In general, why bother with contests?
There’s more to writing contests than just being able to tag “award-winning” into your author bio. First of all, it can come in handy to win noteworthy writing prizes.
There are a lot of different types of contests out there. You can find calls for manuscripts, novellas, chapbooks, and single works. There are lots of different contests out there targeted at first-time novelists, which is a big lure if you’re working on your first book.
Such victories can give you more lines to add to your bio, but they’re helpful to have when you’re pitching manuscripts, applying to graduate programs, or trying to teach. It adds some respect and eminence that helps — whether you’re trying to teach in a traditional college setting or by creating your own online courses.
Beyond that, there are other extrinsic factors that make writing contests worth your time. Many of them have cash prizes or promise publication to the winning writers. Some contests even have opportunities like residencies on the line.
If you’re on the fence about contests in general, tighten the pockets to your change purse and look for contests that don’t charge entry fees. These will typically have smaller prizes, but sometimes, a small prize with no risky entry fee is better than a large prize that requires an entry fee.
If you win, you’ll gain esteem, publication, and hopefully cash.
Entering writing contests can feel a lot like buying a lottery ticket. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to win, but there are still a lot of people out there buying their weekly lotto ticket.
When weighing out the pros and cons of entering paid contests, there’s quite a lot on the line. It’s intimidating to think of putting your money behind your writing, but you do have quite a lot to gain.
Just about every contest out there will publish your work if you win. This on its own may not have a whole ton of value if it’s a small contest held by a group with a small audience, but most contests are run by more-established journals, presses, and literary groups.
If you focus on writing contests held by highly esteemed literary organizations and manage to win, that’s something you can put on your resume or in future book query letters. Earning respect with a prize can be helpful in your career.
Poets & Writers Magazine has a database of writing contests, awards, and grants. You can browse this list and look for items without fees to get started. But if you’re feeling brave, you can confidently look for contests that do charge fees and know that this list was vetted by the Poets & Writers staff.
Always beware of scams.
Unfortunately, like every field out there, the writing field is fraught with fraud.
One of the most common scams in the writing sphere is people masquerading as literary agents, charging high reading fees, but who ultimately do not have the access or ability to actually get your manuscript in front of publishers.
But that’s agents — we’re focusing on contests. It’s possible that you’ll find a contest out there that charges a reading fee but has no digital footprint.
One thing to watch out for is contests that collect reading fees in strange ways.
Most contests will use some sort of customer-checkout system to pay the entry fee. Even more contests will be listed on Submittable, a service for publishers, presses, and organizations to collect submissions. It’s very easy to use, makes it simple to track your entry progress, and it’s chocked full of opportunities. You do need to make an account with them first before you can go to their “Discover” page and start sniffing out contests.
These aren’t the only ways to pay entry fees, but ultimately, use your common sense. If it feels skeevy, it’s probably skeevy. If a contest has you sending money to a strange PayPal address or Venmoing money to people unknown, it’s safer to steer clear.
Look for contests hosted by reputable publishers, presses, and literary organizations.
If you’re worried about paying for contests, lookout for challenges and contests from very big literary groups like the Poetry Society of America and their Annual Awards. You don’t need to be afraid of paying an entry fee to a very large, very public organization.
Now, I don’t want to be a pot calling the kettle black. Even small journals do need to pay for the cost of web hosting, domain names, and other avoidable small costs, so not every literary journal running a contest with an entry fee or accepting submissions with a reading fee is a scam. I’m an editor with Reality Break Press and we offer critiques to writers for a small fee. We changed our submissions over to Submittable earlier this year, but the subscription costs $20 a month, so we need to earn that from somewhere.
Ultimately, there are plenty of small presses out there who are perfectly reputable but will charge a fee for entry so that they can afford the cost of simply surviving in the digital sphere.
If you use the level of common sense you carry when putting your credit card information anywhere online, you should be fine.
Make sure your submission is perfectly polished before you submit.
If your story isn’t perfectly polished, it won’t be worth it to pay an entry fee.
If you’re going to make the commitment and investment of paying an entry fee, then the piece you’re submitting needs to be perfect.
Be very cautious about submitting at the last minute.
If you don’t take the time to write, edit, proofread, and repeatedly polish your entry, there’s a very high chance you’re going to make a mistake that leads to your piece barely being read.
Worst case scenario, you might make a mistake that leads to your writing not being read at all.
Editing is not a merciful process. It can be hard to feel motivated about editing your work, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to have a fair shot in contests.
Presses and large writing organizations have massive submission volumes; they have strict rules for a reason.
If you really want to commit to your writing and pay an entry fee, invest time into your writing before you invest money into it.
Look for contests that give you something in exchange for your reading fee.
Some contests held by literary journals will give you a one-year subscription to the journal in exchange for their entry fee. Many small presses out there will also offer a book or two from their catalog in exchange for the reading fee you pay.
If you’re getting something for the fee you pay, the idea of paying that fee is a lot less scary. Even if you don’t win, you’re still getting something out of the deal, so that’s not a bad trade.
This isn’t exactly a contest, but Copper Canyon Press holds open reading periods twice a year. In exchange for their reading fee, you can pick two books from their catalog to be mailed to you. If you have a more major project that you’re looking to enter in contests or query, they could be a great place to pitch your work to.
The point here is to not just look at the squirrel’s fluffy tail, but look at the squirrel itself. Just because you see that a contest is charging an entry fee doesn’t mean that you should immediately walk away. That fee could be going to a good cause and you might even get something definite in return for the money you pay.
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