EA Forum Creative Writing Contest: $22,000 in prizes for good stories

by Aaron Gertler8 min read12th Sep 202153 comments

126

Creative Writing ContestEffective altruism art and fiction
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Stories are a key part of how EA has grown since its beginning. Some examples:

There’s a lot of “rational fiction” out there — stories about people thinking clearly to solve problems. Many of those stories also incorporate EA themes. But they tend to reveal their ideas over dozens of chapters, making it hard for someone to pick up on those themes unless they’re willing to dedicate many hours of time.

We’d like to see creative work that “gets to the point” quickly — stories that, in a single sitting, might inspire someone to find out more about effective altruism, whether that means the whole movement or a single idea/cause area/intervention.

So we’re running a contest! We want to see you write or share stories and creative nonfiction with EA themes. And we’ve added prizes to sweeten the deal.[1]

Notably, your work doesn’t have to use EA jargon or cover a popular cause area, as long as it gets across the core idea of "using evidence and reason to help others effectively".

That said, it doesn't hurt if the work references popular EA topics in some way, or tries to directly inspire readers to find out more about EA. For example, HPMOR includes a note along the lines of “to learn what Harry knows, read the LessWrong Sequences”. We’d be happy to see stories that would justify the note “to learn what X knows, join a Virtual Program”.[2]

What kinds of content can I submit?

We’ll have two categories:

  1. Fictional stories, like “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant”
  2. Creative nonfiction, like “500 Million, But Not A Single One More”

No need to include the category in your submission.

What are the prizes?

Update: CEA initially funded $10,000 in prizes. However, a generous donor (Owen Cotton-Barratt) added another $12,000.

We’re now offering $22,000 in total prize money, with the following structure:

  • First prize (among all entries): $10,000
  • Two second prizes: $3,000 each
    • If first prize goes to a fiction entry, at least one second prize will go to a nonfiction entry, and vice-versa
  • Four third prizes: $1,000 each
  • Eight honorable mentions: $250 each

What’s the deadline?

Entries must be published on the EA Forum no later than 11:59 pm PST on Friday, October 29 (initial deadline extended by two weeks after a few people said it seemed short).

If you’d like to be kind to the judges and let us space out our reading over time, you can publish earlier :-)

How do I submit content?

We recommend publishing your entry on the EA Forum and tagging it with Creative Writing Contest.

We want lots of people to read and discuss your submissions — we think the Forum will be a really fun place if good stories start showing up. However, we won’t use upvotes or comments as part of our process for choosing a winner.

If you'd strongly prefer not to publish the work for any reason (including the desire to submit it elsewhere), you can submit it through this form.

Note that all winning entries will be published when the contest is over (if they weren't already published).


If you’re submitting work that was already published, by you or someone else, please crosspost it onto the Forum.

Please share the full text of the story if you have the author's explicit permission to do so, or if the story was shared under a Creative Commons license that permits "commercial uses". (

(We're not sure that receiving a referral bonus would qualify as "commercial", but it's a gray area and we'd like to be safe — to clarify, we won't make any money by distributing these stories).

Otherwise, please share a brief excerpt of the story. See here for an example. And in both cases, include a link to the original source.

To make sure we don't pull traffic away from the sites where works were originally published, I'll periodically set the "canonical source" for each crosspost to the URL of the original source, so that search engines will point to that source instead of the Forum.


If you'd prefer to submit work without creating a new post, please leave a comment on this post.

We'd prefer for as many submissions as possible to be shared through individual posts (as we expect more people to read them that way). But we respect that some people worry about cluttering the Forum with submissions, so we've created another option.


If the work is already on the Forum, add the Creative Writing Contest tag and send me a message to let me know you’ve done so.

Will CEA make use of the winning entries in some way?

We don’t have any concrete plans yet. But it’s very likely that we’ll share some of the best submissions on our social media channels, in the EA Newsletter, etc. And they might wind up in the EA Handbook or a Virtual Program syllabus.

Can I submit work I’ve done in the past?

Yes. You are welcome to submit past work that you think fits our criteria, even if it’s already been published elsewhere. But keep in mind that very long stories with EA content threaded throughout probably aren’t ideal for this contest.

