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?
I didn’t know Sam’s Auto Club and Horseshoe Factory was holding a contest! LOL
I’ve been submitting to contests for a while. Maybe about 3 or 4 a year. I haven’t won one yet, but I love contests with themes. I find it helpful to have some sort of prompt or direction when I’m writing new material.
Overall, yay to writing contests!
Love entering writing contests. Thx for the info!
None! But I’m starting to think I should… And now I know how to discern between the worthwhile and the not so much! It would never have occurred to me to check who the judges are.
Well the year just started so 1, working on the 2nd. I usually try to enter contests especially when they’re free so I can practice getting creative about a specific topic. and there’s also the deadline thing that helps 🙂
Thank you for your info. I’ve never entered a contest, but a couple decades ago, I went to a Writers Digest Training in Dallas. I’ve now written 8 books & interviewed 5,000 people on TV (my position with Hart & Taylor Media). NOW, I’m going to enter a contest for the experience, exposure and the mega bucks when winning, however I STILL do not know which one to launch my contest entering life. HELP.
Best Afternoon to YOU. Bonnie Libhart
Bonnie, Congrats on your success so far. We have great contests and calls for submissions right here: . Hope you’ll find one that interests you!
Thanks for this! I haven’t entered anything contesty for years – part of it was the reading fees went up, my free funds went down, and part of it was awareness now, that it could/would be considered previously published – (after the horror stories of bright young enthusiastic writers with some good pieces that unfortunately were shared on the web, which ruled their future with these pieces out.)
So how should one view a piece that they want to submit, winning or not? If not, does it carry a stigma of previously seen somehow?
Jen, Most contests include publication as a prize. So a good rule of thumb is to submit to a contest only if you’re sure you want to be published by the organizers. A work that is published because it won a contest would be considered previously published. If a work wins but is NOT published, then that work is not going to be considered previously published. Does this help?
I’ve never gotten around to submitting to contests because I figured that simultaneous submissions are frowned upon, or,at least, are impractical. Is that correct?
JC, that’s another good point – Can one make the contest rounds with the same submission -, and what if you actually are considering submitting it to an editor? Would you say that it is also a pending submission in a contest?
Jen and JC, Simultaneous submissions are often frowned upon at contests. Many, but not all, contests want to have an exclusive read. Thanks for bringing up this point! If you know you’ve got a particularly strong piece, it might be worth holding for a contest because a win can be so very helpful.
I’ve gone the route of indie publishing, and am not making a profit but am closer to breaking even. My husband reminds me that I give away more than I sell, but that is in my nature. I also make quilts and give them away.
I don’t enter contests that require an up front fee. I did enter the disdained poetry “contest” and yes, my poem was suddenly accepted, and yes, I can buy the big book that holds my poem and hundreds of others and yes, that means it is “previously published.” I’m good with all of that.
The more I write, and the more I read and review others’ writings, the better developed is my sense of who I am and can be as a writer.
I love the articles you post here at Writers Relief. Thank you.
Dear Writer’s Relief Staff,
Thank you for those quick and informative answers!
This whole thread tweaked my interest in contests again, but with the influx of pros and cons on the web, I had gotten rather wary and confused about what exactly happens. Having access to the Writer’s Relief articles where questions can be asked, with an answer, provides such a live and vital resource.
Love you guys for this!
Reading Terry’s comment made me laugh! I also make quilts and give them away. No profit here, either! I’ve been considering entering some contests and also self-publishing. This was definitely an informative piece.
Hi this struck a chord because if I am any kind of writer at all it is a contest writer. A few years ago I stumbled on a contest and entered. I won an extremely lucrative 1st – so I entered a second one. almost the same money plus publication. I wrote – mainly entering contests from my accidental beginning. I couldn’t afford to lose money and for about 4 years I stayed just in front – contests magazine publications – newspaper and web – mostly contests, I never counted the hours but postage, paper, cartriges and fees. When I began to lose money I stopped. Maybe I should start again. I love writing stories and verse. Articles are very hard work. Contests matter because they can keep a serious genuine writer motivated. BTW a contest that is 20 Stirling to enter with a 100 Stirling prize is ludicrous – especially when you take into account the cost of converting English into Australian money and vice versa
I am new to this,having been writing poems for only 4 months.There seem to be thousands of contests on the web but i havent sent my work to any of them.How do i know my poems are good enough?I post on one forum which has a sub section for writers and poets,along with cooks,photographers,painters,comedians..in fact anyone who has anything to share. my question is asked because the responses i get on the forum to my poems are ALWAYS saying how good i am and that i should be publishing my poems.could it possibly be that i am another byron or tennyson,or is it that the respondents are just being polite to a fellow forum member?i only write rhyming poetry so it is easy to read.I know my work is not bad,but could it really be as good as these people are saying? Are poets born with a gift or are they made?The forum has absolutely no connection with publishers or poetry websites. Thank you.
