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 I’m referring to contests for unpublished manuscripts.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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