Writing Contests—Are They Worth Entering?

An email from a literary journal, announcing an extension on their fiction contest made me wonder how many of you have entered such contests over the years. I’m referring to contests for unpublished manuscripts. To my knowledge, publishing companies submit books for awards on the author’s behalf–that was certainly the case with my book.

I know many people have thoughts on writing contests. While some people think they aren’t worth the entry fee, many think that these contests can help your career along. (Of course, this would only true if you win or final in one.)

Truthfully, I have entered very few contests over the years. I often questioned the judging process not to mention that every contest requires an entrance fee. This fee could be anywhere from $25 -$40, maybe even more. This is often the subscription price of literary magazines and you also end up with a year’s subscription. If you’re planning on subscribing to a particular magazine, then entering a contest might be well worth the money.  Years ago when I was first getting my work out there, I often didn’t have the money to spend on entry fees. My kids were small and we were a one-income household. We had a mortgage. I could go on. The few contests I entered were those with very modest entry fees.

While I know some people argue the point that these contests are worth your time and money to enter, I seriously wonder how true this is. I’ve known people who have won such contests, but still had problems finding a publisher for longer works. It seems to me that publishers make their decision to publish by evaluating the submission that is before them. While having won a writing contest might look good on your bio, is a publisher going to publish your book because of some contest you won five years ago?

Here are some of my thoughts:

When we submit our work to a literary magazine it is already being judged against hundreds of other stories. I’ve had literary magazines tell me they receive 1200 + submissions in a year and publish about 30 so when one of my stories made it in their publication I felt like a winner. Whoopee! Best of all, it didn’t cost me a cent. Being in the top 30 out of over 1200 submissions wouldn’t mean I’d have won first place had it been a contest. It wouldn’t even mean I’d place. I also found that as my work improved, I’d receive valuable feedback from editors who made suggestions or told me a particular story almost made it. Let me tell you those comments were like gold.

For every contest there are winners and losers. Had I only submitted to contests, and never placed, I might have come to the conclusion that my writing was no good. I might have given up. So while entering contests may be something you love to do, I would caution you not to become discouraged if you don’t final. Failing to final doesn’t mean your story sucked.

Occasionally a contest will offer feedback on your work. This is something that could prove to be quite valuable. Let’s be honest, feedback from our friends isn’t always helpful since our friend’s judgement could be clouded. (I’m sure my mom would love every bit of drivel I wrote, regardless of how bad it might be.) If you’re looking for feedback, and a particular contests offers this, then it may be worth entering. Truthfully, the contests I entered over the years didn’t offer any feedback. So make sure you understand if feedback is being offered if that’s what you want.

What are your thoughts on writing contests, are they a good idea or a waste of time and money? Do you regularly enter them? Have you entered them in the past?

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34 Comments

  1. Hi, Laura!

    I’m a firm believer in contests. But keep in mind I write romance and most RWA chapters have contests. I know who the judges are and I know it’s subjective.

    At first I entered to get feedback on my story. Once I deemed myself good enough, I started entering based on prestige or the final judge. In 2011 I finaled in The Molly, the Heart of Denver chapter of RWA. The final judge, while she didn’t place me first, requested my manuscript and later offered me representation.

    So, yeah. I <3 contests! :)

    Reply
    • It would seem that it makes sense to enter contests depending upon what genre you write in. I remember reading on your blog the excitement when your were a finalist . :) For you, Abigail, it was well worth entering. :)

      Reply
  2. If the prestige of the award is worth it then entering a few contests is worth the money. But so many questionable contests are mushrooming everywhere that it’s a good idea to enter with caution. It’s a good idea to have a yearly budget and then send the other entries out as just regular submissions. That’s what I’ve decided. Thanks for a good post.

    Reply
    • Welcome to my blog. :)

      One should always do a little research before entering a contest. I remember one I entered years ago that promised publication in an anthology for the winners, and although they extended the deadline once, to my knowledge no book was ever published.

      Reply
  3. I am like you were, Laura, home with small kids and one income (except the small amount my writing earns) and a mortgage. I’ve looked at contests, thought about entering, but in the end, I found better places for my money. My other thought was, “if my story is tied up in a contest for six months with a thousand other entries, it’s not making the rounds at traditional publishing houses.” Did I have a better chance to win a contest or get the piece published? Both are like winning the lottery.

    A long time ago, I entered the CBC Literary Contest. I didn’t win. I realised now the competition would have been fierce. Not long ago, I was a regular contestant with the annual Writers Federation of Nova Scotia contest. I didn’t win but received valuable feedback. With this particular contest, my stories were out of the loop for almost a year. That’s a long time for a piece of writing to sit on a shelf.

    I must agree with you. A writer can win dozens of contests but the editor at a publishing house must judge what is in front of them. You might get a closer look, but in the end, if the book isn’t good, editors will pass.

    Reply
    • Yes, the question of tying up a story for many months does play a role when considering whether or not to submit to a contest.

