Three Myths About Writing Contests

writing contests

Writing contests aren’t sweepstakes; they are challenges. They judge writing quality and reward those with talent. Let’s dispel some myths about writing contests.

Whenever I’m speaking at a conference and I mention writing contests, I can see the room divide. Half remain open minded. The other half instantly thinks scam!, or waste of time. In one fell swoop, loaded with facts and motivation, I make it my goal to win the room over, bringing everyone to the same sheet of music: Contests are a Great Tool to boost your writing career.

Contests aren’t sweepstakes; they are challenges. They judge writing quality and reward those with talent. What’s wrong with that? Let’s dispel the myths of writing contests and see if I can bring you around.

Writing Contest Myth #1: Contests are scams

The overwhelming majority of contests are legitimate events. If you aren’t certain about the validity of a contest, do the following:

  • Google the contest and look for negative reports on forums and sites;
  • Study the contest sponsor. If it’s reputable, so is the contest;
  • Look at the previous winners. Google their names for contact information then e-mail them to ask for advice;
  • E-mail the contest and ask your questions. A decent contest sponsor will make sure you receive a prompt, accurate response.

You find as many contest scams as you do publisher, agent, magazine and blog scams. Heck, you’ll probably find more publishing scams. Contests are used by sponsors to raise awareness of their publication or company, as well as to support the writing community. They look marvelous in your query letter or book proposal, on the cover of your book, or on your website. They give you authenticity. They can even serve as barometers for your work as you’re finding your way. When you start placing in contests, you realize your writing is growing.

Writing Contest Myth #2: Entry fees are a rip-off

Entry fees are needed for most contests that do not have a charitable supporter footing the bill. Contest sponsors charge entry fees to cover expenses such as:

  • Prize money;
  • Advertising;
  • Publication of the winners;
  • Fees for judges;
  • And in some cases, an awards presentation.

Some writers see entry fees as simply a reading fee, but in reality, contests are time consuming and not cheap to manage. The man-hours to log in entries, distribute submissions to judges, and select the winners can be extensive as well as expensive. Frankly, contests that do not charge an entry fee catch my attention more, as I wonder where they got their prize money, and if they’ll be able to pay in the end. Big magazine names like Real Simple, Seventeen, or Esquire Magazine have the bank account for prizes, but a literary journal would not. Again, a lot hinges upon the contest sponsor.

Writing Contest Myth #3: Contests play favorites

It’s amazing to me that writers can be skeptical about contest nepotism but not think twice about a magazine, publisher or agent giving preferential treatment to someone they know or a friend of someone they know. Contests usually require blind judging, meaning that your entry is identified with a number instead of the author’s name. Contests have reputations like any other entity in the writing profession, and they cannot afford for disgruntled applicants to ruin their good names over accusations of favoritism. The writing community is pretty close-knit, and word spreads rapidly about such occurrences. After all, most writers are Googling a contest before entering, and those negatives tend to float to the surface.

Literary competitions can serve you well, my friends. Placing in competitions can open doors like you wouldn’t believe. In the thirteen years I’ve managed contests via my website, I’ve seen the following opportunities occur for contest winners and runners-up:

  • Publication. Many contests provide publication, whether on a website or via a book contract complete with royalties;
  • Money. I earned $750 in contest wins for my first mystery manuscript Lowcountry Bribe. One of my readers won $5,000 and another $1,500 and a trip to Scotland to claim his prize;
  • Recognition. My agent admitted that my contest wins caught her attention before she signed me on as a client. Recently, my first mystery release Lowcountry Bribe won The Silver Falchion Award at the Killer Nashville Conference, and my publisher intends to use that on the cover of my second mystery release, Tidewater Murder;
  • Credibility. Your writing may be good, but until you’re judged and deemed worthy, it’s hard to make a name for yourself in this competitive industry. Contests are a way to break in before you break in, so to speak. Place in a few contests and you might be amazed at how many publishers, agents, or bookstores are willing to give you a second glance.

Give contests a chance. As you’re struggling to become a writer, or if you’re changing genres and breaking in anew, or if you’re trying to weigh if your writing is professional enough to publish, you might find that contests help catapult you faster up the ladder. As a minimum, they serve as strong encouragement to keep you committed, and we can all use that little shove.


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