Should Writers Join Contests?


1106 Design

October 04, 2022

Contests are often a point of controversy in the writing community. Many authors strongly support contests, while others warn against entering them. Because of the mixed views, you may be on the fence about entering contests. In this post, we’ll list the pros and cons of entering contests, what to consider when making your selection, and some extra tips to help you succeed. Then, you can decide which contests, if any, are right for you.


Reasons for Entering Contests

Legitimate contests offer many benefits, even aside from the obvious: monetary rewards and publication. Whether you win a contest or not, they’re a great way to become more disciplined and take your writing more seriously. They can help you get used to writing under deadlines and streamline your workflow for maximum efficiency. Learning how to write under pressure without sacrificing quality is a valuable skill for any writer. Furthermore, entering contests can help you improve your submission process, getting you familiar with sharing your work, following guidelines, and minding the fine print. When editors or judges offer feedback on submissions, contests can also help you improve the quality of your work.

If you become a finalist, and especially if you win an award or an honorable mention, contests can grant you and your submitted work prestige, credibility, and publicity. If you’re a fledgling writer, this is especially helpful, as it can help you make a great first impression in the business, giving you credentials to add to future cover letters and queries. If you attend awards ceremonies, you can network with others in the industry. If agents or editors are the judges, contests are a great way to get your work in front of them. Perhaps one of the biggest pros of winning a contest is the boost in confidence it can provide. 


Reasons to Reconsider Entering Contests

Many of the benefits mentioned above only apply if you manage to win. Potential entry fees can be a drawback for many writers. Some contests have no entry fee, but even if you pay one, there’s no guarantee your work will win or garner the publicity you may be hoping for. Likewise, even if you win, there’s no guarantee that the publicity and prestige will have a direct impact on your sales (if that’s what you’re banking on). It’s worth noting that not every contest is legit, and even those that are legit may claim rights over your work you won’t wish to give up. Similarly, many contests won’t allow you to submit your work elsewhere during the course of the contest, which can lead to having your work tied up for a relatively long period of time.

If the contest you enter isn’t well-known, it won’t offer as much prestige as others and may not provide as wide an audience to promote your work to. Not all judges offer feedback. In fact, most don’t. You shouldn’t let fear of failure hold you back in life, but should your work be declined, you may never find out why, which can lead you to make false assumptions as to why you didn’t win. Losing a contest can make you question the quality of your piece. There are several reasons for work to be declined that don’t have to do with the integrity of the piece. For instance, you may have overlooked one of the guidelines, or it simply didn’t resonate with those judges as much as it would elsewhere. One of the largest and most obvious drawbacks of entering contests is the possibility of entering one that isn’t as legitimate as it initially seemed—more on that below.


How to Choose Your Contests

Clarify your goals.

Having clear goals will help you determine which contest is right for you. For instance, if you hope to get a lot of publicity or prestige, you would do better to shop around for popular contests. They often have higher entry fees, but you may prefer to pay them rather than waste money on a contest that won’t provide what you’re seeking even if you win. On the other hand, if you just want to improve your submission skills, entering smaller contests with no or low entry fees would be better. If you hope to get feedback on your work, make sure the judges will actually offer it. If you want to enter a contest for a chance to be published, keep this in mind: If your work is good enough to win a legit contest, it’s good enough for you to go right to the publishing process. You may prefer to invest your time and money in polishing and publishing your work and then on more sure avenues of book marketing. Publishing your work outright is the only sure way of getting it “out there.” If you want help doing so, 1106 Design is here for you.

Research the sponsors, judges, and publishers.

Is the contest associated with presses, services, or officials you would or wouldn’t want to be associated with? Do your research. Don’t be afraid to dig. Judges should be professionals in the field. Ideally, they should be published writers (preferably well-known), previous contest winners, publishing house editors, university professors, agents, or representatives from other literary organizations. Not all contests list the names of the judges due to privacy concerns, but try to at least learn their credentials. Oftentimes, you can see if a contest is illegitimate by putting “scam” or “ripoff” after the contest name or website URL in a search engine. On a similar note, you may want to reconsider joining contests in which those running it (or the judges) stand to profit from your work.

Look up past winners and winning entries.

New contests won’t have a list of past winners, but if a contest claims to have been running for a while, there should be a list of previous winning contestants. They usually also have links to the winners’ work. If they do have these links, scan through previous winning entries to get a feel for what the judges were receptive to. You don’t need to change your style, but if you find that the preferred style of the contest differs from yours, you may wish to find a contest that’s a better fit.

Read the rules thoroughly.

Pay close attention to the rules. Contest rules should at least tell you…

  • Submission deadlines
  • The required format
  • Desired themes/subject matter
  • Maximum or minimum word count
  • Preferred font size and type
  • Who’s eligible to enter
  • What fees you must pay (if any)
  • What prizes are offered and how
  • When and why prizes will or won’t be awarded
  • How entries are judged (and usually by whom)
  • What can disqualify entrants
  • If and where your work will be published
  • What rights you’re granting

If you can’t find this information in the rules, there might be a separate terms and conditions section, which you should also read. Depending on the rules and/or terms, you may reconsider your entry. For instance, if a contest claims all rights to your work, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere—especially if the contest doesn’t specify whether those rights will only apply to winning entries. Another example of a contest you should avoid is one that reserves the right to award prizes based on the number of entrants. You should make sure that the company will only publish your work upon winning. If this isn’t specified, that’s a red flag.

Find out where your work will be published.

As I said, the rules should be clear on this matter. If your work will only be published on a website, make sure the website is well-known and legit. Be wary of contests that will publish your work only in an anthology. In many of these cases, “winners” have to pay to receive a copy (yes, even after paying an entry fee). You shouldn’t submit your work to a contest without being sure that you approve of how and where it may be published.

Note the fees.

As stated above, the rules should contain the fees. Some contests are free, but it’s common for contests to charge an entry fee. Most charge anywhere from $5 to $50. In general, the more valuable the prize or the more prestigious the judges, the higher the fees will be. That said, it’s important to compare the value of the reward(s) (including the benefits you’ll receive should you win) to the cost of the contest. Also, beware of bogus fees such as “editing fees.”


Additional Tips to Help You Win

Of course, you should make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible before sending it in. It should be clean, professional, and formatted properly. Good editing is vital. Reading a copy aloud can help you uncover typos you may have missed before, as well as weak phrasing and plot inconsistencies. Mind the appearance of your manuscript. In some cases, such as if it’s a publishing house sponsoring the competition, judges take commercial viability into consideration. 

Your entry should stand out, yes, but only within the guidelines. It should be unique because it has an original voice or engaging characters, etc.—not because you used a weird font, included an off-the-wall theme, or otherwise disregarded the contest guidelines. Not following the guidelines will usually lead to disqualification. Refrain from bribing contest officials, such as by sending them gifts. If your work can’t stand on its own, don’t enter it into a contest.

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