Writing Contests: Scams or Opportunities, and How to Choose Which Ones to Enter

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The heart of this round-up asks a question: Are writing contests worth it? There isn't a simple answer. The fact is that some writing contests are very worth it, providing writers a leg into the publishing world. Anyone can write a book; but few can publish a book (or poem or short story), and writing contests sometimes create an opening for someone who hasn't been able to get an agent to suddenly be considered for publication. Some writing contests are definitely not worth it, amounting to little more than a vanity press publication that will cost you more than you'll ever gain from the experience. And this post will help you determine which side of the worth-it chasm that contest you're considering falls.

Woman on floor typing on typewriter

I'm writing this round-up wearing three hats that I've worn over the years -- contest entrant, contest winner, and contest judge. I've entered a few contests over the years and even won a couple. While they were hardly life-changing in the moment, they were small boosts into the publishing world, and I now have both a nonfiction and a fiction book to show for it.

As a former contest judge for a literary journal, I can tell you that while the winners may not have known it would be life-changing in the moment, most have gone on to publish books, and it always makes me smile to see a review for one of their books and know that our contest was one of the stepping stones that led from being unpublished to a review for their new book in Publisher's Weekly.

Enter Well Known Contests

Not all contests are made alike. Older, established contests or even newer ones coming out of excellent publications are meant to give new writers a chance to enter the publishing world. The criteria used to judge contest winners usually differs from the criteria used to gain entrance to the journal or publisher. That was absolutely the case at the literary magazine -- how we judged fiction and poetry submitted to the magazine vs. how we judged the contest entrants was different, and it allowed someone who could have never been considered for the literary magazine to suddenly get published.

On the other hand, a lot of contests out there are merely the equivalent to link-bait. Beware of large monetary prizes from an unknown publisher or source. They are funding their operation with the contest fees, and while they may actually pay out a prize to the winner, more often than not, the most you'll win is continuous solicitations to purchase the vanity press publication. Which brings us to my next piece of advice.

Make Sure Contest Fees Make Sense

Unlike getting an agent -- which should not involve an exchange of any money on your part until the book is sold -- many good contests do have a small entrance fee and this is done for two reasons: (1) it limits the amount of people who enter, therefore making it easier for the magazine or publisher to get to those who are serious about writing vs. entering contests on a whim and (2) it sometimes pays the staff for the extra time they'll use in determining the winner. When I worked as a judge, we received more than 500 submissions for the fiction contest, and all of those short stories needed to be read on top of the normal literary magazine work.

I would never be wary of an established, proven publisher or magazine asking for a nominal entrance fee -- most of which are under $20. I would be very wary of a contest that exclaims that for the low, low cost of $50, you can be considered for the $15,000 main prize! Generally speaking, you get what you paid for, and there is a big difference between being published and being published well. You do not want to be published if it means losing the rights to your work, being banned from publishing more books in the future, or having to fork over more money to get your book into print.

I know it is difficult to get published, but truly, you don't want to do it poorly and end up in a worse spot from where you started.

As SWFA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), an excellent, trustworthy organization that gives good advice that goes beyond genre fiction, states:

However, for novelists, poets, and short fiction writers, few of the hundreds of contests available have that kind of prestige. Winning a contest run by an obscure magazine or a local writers’ group or an Internet contest mill won’t cut any ice with agents and editors–not just because they probably won’t have heard of the contest, but because they know that small contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.

SWFA also gives great guidelines for helping separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of whether its worth your while to enter the writing contest. For instance, do you know the organization or publication running the contest? Is the entry fee below $25? How often is the contest run and what are the categories? And have you read the fine print (and is the fine print available to you in the first place?)

Enter and Forget About It

You hopefully wouldn't try to make your living by gambling, therefore, you shouldn't try to make your publishing career via contests. Contests should be something you do in addition to swimming the actual channels of publishing, including querying agents. It's worth keeping a spreadsheet on where you've entered and when you expect to hear an answer (make sure you have followed the contest's directions if you want to be notified about the winner.) But you should approach contests in the same way you would a lottery ticket -- fun to play and spend a few moments dreaming big, and then back to the daily life of earning your living with a job.

A Round-up of Writing Sites

These sites speak about how to determine whether a contest is worth entering as well as blogs that notify readers of new writing contests. Remember, even if you get a contest off of a reputable blog, it's still up to you to do a little research and make sure it's a good use of your time and money.

  • Salon has an article on a huge book contest scam and notes specific red flags writers should notice when applying to a contest.
  • BellaOnline has a guide to judging whether a contest is worth entering.
  • Writer Beware Blogs! is a great resource for uncovering contest scams.
  • Every writer should bookmark Preditor and Editor's (often shortened in the publishing world to P&E) page on contests and check here to make sure the contest is legitimate. Make sure you pay attention to that red print that states, "not recommended."
  • In that vein, every writer should also use the forums of Absolute Write as well as read their excellent coverage on poetry scams.
  • Poets and Writers has a great blog that covers writing contests. They also provide information in every issue of the magazine on upcoming contests as well as an online site that serves as a clearinghouse for contests and grants.
  • Writer's Digest runs a lot of writing contests.
  • Freelance Writing offers a list of contests--some good, some that require a decent amount of detective work to determine their worth.
  • Literary magazines often have good contests. The Madison Review has one every winter, The Kenyon Review has their contest in the winter too, and Prairie Schooner does theirs in the spring. Some really large ones, such as The Paris Review, only takes their contest winners from those already published that year within the magazine.

Which contests have you entered? Have you ever won a contest?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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