Can I submit another person’s work?

Yes. You are welcome to submit someone else’s work for consideration. If that work wins a prize, you will receive a referral bonus ($150 for a winning entry, $50 for an honorable mention). This is extra money — the author of the winning submission will still get the full prize.

Before submitting something, check the contest page to make sure it hasn't been submitted already — the first person to cross-post the work gets the referral bonus.

The work shouldn’t be extremely well-known: don’t submit a chapter of HPMOR. But “a medium-upvoted story that appeared on r/rational two years ago” would be fine, as would “this essay from the New Yorker that really evokes EA-ish feelings in my soul”. As we judge the contest, we hope to discover a lot of cool writing we missed the first time around!

If you don’t know whether something is “well-known” enough, we recommend cross-posting it anyway; it’s always nice to have more great work on the Forum. If you want a second opinion before you crosspost, you can ask me.

Can I submit fanfiction?

Yes. But keep in mind that these stories should be widely accessible, even to people who haven’t read your source material and/or aren’t familiar with common fanfiction tropes.

Can I submit poetry?

Yes. However, given how few people read poetry for fun at present, we expect that poetry will have to be especially good to win.

Can I submit multiple things?

Yes. You can submit as many things as you want, whether they were written by you or someone else. We just want to find the best writing we can, and we’re happy to do lots of reading to get there.

Can I submit a song, video, or other mixed media?

For this contest, we’re sticking to creative writing.

However, it’s fine to include images or embedded video as a part of your entry — you can even submit a comic! Just make sure it works as a Forum post.

If you have a song in your heart, a video in your gut, or a painting in your spleen, let us know in the comments. It might help us decide whether to launch a future contest for other forms of media.

Is there a word limit?

There is no strict limit. We want you to submit the best work you can, and to focus on sharpening your writing rather than hitting an arbitrary word count.

That said, keep in mind that our goal is to find things someone would read in a single sitting. The harder your work would be to read in a single sitting, the less likely you are to win.

Who chooses the winners?

The judging panel, as of 10/3/21, consists of:

  • Kelsey Piper, writer at Future Perfect and The Unit of Caring
  • Alexander Wales, author of Worth the Candle and other EA-adjacent fiction
  • DaystarEld, author of Pokemon: The Origin of Species and host of the Rationally Writing podcast
  • Aaron Gertler, who mostly writes procedural Forum posts (but reads a lot)

One or two more people may join on later.

Do you have any suggestions for what to write about?

You can write about whatever you want! But in case you want a starting point, here are some suggestions:

  • Someone uses the analytical tools of EA to help someone they know with a relatively mundane problem.
  • Someone in a very different place (another time, another planet, etc.) uses cause prioritization to figure out what to work on.
  • Someone realizes they were wrong, changes their mind, and does more good as a result.
  • Major historical events told in the style of “500 Million, But Not A Single One More”: in the style of a myth or fable, but true at the core.
  • A story about AI risk catchy enough to finally knock out paperclips as the scenario everyone associates with AI risk. (Please?)

What if I have another question?

Please ask it in a comment, so that others can see the answer. If it’s something hyper-specific to you, you can also send me a message.


  1. We think that contests like this might be a good alternative to the Forum Prize, by incentivizing people to write things they wouldn’t have written otherwise. ↩︎

  2. You don’t have to include a note like this yourself, but you’re welcome to — linking to virtual programs, charities, or other real-world resources. ↩︎

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53 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:17 AM
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Hi Aaron,

I am a science fiction writer and member of SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and just wanted to leave a note to strongly encourage you to firm up the copyright stuff a bit more, particularly the part where you seem to be saying it's okay for people to copy someone else's work into a forum post and publish it there. Even if it's correctly attributed to the original author, that has the potential to open the author up to liability, especially if the piece was published recently and may still be under exclusive rights to the magazine where it was originally published. At worst, it might result in unintentional plagiarism or even intentional theft of others' copyrighted work.

I see WSC Friedman has already quite correctly pointed out how posting the work on a public forum will lose the author their first publication rights. This is more of a concern for reprints, or works that have appeared previously.