Terryc, Great enthusiasm! Poetry can be so very rewarding; we hope you’ll stick with it!
First thing’s first: If you’re serious about poetry, it’s time to hook up with some serious poets (as opposed to people who are not poets). And that means taking a writing class, joining a writing group, etc.
You can also try to connect with a critique partner:
Here are tips about how to compose rhyming verse that will not strike editors as being too sing-songy (rhyme is especially hard to do well):
The key is to immerse yourself in high-caliber poetry. Read good poems. Subscribe to literary journals to see what a good poem can accomplish.
Thank you,i will certainly act on your advice. one question though, you say to link up with other poets, but surely its not only poets that read poetry.Dont the views of ordinary readers count ? I do not understand or like certain forms of poetry,some forms seem gibberish to me and others could be written in ancient Greek, they make no sense to me at all.I write narrative rhymes,telling a story which other people can understand and even empathise with,not stuff that shakespeare himself could not understand but which seem to win the prizes. I believe that if wordsworth entered Daffodils in one of todays major contests he would not even gain an honourable mention.it seems to me that unless you have a degree in some esoteric subject, you cannot understand or appreciate the poetry of today.At least that is or was the view of the poetry community from outside it.
Terrynyc, Poetry is certainly a personal matter. And we wouldn’t say one person’s opinion “counts” more than another. The important thing is studying your craft and following your muse. 🙂
Ok! re: poetry.verse. This may sound redundant, – yet searching out formatting on the web is honestly leaving me more confused than ever, as there seems to be conflicts between single vs. double space, or Id/name on the right or left side – etc.
Yes, there are books, but not in my budget currently.
I know that contests have their specific guidelines, but many assume you know how to submit (a basic format) already.
Is there a simple CURRENT image or info that is the accepted basic? I know the field is not quite as simple as it was 15 – 20 years ago, (when you could pop something in an envelope – which I did, and Viola! – decent publishing acceptance!
Sorry if this may be way basic and sound to simple, but it is one of the reasons I am confused about submitting.
Any help or direction/trusted site would be appreciated. It seems that with the plethora of web advice re: publishing these days, one either gets “how hard it all is.” or conflicting opinions. It has left me rather confused, as to a basic simple verse/poetry format! Contest OR regular: just a simple ~put this here, this goes there~ lol!
I seem to be missing a basic.
Regarding how to format manuscript pages: Did you sign up for our email list to receive Submit Write Now!? Formatting guidelines come free when you sign up. Here’s the link:
If you already subscribe to SWN but don’t have the guidelines, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get them over to you. (Note to future readers: This comment will likely appear here on this blog post for years, but our policies are always subject to change.)
Often, a contest will have its own specific formatting and submission guidelines. And so those should always be followed first. But if there are no specifics, our formatting guidelines are as close to industry standard as exists at this point.
I think at this point, it seems like you’re ready to start submitting! If you have a question about a specific contest, you can email the organizer of the contest and they’ll no doubt be willing to help.
Good luck and let us know how it goes!
Late response, but I really like the advice you put in this article. I’ve joined a few contests in the past, never paid for submissions. I’m now considering the one ebookmall is running. They seem to be a reputable organisation. It’s called ‘America’s Next Author’ and seems to be different from the mainstream contests. Interesting concept.
Outstanding and timeless article, folks.
Thanks for extremely helpful and valuable advice. Bookmarked!
Excellent advice. I’ve placed as a finalist for the Brookwood Press Writing Award, winner to be announced after the end of this year. Contests–and good ones–come from all over the spectrum. I happened to read the May issue of Salmon and Steelhead Journal on my break at work, which featured one of the finalist essays, and I felt elated at how good the work, thinking mine would never make it. I came home, opened my inbox, and read the news of mine to appear June/July!