The Contest Game: Is it Worth It?
By Jeanne Lyet Gassman
The idea of paying money to enter a writing competition is often a subject of great controversy among writers. Are these contests of any real value? Can they help your career? I believe that writing contests can be of benefit to the writer—as long as you choose your competitions carefully.
What can a contest do for you and your writing career?
They instill discipline. The submission deadlines of contests force you to write and complete a project in a timely manner.
There are tangible rewards. These rewards—ranging from publication to financial compensation to simple recognition—can inspire you to improve both your craft and your productivity
Contests get your name “out there.” Since many of the contest judges are either publishers or editors, entering a contest provides a great opportunity for networking.
They develop the habit of submitting your work. Entering a few contests can get you over the fear of sending your writing to strangers.
They expose you to new potential markets. I’ve discovered some wonderful magazines and publications simply because I took the time to research their contest offering.
How do you know if a contest is legitimate?
This is a tricky issue because the scam contests can sometimes look very promising, but there are a few things you should look for:
What is the ratio of the entry fee to the financial award? A contest that charges a $20.00 entry fee with a first place award of $100.00 is using the contest to raise money. A contest that offers a $1500.00 first prize with a $20.00 entry fee probably has other sources of funding. The average entry fee for most writing competitions can be anywhere from a low of about $5.00 to a high of about $25.00. Some contests for full-length books may have slightly higher entry fees.
Who is sponsoring the contest? Look for contests sponsored by literary magazines, professional writing organizations, and foundations. Be wary of contests sponsored by unknown entities, as they tend to be poorly managed.
Where did you learn about the contest? Many of the professional writing magazines and Web sites screen their contest announcements. (Note: A list of good resources for legitimate contests follows at the end of this article.)
Will you be asked to buy anything after you enter? A common scam is to declare every entry a winner and then encourage the “winners” to buy an expensive copy of the book of winning entries.
What are my chances of receiving an award?
They may be better than you think. In an informal survey among my peers, I discovered that the success rate for contest entries was about 40 per cent. That includes winning, receiving honorable mention, financial awards, and/or publication. In a similar survey for the success of unsolicited submissions, fewer than 10 out of every 100 unsolicited submissions were accepted for publication. Of course, it’s important to remember that there are numerous factors that can contribute to your success in a contest, and the judging of any contest is somewhat subjective. However, there are some simple guidelines you can follow that will improve your odds in a writing competition:
Plan ahead. If you’re writing something from scratch for a contest, be sure to give yourself enough time to write the piece, set it aside, and revise it.
Follow the guidelines exactly. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t cheat on the word count. Don’t send your ms. as an attachment if the guidelines request that it be sent in the body of the email. Ignoring the guidelines can instantly disqualify your entry.
Double-check the details. Did you enclose a check for the entry fee? Do you have the SASE for notification of the winners? Is the submission address typed correctly? A simple thing such as a typo in the zip code can cause your entry to arrive too late for the contest deadline. Be thorough.
Study the winners. Read the previous year’s winning entry, if it’s available. For contests sponsored by magazines, it can be helpful to read back issues of the magazine.
If you’ve decided that a writing contest is something you want to try, there is no time like the present. Here are some resources for legitimate writing contests:
(An excellent resource for contests, grants, and markets.)
(Scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the rolling list of writing competitions
(This is a list compiled by Allison Joseph and contains not only contest information but calls for submission to upcoming anthologies.)
(This is a list compiled by Allison Joseph and contains not only contest information but calls for submission to literary magazines and anthologies.)
(The calendar on their site makes it easy to keep track of upcoming deadlines.)
Happy writing and may every one of your contest entries be a winner!
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in numerous magazines, newsletters, and anthologies. The recipient of artistic grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Creative Capital Foundation, she is currently studying for her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Phoenix and teaches writing workshops and classes in the metro area.
Visit Ms. Gassman at her Web site:
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