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If you’ve spent some time entering writing contests, you know they are an investment. Whether it’s poetry, short stories, essays, or chapbooks, most contests charge reading fees. Plus, there’s the “cost” of your time. And when you don’t win, you start to think, “Well, that was twenty bucks down the drain!”
But writing contests CAN help your career if you play your cards right. Having diverse writing credentials is important if you’re trying to establish a reputation. A mix of publications, awards, nominations, and even a few contest wins can go a long way.
We at Writer’s Relief recommend that our clients (and all writers) enter contests. But how does a writer know when the entry fee and time spent are worth it?
Once you’ve read this article, you’ll know how to evaluate a contest to see if it’s worth your time. Then, check out our free list of writing contests!
Here are the questions you’ll need to ask yourself before you fork over your entry fee:
1. Is this contest reputable?
First things first: Don’t enter shady contests (such as fake poetry contests). There are a number of websites out there that are “writing contest factories.” Authors are encouraged to sign up for online communities and/or prodded to enter contests again and again. These sites can be a lot of fun, and many writers use them as a way to build their craft and confidence. But “contest factories” are generally not reputable within the larger, professional publishing industry.
Look for contests that have a solid reputation and longevity (contests that have been running for several years or even decades). Read this article for our thoughts about the professional reputation of fan fiction contests.
The following questions will help you determine how reputable a contest is and how that level of reputation affects you.
2. Who are the sponsors and organizers?
If the contest in question is run by The New Yorker, then you know you’re looking at a contest of great renown. If the contest in question is run by Sam’s Auto Club and Horseshoe Factory, you’re probably not looking at a contest that is well-known in the industry.
If you can’t find the information you need from the “About Us” section of the contest’s website, email the organizers and ask for details. In most cases, the reputation of the contest’s organizers is directly related to the reputation of the contest.
3. Who are the judges?
Often, it’s the judge who can make or break a contest’s reputation. Some organizations don’t disclose judges (often, literary journal contests are simply judged by the journal’s editors, with no special mention of specific judges).
But a specific judge of a contest might affect your willingness to enter. If a new contest—one that nobody has heard of—is being judged by a fantastic, famous author, you might want to enter. If you win, you can always say “Joe K. Author selected my story to win the You’ve Never Heard Of This Contest Prize.” The famous author’s name goes a long way toward recognition and bragging rights.
4. What’s the relationship of the payment and the payout?
Would you pay ten bucks for a shot at being published in your favorite magazine, with the added incentive of a cash prize, a subscription, and/or the good karma points of financially supporting a publication you admire? If so…then this contest is probably a GO for you.
Would you pay ten bucks so an unknown editor can consider publishing your work on his/her unknown website (which means said work will then be considered previously published and therefore less likely to be eligible for publication elsewhere)?
Maybe, maybe not. Read on.
5. Would winning this contest positively augment your current writing credentials?
If you are a Pulitzer winner, entering a contest that Joe American runs out of his home office isn’t going to help much. Sure, you might win. Just like a shark might win a fight with a goldfish. Would winning help your cause? No.
But if you’ve never published anything before, then winning a smaller contest could be a windfall! There are some ethical but lesser-known contests out there that are really fantastic for newer writers. In fact, some contests are specifically created to encourage aspiring writers, as opposed to veterans.
Look honestly at your publication credits and see if a win would be a step forward for you. If winning the contest means you’ll go from being just another goldfish in the school to being the goldfish at the head of the class, then proceed to enter.
6. What are your odds of winning?
Certain contests—the very well-known ones—attract high-level, professional writers (Hint: These are the contests you should really want to win). Other contests attract hobbyists and new writers. Often, you can determine this by looking at the lists of people who have won in the past, judges, and affiliates.
Keep in mind that there is no rule that says you can’t email a writing contest organizer and ask, “How many entries did you receive the last time you ran this contest?” You might not get an answer, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
QUESTION: How many contests did you enter in the past twelve months?