Speaking as an author, links to published work in their original location are always appreciated, and I don't think anyone will be upset if their work wins an award based on someone else suggesting it (although depending on the rights you're asking for in exchange, a few people might balk), but that and "try to post the full work [in a public forum post] if you can" are very different animals.

Thanks for considering, and I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have about my concerns if that helps. You can find my contact information on my blog at https://infomancy.net/

Stewart

Thanks for this note, Stewart.

I've edited the text to clarify that full-text works should only be published if the author has given explicit permission, either directly or by using a Creative Commons license.

The full-text suggestion was because there are lots of EA-themed works published in places like Reddit where the author's goal was clearly to show the story to as many people as possible. But you're right that it's not good to assume people will reliably repost only those stories that no one would mind having shared here. Thanks for the push to fix this.

As for WSC Friedman's note requesting an option for private submission, I expect to have an update very soon.

So, I have multiple comments.

First, as an EA person, I want to thank you, because I think this is a great idea, and I very much approve. I think the amazing power of fiction to change people's minds has been an occasional but important force throughout history; the claim that Uncle Tom's Cabin got the abolitionist movement to the mainstream seems historically plausible enough to agree that this is, indeed, a useful thing for the EA movement to do, and one I highly approve of.

But the second is as a SF&F author who tries to get his stories published.

As far as I can tell, the reason most SF&F fiction contests don't use the 'post on forum, award money to best' model is because anything once published becomes a 'reprint',  and reprints can't be sold elsewhere except at for a few places and usually at a 7x markdown, and anything that can show up in Google searches is published. If you send it to the editor's work E-mail address, or post it on a password-protected forum only for authors, it's 'not published'. But here, it's 'published'.

So submitting stories to this content means that I can't sell it anywhere else if it doesn't win the prize, while submitting stories elsewhere I can try, try again.

On the one hand it is probably worth me doing this because I believe in effective altruism and the cost to me is pretty negligible, given that individual short stories don't actually sell for all that much. On the other hand, I think the public posting might mean that the profit motive is pointing in the opposite way from you want.

Thanks for sharing this concern, which is very reasonable.

One of the things that motivated us to run this contest was the desire to have a lot of interesting new content on the Forum — we want people checking in regularly to see new stories, commenting on submissions, and digging through the archives even after the contest is over.

 If we used a standard "read submissions in private, publish the best" model, we'd be missing out on that, even if we still achieved our other goal of "find a few really top-notch things to share".

But I do acknowledge that this presents authors with a conundrum if they want to publish stories elsewhere. Would the following arrangement be fine?

  1. Publish your entry on the Forum
  2. If you win, you leave the post up
  3. If you don't win, you move the post back to a draft (where Google won't find it)

This seems like it opens up the chance to submit the story elsewhere again (since no one will be able to read it on the Forum anymore). And if it doesn't end up getting published elsewhere, you can just go back to your draft post and hit "publish". 

Would this work, or do you think something ever having been published, even if it disappeared again, would make it impossible to submit to some/many places?

I completely understand your goal, which is very reasonable!

But most publishers consider 'was printed in an obscure magazine that sold ten copies and is now a collector's item, has never been printed since' to be 'printed'. Some people buying reprints are only interested in that kind of obscure thing, but even if it is 'already published obscurely', I still think you won't get much for the reprint.

So although that's an understandable try at a solution, I don't think it succeeds.

Thanks for the further feedback. I'll think more on whether we should open some kind of private submission option, and we may end up doing so. It would be really sad if authors were forced to sacrifice future opportunities in order to participate.

Welcome! I'm happy to help.

If you're looking for a compromise solution, stories submitted to the Grantville Gazette Universe Annex (Baen's magazine) are submitted by being posted on a password-protected forum (Baen's Bar) that anyone can get an account for, where readers can critique them, then a subset of those are purchased and professionally published in the magazine. Posting a story on Baen's Bar is generally (some people say explicitly, and it appears to be the consensus unless I'm making a horrible mistake) not considered publication, and stories posted there don't appear in Google searches.

You'd want to do more research into this, but if you're interested, it might provide you a base to work off of.

