While you’re considering new goals and events that you’d like to add to your New Year’s Writer’s List (you do have one of those, don’t you?), I’d like to suggest adding writing contests as well. Most writers I know do not actively pursue writing contests. They typically take the attitude of, If I happen across one and I’m not too busy to submit something, then I might consider it.

Contests, however, should be approached more strategically than such happenstance. Not only are contests an excellent way to practice sharpening your writing skills, but the rewards can be great. Most offer either cash awards or writers’ resources or toys (books, software, e-readers, and so forth) for placing in the top 3 (some even in the top 10), which can be good enough reason for sending in a submission.

But even if you don’t win or place in the competition, think of the panel of judges you’ll have carefully reviewing your work. Your manuscript would probably not gain this much attention if you sent it to an editor directly. Many writers have received book deals, gained agents, or at least got their work published because of a writing contest. And, I’ve heard of others who, even though they didn’t win the contest, the judges were so impressed with their work that they’ve used them for work-for-hire projects or have given them an open door to submit more manuscripts to them.

Not bad for a $25 entry fee and a little bit of your time.

I wouldn’t suggest entering every contest you come across, however. For one, there’s usually a price tag involved to enter, even though it’s typically small. Instead, pick and choose those that best fit your genre. If you’re a beginning writer, you’d also probably do better with a smaller contest where you’re not going to be up against thousands of entries.

I’ve chosen just a few writing contests on the short-term horizon for your perusal. In addition, at the bottom of this list are websites to bookmark for future reference, as they contain their own lists of contests held throughout the year. Pay attention to the deadlines, as most are fast approaching.

CNW Publishing – Contests for fiction, nonfiction, children’s, and poetry; deadline for all entries: 3/15/12

Athanatos Christian Ministries – Contests for Christian short stories and poetry; deadlines: 3/19/12

Fish Publishing – Contests for fiction, poetry, and short memoirs; deadlines: 3/20/12 for fiction and 3/30/12 for poetry and memoirs

Writer’s Digest – Contests in nearly every genre, including sci-fi, thriller, YA fiction, flash fiction, poetry, self-published books, and short stories; deadlines vary throughout the year. Also have one annual competition that also covers several different genres.

American Christian Fiction Writers – Contests include 9 different fiction categories, such as YA, historical, and speculative; contests open in early January and close in early March

Women on Writing – Quarterly contests for flash fiction; next deadline: 2/29/12

Arts & Letters – Contests for fiction, drama, creative nonfiction, and poetry; deadlines: 2/28/12

Summer Literary Seminars – Contests for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; deadlines: 2/28/12

FanStory – Continual contests throughout the year in various genres

The NewPages Classifieds – Lists contests for magazines and books throughout the year

Poets & Writers – Lists poetry and various writing contests throughout the year

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Although the headline reads “story,” the following applies for books, articles, business writing–nearly anything.

Much is said of writing the perfect, engaging lead to draw your readers in by grabbing their attention. I couldn’t agree more. If you can’t get them to read past the first paragraph, you won’t have to worry much about how your story ends.

Unfortunately, many writers, who have crafted an amazing lead and kept their readers engaged throughout their writing,  either leave their readers hanging at the end, or worse, drop kick them out of their story. How many times have you invested time in a book or article to be disappointed with the ending? For me that answer is “too many.”

Here are some  different methods  for writing great endings that will leave your reader satisfied:

1. End your story on  an upbeat note. Set your reader free feeling good, uplifted, or at least have him learn something from his investment of time.

2. Let your reader fill in his own blanks. End your story with a question, maybe even a hypothetical question. Or leave  some mystery surrounding your ending. This is especially effective when writing sequels or chapter endings. Leave you reader thinking, “Hmm…I wonder…”

3. Come full circle with your lead. Use a certain unique phrase or even just the main theme from your lead to bring closure to your story.

4. Close with a relevant quote. You can even tie this into point number 3 if you opened with a quote by the same person.

5. Provide a brief summary. This works best, of course, if you’re writing nonfiction. Recap the main points of what you just covered, then present them in a concise manner to close your article.

6. Surprise ending. Write a shocking statement at the end of your story that will completely catch your reader off-guard. It could be a point you hadn’t brought up yet that enables you to save the best  point for last, or it might just be a humorous statement to give the reader something to remember.

7. Anecdotal ending. Either present a new anecdote to  the end of your story that  helps bring out your main theme, or finish an anecdote you began earlier. It can be very effective to  write an anecdote early on, then not finish it until the end of your story.

8. Know when to end. When is that? When you’re done. After your theme has been fully supported by appropriate facts and subpoints, and you have finished telling all you need to, wrap it up and get out!

Perhaps one of the hardest things about writing is coming up with new material. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, having a good, salable idea is everything. So, where might these ideas come from? Here are just a few starting spots that might spark some creative flow.

1. Real life!Take a good look at your family, your friends, your co-workers, even yourself. You’re bound to find humor, human interest, and perhaps even horror material right in your own backyard!

2. Strangers. If your family and friends aren’t quite interesting enough to provide you with writing material, become a people watcher. Hang out at the mall, your kid’s school, the airport, etc. It won’t take long for ideas to start popping.

3. News sources. What’s hot right now, and from what angle has it not yet been covered? Start seeing news from a fresh perspective and add your own twist to it.

4. Your children. Talk to your kids and listen closely to what they’re really saying. Chances are you’ll learn a lot about what’s important, or at least interesting to their peer groups. Even if you’re not writing for children, getting their perspective on issues can help you see things from an entirely different viewpoint.

5. Travel. In your mind, that is. Mentally go to another country, another culture. If you don’t know much about that country, do a little research. Use the differences in culture and setting to generate ideas for either a fictional story or  a nonfiction piece on history, people, climate, activities, etc.

How about you? What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever gotten a writing idea from?

For specific help using writing prompts, check out Imagination Prompt Generator and The Story Starter.