reading is the main responsibility for our interns, and they do a heck of a lot of it—around 15-25 submissions a week to help us get through the thousands of works we receive.

One surprising aspect of their reading for readers might be that the interns aren’t just first screeners, but pass submissions back and forth to one another and are even passed work by the contest editors to get their opinion. So they are evaluating submissions along with the editors even up until the top 20 or so are being established.

Beyond reading, our interns also help out a lot with the advertising and submission solicitation that happens in the early span of the contest. Maybe a bit less exciting, but just as important in getting us lots of great submissions. (Mike)

 Once the winners are finally selected, what happens next? Is there a special publication for them, or an award ceremony?

Yes! We feature them in our contest issue (Spring) and fly them out for our Editor’s Prize Gala, which happens in March or April. (Claire)

Is there anything else involved with the contest that might be surprising to our readers? Anything else that you do as editors that might not be well known?

Shameless plug, but I think many of our readers might be surprised that our Editor’s Prize Contest isn’t the only contest we run here at TMR. We also have an Audio Contest with prizes in Poetry, Prose, and Audio Documentary categories. This contest is run in the Spring, and we are accepting submissions already. If interested, our previous winners can be found here:

So that is a major additional task for the contest editors here at TMR. Beyond that (and probably less surprising) we are both writers who are going through the same process of sending work out and submitting to contests, which we hope makes us compassionate and thorough readers of the submissions we receive, and also just makes us excited to read the work of our peers in the literary world. (Mike)

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