(Their submission rules; warning, mildly arcane: https://grantvillegazette.com/universe-annex-submissions/ )

I second interest in a private submission / private forum option! I intend to submit my entry to a few places soon, but that won't be possible if it's "published" by submitting it here. If there isn't a private option I probably won't submit here.

I think this is a really well intentioned and thoughtful reply.

However, hiding publication on an internet forum seems technically dubious  (archiving and forum scraping seems common). 

Also, this wasn't the intention, but it does seem to be the same as, well, fraud. My guess is that authors are required to state their story isn't published (and removing it after the fact doesn't alter this state).

I think there is some solution here that should be explored.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

We've now added a form you can use to submit your work privately, and updated the post to mention it. 

Let me know if you see anything we should change about the form, and thanks for the suggestion!

Thank you! I've bookmarked it.

First of all, I'm really excited for this contest! Using fiction to communicate EA messages has always seemed a priori plausible to me (along the lines of eg 4.2 here), and I'm excited to see various possible different takes here!

Certainly the success of introductions like HPMOR lends additional nontrivial evidence to this theory, so I'm excited to see more experiments like this one and others.

Secondly, really cool that CEA is taking the initiative to encourage these things.

How do I submit content?

All stories must be published on the EA Forum and tagged with Creative Writing Contest.

We want lots of people to read and discuss your submissions — we think the Forum will be a really fun place if good stories start showing up. However, we won’t use upvotes or comments as part of our process for choosing a winner.

If you’re wary of sharing your work in public, remember that winning the contest guarantees your work being shared in public (with many, many people). That said, you are welcome to use a pseudonym if you’d prefer!

I think I personally will have a preference for fiction to not show up as top-level posts on the Forum, unless they've been previously vetted as unusually good or they're unusually culturally significant. But obviously a) different people have different tastes, and b)  this is your forum! 

In the couple of past cases where people have shared fiction here, it's been on the frontpage and people haven't generally seemed to mind. It's also quite easy to filter out all the submissions if you want — just do this:

  1. Go to the frontpage and look to the right of "Frontpage Posts"
  2. Click "+", enter "Creative Writing Contest", and click "Hidden"
  3. You'll no longer see any posts with that tag, and you'll see this show up:

In the couple of past cases where people have shared fiction here, it's been on the frontpage and people haven't generally seemed to mind.

Presumably we are expecting a much higher volume than in the past. It might be a bit strange for newcomers to the movement, expecting to find a forum for serious idea discussion, instead find themselves on a strange version of AO3.

edit: perhaps entrants should have [Creative Writing Entry] as the start of their title, so it is easy to distinguish on the frontpage?

That's a solid idea. We could also set a default filter alongside the default Personal Blog filter, so that newcomers don't see the fiction unless they choose to see it (though they'll still be able to see it at the tag page if someone links them to it). I'll talk to the tech team and see if that's reasonable.

A tag is probably enough, but you could also maybe ask people to put some copy about the contest at the top of each submission?

Why hide stuff from newbies? They are here to see the forum, and this is a cool EA thing happening on the forum.

So personally, I will prefer for entries to be replies to a top-level post, and maybe for winners to be reposted to top-level posts. 

But I will hide it for myself for now.

For what it's worth, I also feel like people might shy away from referring works if every referral has to be a top-level post (rather than a reply, as Linch suggests). In particular, I personally am second guessing myself and will probably not end up referring anything, but would happily contribute things as comments (I might end up doing that anyway, if I feel like it's relevant enough, and people can repost if they want to). However, this could just be a personal preference rather than a common or shared experience. 

Given the upvotes on your comment, I assume that other people share your preference. I've created this thread for people to suggest content without creating a top-level post. Thanks for your help!

Thank you so much! 

(For disclosure: Lizka's interning under me)

Especially for referrals, since there may be very many.

Interesting. Trying to include an entire story in a comment, rather than giving it its own post, seems pretty unwieldy to me as a reading experience. But we'll keep an eye on how many submissions come in, and take action if they really seem to be overwhelming the front page.

I have a question: only in english?

Good question. Yes, submissions must be in English.

Love this idea! For all the writers here, I'd like to notify you about the EA Creatives and Communicators slack. You can use it to connect with other writers and maybe give feedback and bounce ideas off each other!

