The cash prizes. The chance to be published. The bragging rights over everyone who gives you that look when you say you're a writer.
There are plenty of good reasons to enter writing contests, but there are also plenty of reasons to be careful about the ones you choose. How do you know if a contest is worth its entry fee? How do you know if it's even a real contest?
Before you enter, here are eight big questions to consider.
1 Are the sponsors on the up-and-up? Look for contests sponsored by nonprofit literary groups, established publications, reputable publishing houses, colleges and universities. Some small presses run contests simply to find books to publish. While this can be legitimate, be wary of any that have said in past years that they didn't find anything publishable—yet they kept the entry money. Annual contests should provide, either on their website or upon request, a list of past winners.
2 Have you read the rules carefully? Make sure the contest rules state the following: deadlines, eligibility, format, fees, prizes, circumstances in which prizes will or won't be awarded, judging and what rights, if any, you're granting. Some competitions are for already published works, while others specify only unpublished writings. Is the deadline when entries must be postmarked or received? Are e-mailed entries accepted? Will the work be returned? Can you submit a work that's won or placed in other contests? (If so, that's a good way to wring more money or other perks from one good work.) Follow instructions. There will always be those who think the rules don't apply to them—but if that's you, your entry could be tossed before anyone even reads it. Finally, double-check all information to be sure it's up to date, especially if it came from a book or magazine.
3 Is the entry fee reasonable? Most contests charge fees, usually ranging from $5 to $25. For one thing, it's time-consuming to administer a contest, but sponsors may also want to make a profit. No harm in that, but you must consider what you're potentially getting in exchange for what you're giving. It's not unheard of to see something like an entry fee of $25 for a prize of $30. Expect fees to be commensurate with the prize and how big the "names" are judging the contest.
4 Who's doing the judging? Judges should be published writers, past contest winners, editors at publishing houses or representatives from known literary organizations. Sometimes sponsors won't release the judges' names, however, for privacy concerns. At a minimum, try to find out if the judges are professors at prestigious universities, authors published with recognized houses or the like. Another important element: Will the judges provide a critique? This can be arduous for the judges (said from personal experience) but highly beneficial to the often-solitary writer. Contests with constructive feedback are easily worth the entry fee.
5 Have you protected your rights? Don't ever agree to give up the copyright to your work to enter a contest. For some competitions, if you win, you may have to license some of the rights—one-time publication rights, for example. But don't sign all your rights away.
I can't emphasize enough to read the fine print of the contest rules. Check if they're doing a sneaky rights-grab. For instance, there are some contests where the main prize is the publication of your book. One such contest's rules state that, although the winner keeps the copyright, the sponsor takes an "irrevocable, exclusive, royalty-free, time-unlimited, and world-wide right to use the work in whole or part for any and all purposes related to the commercial exploitation of the work." And this is if you win?
Also, some contest rules state that you "shall receive a standard sponsor author agreement" if you win the book contract, an agreement that might even set forth the advance and royalty rates. But you'd probably be better off simply submitting the work through regular channels, and then being able to negotiate your contract like you always should.
Finally, see if you can submit your work elsewhere while the contest is being finalized. If you can't, it could tie up your work for months.
6 Do you suspect a scam? In general, be wary of submitting to contests where your work is pub-lished only online (unless it's a well-known website) or published only in an anthology that winners have to pay to receive. You may initially be excited to receive a letter saying your work has been selected to be included in a book, only to find you must buy a copy—preferably multiple copies—for your friends and family. In some cases, the "winners" could be everyone who enters the contest, and the sponsor makes money through selling the books to contest entrants.
Also beware of contests run by individuals who stand to profit from your work, such as book doctors, or literary agencies where the prize is representation but with heavy "editing fees." Stay away from contests that reserve the right to award prizes on a pro rata basis (where the prize amounts are determined by the number of entrants). These exist simply to make money for the organizer.
7 Does your work shout, "Pick me! Pick me!"? It's easy for judges to discard the bad and the mediocre. Then they have their stack of "good." Once you're in the good pile, how do you make it to the top?