      The Writers Federation is a good one to enter if you’re looking for feedback. I’ve never entered mostly because when the deadline came around any novel I might have entered was tied up in submissions some place else. While I would not have expected to win, like you, I would have appreciated the feedback.

      Reply
  4. Laura, I have but twice tried to enter contests. The time and money is not always worth the feedback … IF you get feedback. Career wise, it might help somewhat, but there are two-time RITA RWA winners who still have not found a publisher, some swho still have no agents. It’s an individual decision. Myself, I choose not to :)

    Reply
    • I honestly feel that is publication is in the cards for us it will happen whether we’ve won a contest or not.Hard work and persistance goes a long ways. It really is a personal decision. Obviously we all have different thoughts depending upon what our own personal experience has been.

      Reply
  5. This is probably going to sound weird, but until I was published, I would never consider entering a contest. My level of self-confidence was low enough. The thought of losing was just too much. I took it too personally. Today, I do enter a few. When I don’t go further than the first round, I’m okay with that because I write a certain genre, and it’s not for everybody. More importantly, today I believe in myself. I know there are readers who will seek out my books because they enjoy my genre. Just as I do when I’m in a bookstore or online. I still think word of mouth is our best friend.

    Reply
    • Losing anything is never good for our self-confidence. And we writers take a big enough beating during the submissions process.

      Everyone keeps saying that word of mouth is what sells books. While winning a contest might give us a boost I don’t feel that it wold have made much difference in my writing career. But then we’ve all entered this under different circumstances. Agian it comes down to what is best for the individual.

      Reply
  6. I enter most poetry ones. Seldom a fee and $ prizes for several winners. Just about everyone else gets to be accepted and you send $60 bucks for a nicely bound copy of the anthology with 400 other “poets”. Seems it’s a money maker for the publisher. Easy to gross several hundred thousand in book sales for each contest. I play the game simply for “I’ve been published” credits and save as heirlooms for children and grand children, although they’ll probably start a bar-b-q fire with the pages when I’m dead. I would think short stories, however, are many notches above just poems. I have purchased several sci-fi anthologies of this nature.

    Reply
    • Having heirlooms to pass down to our children and grandchildren is nice. Books live on long after we have left the planet. So far as poetry and short stories go, I believe they both have great value not only to the writer but to the reader. :)

      Reply
  7. I very rarely do. For someone who writes poetry though, getting published is pretty much a non starter if you’ve not entered contests and had a piece published as a result. So, I’m guessing that if my poetry is ever published, it will be because I did it myself. But I do dream, some days, of a publishing house putting out a book of my poetry. I suppose I’m not willing to pay my dues in this way.

    Reply
    • Joss, have you tried Gaspereau Press? They’re in your neck of the woods and the publisher, Andrew Steeves, a poet himself, often publishes books of poetry. :) If you haven’t tried them it may be worth a shot.

      Reply
  8. For my personal experience they have been very beneficial. I have entered approx 6 & I have placed second in the CBC/QWF awards and was short listed for the writers union of Canada lit awards. Just last week when I was having the writer’s blues someone I met said ” hey, you’re that writer I heard read on CBC a few years ago”. I was completely taken aback, and it was such an ego boost at the right time.
    Did these contents make a difference in my writing? Yes, because they serve as fuel for me when I question myself.
    While I do not think that one will get published solely based on winning, in my experience it gave me an in with agents. A few commented on it, another said she could tell I’d earned my way.
    That said, I think any form of publishing credits could accomplish the same thing–as you say just get published is winning! For me the main difference between those i placed in compared to publications was the exposure.
    But, I was lucky for some reason. I didn’t do the song and dance that most writers do.
    I think constant rejection & loss can be detrimental for some & perhaps we’d loose some terrific writers based on competitions. What works for one may not for another.

    Reply
    • I suppose we all look at life from our own unique perspective, Jennifer. Which is why it is always good to have other people’s opinions on things. I remember reading about some of your writing accomplishments and they are to be commended. Contests, especially ones with such wide appeal as the Writer’s Union, are not easy to get short listed for. :) It says a lot about your work.

      Yes, it would act as fuel to keep us going. Let’s face it, during those down times, we can have some pretty discouraging thoughts.

      I totally agree, what works for one may not work for another.

      Reply
      • Thank you Laura, but I wasn’t meaning to remark on my own achievements (even though it may have come accross thay way)
        I just meant that the recognition really helped me decided that I should contine to write and that I turn back to it in times when I’m doubtfull. And I think that kind of accomplishment comes from any form of publication. This just happened to be my route…

        Reply
        • No worries, Jennifer, I understood completely what you meant. I could even relate. Having my book short listed a few year back kept me going through some rough times. :).

