Are Contests Valuable to Writers?

Contests have been in the news lately.  A Texas woman sued Harlequin after they published a novel that she believed was stolen from her after she entered it in a contest.

She lost.  Her novel wasn’t completed and only a portion had been sent into the contest where Harlequin Romance may have supplied judges.

Agents aren’t necessarily impressed with contest results either.  Literary agent Chip MacGregor, whose recent post on contests is quite enlightening, is only swayed by them when the contest is a major one – such as Paris Literary Prize.

You should know, he doesn’t appear to be a fan of contests and absolutely detests judging them.  And I think it is fair to say that as writers, we shouldn’t wait for external validation in order to know our worth.  That being said, I have found that the few I have participated in were worthwhile.

For instance, following the rules set forth by the contest guidelines is a great way to learn how to self-edit.  Cutting pieces to fit into the allowable word limit has helped me enormously.  Maya Angelou once apologized for the length of an article saying, “If I had been allowed more time, I would have used fewer words.”

It also teaches patience.  When you send a piece off to a contest, it will usually be a while before you know anything.  The first time I entered one, I put the date the winners would be announced on the calendar and didn’t look at the site again until all those long months later.

It was agonizing.  I thought I had made a mistake.  They were going to hate it, of course they were.  I barely qualified to enter so why had I put myself in that position?

Imagine my delight when it was announced that I had received an honorable mention and that my story would be published on their site!  That taught me that hearing nothing for months is sometimes a good thing. Patience is a virtue.

It has also taught me to respect criticism.  If you are new to that concept, or a fragile writer, being critiqued can be daunting.  But sending it off to people who do not know you or have an axe to grind with you can be a marvelous thing.  It is not personal.  They do not hate you and are not jealous of you.  Listen to their comments.  Learn and adjust.  It is valuable.

Know why you are entering the contest though.  This is the ultimate tip.  Do not lose sight of your reasons for putting your work out there.  Many will enter, few will win or place.

And don’t spend a lot of money on entry fees.  A reading fee can be expected from time to time.  But one that I entered simply sent: “Your entry was not chosen as a winner.”  It was from a site that also sold things, such as writing lessons.  Curiously enough, I was then offered a discount on their classes – since I had entered their contest.  Whoa!  I guess I fell into that one.  I simply paid them to put my name and address on their sales list.

Now, I am a bit more savvy about the ones I enter.  It is rare and only about once or twice a year.  And I like to stick to ones that offer feedback.

How about you?  Have you entered a contest?  If you have, how did it work out for you?  If not, would you?

Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray.  She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food.  She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.   

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46 Comments

  1. We discussed this very topic at my writing group yesterday afternoon. Some of us had entered contests, some of us hadn’t. After comparing our lists of pros and cons to entering writing contests, we decided that in the end, it really depends on the contest! You make a good point though – it is a way to get completely impartial feedback on a manuscript.

    1. They vary. I might enter a non-fiction travel essay contest or a ‘first pages’ fiction contest, usually sponsored by a chapter of a writing group that I belong to. I have been contemplating the “So You Think You Can Write” contest sponsored by Harlequin. I bet they are being extremely careful about their judges now they had the lawsuit filed against them. How about you?

  2. I enter all the poetry “contests”. I am usually a “winner” and get my poem published in an anthology with 400 others and my copy for $60. Of course they are not contests at all but top value income generators for publisher(think minimum $60 x 400 at a production cost of $7 per book – wow). But it does allow one to grow “I’ve been published” portfolio for the consideration of more serious work by more serious publishers. At the very least the books make wonderful heirlooms for children and grandchildren. That is of course if they don’t use the pages to start the bar-b-q.

    1. I’m sure they are well-loved and kept far from any sparks. And congratulations. It sounds like you have had success with contests and have gotten your work into the hands of many others. I’d say $60 was a small price to pay for that!

    1. Ah, The Freshly Pressed Prize! You know, it doesn’t occur to me to even think about it although I have known bloggers who crave this and work it like a recipe. I’m glad you like the Maya Angelou quote. She says the smartest things in such a simple fashion and they instantly click. I find that I quote her regularly.

  3. Great Words to live by “…as writers, we shouldn’t wait for external validation in order to know our worth” ~applause~
    Congratulations on the honorable mention. Well done! 🙂
    I like your attitude and positive outlook on the benefit and value of writing experiences.
    Thanks for sharing your interesting and helpful thoughts and observations.

    I entered a poem in a contest once. It got an honorable mention… And then they offered me a chance to have it published in their $50.00 poetry book for $45.00. I never was sure if they were legit and I won my honorable mention on merit or for marketing. But I keep the certificate safely stored away anyway because it is one of the few validations of my writing that I have.

    1. Congratulations to you as well! I’m so glad you found something valuable in this post. You have such talent at everything you attempt – writing, crafts, gardening. I’m always impressed.