Just as you should read back issues of magazines you hope to write for, try to read previous winners' work. Most contests list previous winners online. This way, you'll know what the contest organizers seem to respond to. That's not to say you should change your writing to make it similar to previous entries. But if the winners have a totally different style than yours, you may want to reconsider that contest.
Any contest sponsor is looking for an original voice, solid writing and a good story. But if it's a publishing house sponsoring the competition, salability matters most. They're looking for commercial viability, quality of research and presentation, and media potential.
Julie Weary, the grand-prize winner of the Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition in 1997, now judges competitions and also continues to enter them. She says that the writer's voice and "the ability to hook me right away" are what grab her when judging. "Weak openings and poor, predictable endings are a sure way to be knocked out of the running," she adds.
When I judged a self-published books contest a few years ago, I discovered that looks do indeed count when narrowing down the choices. Presentation and appearance are extremely important. Whether you're submitting a finished book or a short story, your package should be professional, clean and attractive. Don't bribe contest officials; your work should stand on its own. No candy, baked goods or flowers (yes, this happens). No hand-written entries, no fancy fonts, no colored paper. Read your entry aloud from a hard copy before sending it in. You'll be surprised at the typos and mistakes you'll catch.
Don't mistake these for minor details. If the judge likes your work, but it comes down to yours and another great entry that has excellent grammar and spelling, the professional work wins every time. As Weary says, "I know for a fact that if all things are equal, those missteps will mean the difference between success and failure."
8 What do you really win: prizes, publication, publicity? Money is always welcome. But there are also prizes of publication (which, again, can be a mixed blessing, depending on whether you're allowed to negotiate the contract), or having the opportunity to meet with agents or editors who can help your career. Prizes might also be products, like books or magazine subscriptions, or services such as publicity from an outside PR firm or manuscript editing. With these sorts of prizes, be sure the services are free to you and not some back-door way to get you to pay extra. Winning (or even placing in a contest that names runners-up) can generate invaluable publicity.
The proof is in the payoff
Entering good contests can pay off in some interesting ways, even if you don't win. For example:
TEST MARKETING AND MENTORS: Romance writer Ruth Kaufman says she enters contests to get her work in front of editors and agents who are judging. This way, she gets an idea of what they think of her work before formally submitting to them—in some cases, she's even received requests for more material. As an unexpected benefit, she's developed friendships with co-finalists and authors who've judged her work. She even found a mentor in one of her favorite authors.
KICKSTARTS: Other writers don't enter contests necessarily to win, but to give themselves deadlines and a particular assignment. Pat Remick took on a "3-Day Novel" contest to make a substantial start on a murder mystery she'd been mulling over for a while.
CREDENTIALS BOOSTER: Mary Hutchings Reed, a novelist, enters contests to provide credentials for her cover letter. She enters the well-known contests on the "off-chance something good will happen." But generally she finds that those that have several winners—five to 10 runners-up—provide better bang for her buck. She's won one first prize in a "first chapter" contest and some honorable mentions in smaller contests. Mostly what she's gotten out of entering contests, she says, is "a lesson in perseverance."
STEPPING-STONE: Weary met with four magazine editors in New York City upon winning the WD Annual Writing Competition. This led to an essay published in Good Housekeeping. She says that more than merely opening doors, however, winning "gave me the confidence to knock where I might not have otherwise knocked. As a consequence, one success led to another." Also, Weary says an agent eager to see her work contacted her. This is a common occurrence for winners—agents pay close attention to the bigger contests for ripe pickings. Like Reed, Weary looks for contests that have more than one winner or those that provide a year's subscription for the entry fee, so she can study the types of stories that are winning. With short stories, she says you'll generally make more winning a contest than you would selling to a literary journal (of course, you do have to win). But it's not about the money; "it's about the validation."
It helps to be pretty thick-skinned if you're going to enter contests. But anyone who writes for more than pure personal satisfaction knows that rejection is part of the deal. As Remick says, "the creative experience is worth the risk."