In the writing life, there’s always tension between entering writing contests and submitting to literary journals regularly. It seems easy enough to choose: the former usually costs money, the latter doesn’t.
So are contests a bum deal? And when looking at a contest, what makes it worthwhile?
Writing contests can be a great thing for writers and journals, and they have popped up everywhere in the last five years. Journals like Glimmertrain run several every year and they come in all shapes and sizes, from a contest for the worst opening line for a an unwritten novel to a contest for the best unpublished novel.
It’s a win-win for most journals. They generate money, subscriptions (often your entry fee gets you a year of the journal), and interest among writers. Here’s what to consider when evaluating whether to enter:
1. Who Goes There? There’s a million contests and more than half are scams that prey on newbies. As long as there are people who want to publish some charlatan will be out there trying to separate them from their cash.
Never heard of the journal? Check around, read samples online, and be sure to ask around before you write the check.
2. Calculate Your Pot Odds. Some contests are free and pay the winners. Seriously. Those are the gold standard, but expect that they will receive thousands of entries. It’s like the lottery. Send it in, but don’t get your hopes up.
If you have to pay a fee, weigh that against the payment for winning and the popularity of the contest. The equation goes like this: small contest + small entry fee + decent award = solid investment. Conversely, large contest + high entry fee + high award = risky investment.
Also, some contests hold a reading with the winners. If so, that publicity is just as valuable as any money you receive.
3. Win, Lose, or Draw. Even in a small contest you’re unlikely to win (cue the sad violin music) so what do you get instead? This isn’t “Jeopardy!” and there’s no fun parting gifts.
Often you get a subscription, which is a great way to read more current stories and get a feel for the journal’s aesthetic.Plus, you’re supporting the arts. If you’re feeling brave, try to read the winning entries. See what they did well and what lessons could help your writing.
4. We’re Perfect For Each Other. Lastly consider whether you already have a story that matches the contest’s theme or rules (i.e. length, type of story, etc.) If not, consider the deadline and whether you can turn out a story in time.
Contests can provide excellent inspiration and deadlines. And pressure can push you to write a story you never expected.
5. Rules Are Made to be Broken. Think so? Then save your time, money, and postage because your story is going to be disqualified. Don’t think you’re a diva. Don’t send a depressing story to a “Tell Us an Inspiring Story” contest. Don’t send a 3,000-word story to a contest that limits entries to 2,000 words. Don’t do it or even think about doing it.
In short, read the rules, read them again, then follow them. You may have written the best entry, a real page-turner, but it doesn’t make a bit of difference if they toss it out unread. And, believe me, it happens.
Good luck and if you have a favorite contest or contest trick, toss it in the comments.