Writing Contests: When to Enter, When to Run

writing contests

Writers have a love-hate relationship with contests. Some people adore them, eager to submit regularly, and others back away, fearful of potential scams.

Don’t be so leery about writing competitions. Instead, become familiar with them, what they can do for you, how to enter them properly, and when to walk away from them.  As with any aspect of the publishing biz, know who you’re getting in bed with and you won’t be surprised in the morning.

Once you learn the red flags of trouble and understand the remarkable opportunities writing contests offer, you’ll rank them up there with the best magazine markets and publishers and look forward to their calls for submissions. You can learn how to maneuver amongst the good and the bad.

What are the signs of a questionable competition?

1. First timer contests. While every contest has to start somewhere, still keep your eyes open with an inaugural launch. Even with the best of intentions, contest sponsors may not have ironed out the wrinkles of managing such an event. Contests are time-consuming, and if not handled properly, can be expensive nightmares for the sponsors. If the organization or person running the award is reputable, then give it a go, but if you’ve never heard of them, move on. Yes, you might have a better chance of winning since fewer people will submit, but think twice before you do, ensuring all else seems proper.

2. No humans. I immediately seek a contact person for contests before posting the calls in my FundsforWriters newsletters. If the email is generic like info@contestABC.com, or mail is only a PO Box address, study harder. Read the About Us material on the website. No website? That’s reason enough to move on right there. You’re looking for a name, a recognized organization, a nonprofit, a reputable publisher, a solid piece of grounded reality to show that the backer is legitimate. Still have questions? Email them. That response, or lack of, can speak volumes.

3. High entry fee. Entry fees can be relative. A $5 fee might sound fine unless the first prize is a T-shirt or a $10 gift certificate. A $10 fee could be reasonable unless the first prize is $25. Fees in themselves are not a negative. The ratio of the entry fee to prize money is the tell-tale sign. FundsforWriters.com received many requests from sponsors to post their contests. If the entry fee is over five percent of the first prize, I scrutinize the contest harder. If it’s over ten percent, I decline the request. Some prizes consist of publication, a hard item to pin down to a dollar amount. In those cases, the publishing venue must have a proven reputation, one that empowers your reputation if you win or place. But many young, obscure, small presses and indie publishing houses use these reading fees to finance their operation. To be safe, seek financial compensation AND publication. FundsforWriters doesn’t list any contest only offering publication.

4. Past winners. Pay attention to previous winners. If something niggles at you about the contest, you may even Google the winners’ names. Where have they published? Read their blogs. Study their careers. You can tell a lot about the quality of the contest by the quality of the winners. FundsforWriters once exposed a contest by researching the winners . . . of which only one existed, and that lone writer had never received her winnings.

5. Rights. If a contest wants all rights for entering, run away. If a contest wants one-time or first rights, to publish and publicize your award, then fine. However, if a publication wants all rights of the winners, make sure that all the other red flag issues are in order. Sometimes a contest is proud of its selections, and understandably, they don’t want to see them popping up across the Web on the heels of their announcement, so asking for all rights can make some sense. Identify from the outset what rights you sacrifice for entering or placing. I made semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, just as I signed an agent for the manuscript. Unfortunately, we had to wait a couple of months before we could seriously shop the work because Amazon and Penguin had first rights to select it for publication. I’d have been happy if they did, but my agent had her hands temporarily tied.

6. Judges. Not all judges are identified, and the lack of identity doesn’t necessarily rule out a competition. You may not care, but prestige can come from being judged by someone known in his field. If you want to know the judges, email and ask. If they dodge you, reconsider entering.

After you become accustomed to contests, the red flags clearly reveal themselves. In a matter of seconds, I can judge a contest as good, iffy, or downright bad. A novice contest sponsor sooner or later flashes his unprofessionalism or naivete. If you study a contest and still aren’t sure, email them for an explanation, then run your own search. The disgruntled are known for airing their unhappiness, and a decent contest will promptly email you back, eager to please.

Good luck!


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