(Please let me know or downvote if this was inapproriate of me to comment, as it could be considered advertising.)

Linking to an EA Slack is definitely not advertising ;)

Also, different comment that I'm kicking myself for not bringing up until now:

The Submission Grinder is a website that tracks places where people who write SF&F can submit stories. If you can get listed with them, that ought to bring more attention to the contest. 

Here's the link: https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/

Thanks for the link! Sharing it one week into a six-week contest leaves me plenty of time :-)

The method of submitting someone else's work seems problematic if I understand it right - it sounds like a breach of copyright.

I think you're right - I can't find anything under "fair use" that involves pasting someone else's story onto the Forum without their permission, even if you link back to it.

I don't understand how "the exception is writing covered by copyright". All writing is covered by copyright!

All writing is covered by copyright!

Not writing published 70 years after the author's death, if I understand correctly.

(Which is not a hypothetical example if people are planning to excerpt Kipling). 

You're right, I stand corrected.

Yes, thanks — we need to clarify this.

The best move here is likely an excerpt + backlink, as we've done for e.g. Vox articles, and as news organizations and blogs do all the time for things they quote. I'll clarify this in the contest rules later today. (Ideally, I'd still love to have full-text versions of things on the Forum, but I'll specify that people should ask authors for permission before going that far.)

I suggest there should be an honourable mention for the most upvoted in each category if that entry doesn't win a prize. If the community thinks something is great and it doesn't get anything, I think that would be a shame.

Also, completely separate question: should I try to err on the side of submitting or not submitting a marginal work, written either by me or by someone else? How do you want to weight the tradeoff between 'deluged by irrelevant nonsense' and 'people whose work you might be interested in don't submit?'

How about Dylan Balfour's 'Pascal's Mugging Strikes Again'? It's great.

Sounds like you should cross-post it, then! 

I'd recommend an excerpt + link to the full post,  or sharing full text if you get Dylan's participation (I imagine he'd be happy to have his work entered in the contest for free).

Sweet! I've messaged him.

Are there any rules against using crude language or having a lot of violence in the story?

People have suggested story competitions before, but this has gotten way more upvotes. Why?

I guess it's because there is a 10k prize and because Aaron suggested it. 

If we were getting too biased to the person writing forum articles rather than the quality of those articles, how would we know?

I don't think it's because I "suggested" it. I think it's almost certainly the prize money + the fact that I heavily promoted the contest through all of CEA's channels, because CEA is running and funding it. I also shared it with many individual writers I admire, the rational fiction subreddit, etc. 

Thus, many more people have seen this than see most Forum posts. It's not "bias", just sheer numbers. (Other people are welcome to promote their own posts in lots of places — in fact, we encourage it!)

Yeah I think your behaviour here is fine. But imagine I spent $10,000 advertising a post I wrote. Would that be okay? The question interested me.

If you spent $10,000 on prizes for people who did useful things in the community building / EA messaging space, and that happened to be attached to a post, it seems extremely obvious that this is okay. See, for example, EA Funds sharing information about how to apply for grants.

One of the most common myths about using copyrighted music is that you can use any music you like as long as you clearly say that you don’t own it and give credit.

I always found it somewhat odd how people can believe that publicly admitting that they don’t own something magically gives them the right to use it.When it comes to music, copyright law may get very tricky very fast. In many cases, the copyright is split between the record label and the publisher. The label controls the recording, while the publisher controls the song itself (i.e. the words and melody that appear in the recording of the song).

I assume this is just a general comment, but so I can be sure — did you mean to make a point about the current rules of the contest?

Is there no guidelines to who can submit?

Anyone can submit — we don't care about age, nationality, or any other category that immediately comes to mind.

Let me know if there's something specific you're concerned about.

I actually have another question. I submitted a Kipling poem as a recommendation for the contest. (It's my first post, so it's currently awaiting moderation.) If I find more EA-themed Kipling poems (which, given the poet, would not be surprising), should I add them to the first post, submit them in batches or make individual posts for each of them?

Good question. I'd say "one poem per post", unless the poems are quite short or linked in some way that makes it seem more natural to put multiple in one post. But it's up to you; hard to go too far wrong.