The Pros and Cons of Writing Contests

If you read any of the many publications for writers, you’ll see information about writing contests. Most offer money and an opportunity to have your winning prose or poetry published. Sounds good, right? Well, it can be, but let’s look at what it entails.

Why do publications and writing organizations offer contests? Certainly it gives them a chance to find and reward good writing. It also brings them publicity. For groups, it draws attention to their conferences and workshops and may attract new members, especially if membership is thrown in with the entry fee. For publications, contests can be a way of finding the best writing for their pages. But for most folks who sponsor writing contests, it’s mostly a money-maker. It helps pay the bills.

That said, let’s look at the pros and cons.

Pros:

Winning a contest can boost your ego and your career, especially if it’s a big contest. You get published and you get publicity in everything from the contest website to your local newspaper. Sometimes you are invited to read your winning entry at an awards ceremony. It looks great on your resume.

You get money, sometimes a lot of money.

Your work gets published, which could lead to it being picked up for an anthology or being noticed by an agent or book editor, which could make you famous. Probably not, but it might.

Even if you don’t win, the contest deadline forces you to finish a piece of work and get it ready to submit.

Cons:

Some contests are thinly veiled schemes to get writers to pay to have their work published when they could have it published elsewhere for free.

The fees add up. Most contests charge at least $15 to enter a story or set of 3-5 poems. For book-length works, the fees average around $25. Sometimes you get a magazine subscription thrown in, but how bad do you want that magazine?

The biggest contests attract thousands of entries, so what are the odds they’ll pick yours? Meanwhile, you have to either keep the work you enter off the market for months while the judges choose the winners or send it out with the risk that if someone buys it and you do win, you’ll have to withdraw from the contest.

A writer can waste a lot of time entering contests when she might be better off simply submitting her work.

What to do?

I’ll be honest. I enter contests. Sometimes I win; mostly I don’t. But one big win could really boost my career, so I do it. Each of us needs to figure out whether it’s worth the time and money to enter contests, then do so with our eyes open. For example, I won’t enter a contest that doesn’t pay at least $1,000.  I won’t enter if publication is not included. I also don’t enter contests sponsored by journals or organizations I’ve never heard of. Even if I won, what would come of it?

If you do decide to try contests, the most important thing is to follow the guidelines. Submit online as directed or by mail if that’s what they want. If they tell you not to put your name on the manuscript, make sure it doesn’t appear anywhere, not on the front page, not in your headers, not in the text. Meet their requirements for length and formatting. Read winning entries from the past to see if you write the kinds of things they like.

You can find contest listings in lots of places. Poets & Writers Magazine has one of the best-known lists, which you can find in the magazine and at its pw.org website. Writer’s Market has a whole section of contests. Funds for Writers offers lots of contests and other opportunities in its online newsletter. CRWROPPS, Creative Writers Opportunities List, a Yahoo group, sends daily lists of contests and submission calls. If you search for “writing contests,” you’ll find more possibilities than you handle.

Writing contests can be great, but before you enter, consider the pros and cons. Remember, the most important thing is to write. Don’t let contests or anything else take you away from that for too long.

Now go write.

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