  9. I forgot to mention also that in two instances where I didn’t place in a competition I got unexpected feedback. One time one of the judges wrote me a letter telling me what he liked about my piece and what he thought needed work. Another time someone stuck a note in the envelope telling me that he loved my voice and to make certain that I kept writing. I have only submitted maybe a few times for publication in lit journals and was refused with standard rejection letters except once when the piece was accepted, so I have no idea if they will take the time to respond in this way. I imagine with so many subs maybe it’s easier to win an award than to get published! lol

    Reply
    • What I can say is that there are many literary magazines that don’t offer any feedback but others do, especially when your work is close to being accepted. I have had one or two places ask me to do revisions and resubmit. I did and the stories went on to be published. I often wonder if those who offer us these wonderful, uplifting messages realize just how valued their words of praise and encouragement are especially when we are just starting out.. :)

      Reply
  10. I’ve entered a few here and there, but I don’t rely on them as a way to get my name and work out there. It would be great to win, but I don’t count on it. :-)

    Reply
    • I felt the same way when I was entering contests. I actually never even thought about it getting my name out there..I guess I was a bit green in those days. I would have only been thinking of the prize money.. lol

      Reply
  11. I’ve not had a manuscript, but the fees have kept me from entering other types of writing contests.

    Reply
    • I can very much relate, Patti. I could always find other places to put that money. Now that I could better afford it, I don’t even consider it.

      Reply
  12. I haven’t lately due to money woes, but in the past I would enter contests just for the feedback. I knew I wasn’t ready enough to win, but I wanted a professional critique and was willing to sacrifice 10 dollars here and there to get it. It was worth it. If I do it again, I will certainly seek out only those who offer a critique or a year’s subscription to their magazine. I hate to send off money into the wild blue yonder without something in return.

    Reply
    • I’ve yet to see contests here in Canada with a $10 entry fee, Tricia. Of course everything costs more in Canada. Can I move down with you? It might be nice to have a winter without snow. ;) I like the year’s subscription part, as you say you’re getting something for your money.

      Reply
  13. I think there’s some benefit in contests, especially for the writer who is approaching the submission process but still feeling insecure. Pushing myself to enter a few contests gave me experience in taking those crucial last steps — careful revision and proofreading, working to a deadline, following submission guidelines to a “T”, fighting back the terror and hitting ‘send’. I haven’t entered many contests, but I did final in some, which was a great morale booster. Only one offered feedback and it wasn’t as helpful as I might have wished, but I still appreciated it.

    There are good contests and useless ones, so getting referrals from trusted sources is a good idea. It’s also important not to spend extensive time on contests as a procrastination device! ;)

    Reply
    • You make some good points, Carol. It’s always good to hear from people on both sides of an issue. It helps give us more information when making decisions. :) I guess the bottom line is do your homework, and find out about the contest before entering.

      Reply
  14. Entering contests is what kept me going over the years. I often found local contests that were only $10.00 – $15.00 and some had no cost attached to them. The contest entries helped me hone my writing. After “The Day Dief Came to Town” won second prize in a contest, I felt condifent enough to send it to the anthology we are both in. I feel that prize was the defining moment in my writing career. I don’t enter as many now as I need time to work on the series.

    Reply
  15. This is an interesting topic, with great feedback.
    I have entered a couple of contests but no-fee ones. I simply do not have the money to put out there with no great hope of winning. Maybe that says a lot about my faith (or lack of experience) in my own writing, but that’s how it is. I don’t see the point of anthologies, I am not sure about magazines, and rejection from publishers has made me very selective.
    Maybe I’m just tired.
    To answer your question another way, I think some contests are totally worth it but I am very reluctant to enter if there is a large fee involved. I’m glad it works for some.

    Reply
    • Lynn, I never felt that contests were an indictation as to whether our work is publishable or not. There is only one winner and perhaps second & third place, but what about all those other great stories that didn’t place? What if that story you wrote came close to placing?

      While I’m not excited about contests I wouldn’t say I’d never enter one. I did just last year but there was no entry fee and we could enter something that had already been published. While my story made a long list that’s as far as it went. I didn’t really care. I had nothing to lose.

      What I will tell you, Lynn, is this, the more you submit your work the more you learn how to accept rejection. Rejection is something every writer needs learn how to handle. You even start to realize that it doesn’t necessarily mean the story will never be published.

      You’re right. Contests work for some and that’s good.

      Reply
  16. Whether contests are good or bad depend on the writer’s goal. If he enters contests for the sake of receiving feedback and improving his craft, then it can be considered as a good thing. But if he only desires recognition then I’m pretty sure disappointment will meet him head on. I’ve entered a couple of contests and with each rejection / defeat, I pick up something new thatll help me in honing my skills. Eventually I was able to get myself published online. :)

    Reply
    • Hi JB, Feedback is so very important especially when we’re just beginiing. Sometimes it is the only thing that keeps a new writer going. Congratulations on you online publications. Publications feels great, doesn’t it?

      Thanks for dropping by my blog and for leaving a comment. Cme back anytime. :)

      Reply

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