  4. I’ve never entered a contest, so can’t comment on the process…I don’t have a problem with being critiqued…just hasn’t been my focus. But you make some good points…editing, and anything that encourages editing, is helpful! Love the quote! ~ Sheila

    1. The quote is the star of the post as it turns out! Don’t you love Maya Angelou? And she lives about 50 miles from me. I’d love to have lunch with her and just listen to that voice reading from her books. That would be a real prize!

  5. For me, I’m put off by entering contests that result in automatic book contracts because the contracts seem to be written in such a way as to take away ultimate editing control from the author. In general, I don’t think they’re a bad idea per se–depends on the contest and on the writer, just like you said above.

    1. And as it turns out, unless it is a grand literary prize, agents and publishers normally aren’t terribly impressed even if you win. Mr. MacGregor says the pool from which the entries are judged against may be lackluster, therefore only making the winner the best of mediocre or worse. Oh, the paths we take…

  6. Good advice. I’ve entered a few over the years and am still awaiting my prizes ;). But forcing myself to cut to fit the word limit is always a good thing. Sometime it gives me a venue for trying new stuff. Sometimes I have a short fun piece that has no where to go.

    1. It does teach self-editing in a way that nothing else can. If you are limited to 2000 words, every single one has to be useful. It’s interesting that you mentioned trying new stuff. I often like to challenge myself to write something in a different genre – just to see if I can make it work. I wrote a YA for NaNoWriMo and have never considered myself a YA author. But it was such a great challenge.

  7. I like what you are doing here Renee 🙂 I have not entered any contests but you have given me good things to think about as I consider that possibility.

  8. I haven’t entered any contest, but I am thinking of submitting some of my short stories to magazines for publishing. If they do publish them, I view it as winning the contest.

  9. I’ve never entered a competition but I know I should start because as Carl said above it helps one to grow. I just don’t have time to write my blog and write for real…
    I have a subscription to Poets and Writers magazine. Do you know it? They list competitions in each issue.

    1. Yes, I get Poets and Writers. It’s a nice publication. And it is hard to write for blogs along with writing other pieces, especially when we work and have families, etc. Sometimes I have to take a few days away from the blog to really delve into something else that I’m working on. This weekend – it was called ‘yard work’. Ah, the chores…

  10. I’ve looked at some, but haven’t had anything that qualified on the ones I was interested in. I did enter some devotionals for a book, but not selected. I tend to get behind on reading and miss the dates or don’t have enough time to respond.

    1. Sometimes the guidelines can be daunting and very particular. But is important to follow their specifications, especially where the deadlines are concerned. Even if we don’t ‘win’ or ‘get selected’, don”t you think the process of entering is a learning experience in itself?

  11. I’m not one who enters writing contests …. and I doubt if i ever will be because I have no interest in doing so. However, i must agree with the self-improvement that you mention they bring out. …. and congratulations on your success and may future contests (if you desire) bring you greater success!

    1. They are not for everybody, but are a tool we can use. And following the specifications can zap the creativity out of us. You are a winner with me Frank, whether or not you ever choose to enter a contest.

  12. From my experience as a professional freelance writer of 20 years, I can definitely say that entering contests is good for your career and visibility. I am not of the competitive nature myself and rarely seek out contests, but I have seen the careers of colleagues who have won contests rise after significant wins. And in my own case, being a finalist in a national contest (my editor entered my piece) and being named a top travel blogger has definitely helped raise my visibility and credibility as well.

    1. Wow, Doreen, that is good information to have. Hearing about the success of yourself and other writers makes entering contests seem even more attractive. Thanks for the information.

  13. It would make you nervous to enter competitions if you felt your work previously submitted had been stolen. I have entered some writing competitions but none that ask you to pay to enter xx

  14. I’m not terribly motivated to enter contests. You make excellent points about being prepared for some fresh criticism, which would be a good thing, to be clear about what you hope to achieve, and also, to not spend a lot of money on contests. I’ve sent off a couple of short stories to a local magazine but if the entry fee is more than $5, I usually don’t bother. I do, however, enjoy writing challenges and prompts when I have the time to indulge in them. I find that they push me into new directions. They are a marvelous way to experiment.

  15. I had published one book, when I entered a contest sponsored by a local writing organization. I didn’t expect to have my essay chosen—perhaps because when I was ten I sent a short story to a children’s magazine, and I still have the rejection letter. However, I was delighted when I was one of the contestants whose essay was selected to be included in the anthology. The anthology was published later, and now I am inspired to enter other contests. There were no cash prizes, but that was okay with me.

  16. I had published one book when I entered a contest sponsored by a local writing organization. I didn’t expect to have my entry selected—perhaps because when I was ten I sent a short story to a children’s magazine and I still have the rejection letter. However, I was pleasantly surprised when my essay was one of the ones chosen to be included in the anthology they published. There were no cash prizes, but that is okay as I am inspired to try again with other contests.

  17. I think we have to be aware that any competition involving a handful of judges is unpredictable. The people who choose the winners are human beings, and almost certainly, a different group of judges would pick a different group of winners. I like your idea, Renee, of learning something from the experience, win or lose.

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