Placing well in a writing contest can be a huge boost for your career. Like a published clip, a contest win tells editors that you are a professional who puts out high-quality work. Unfortunately, winning a contest with a bad reputation or submitting to a contest that is nothing more than a clever scam can do more harm than good.
Choose your contests carefully. Deadlines, contact information, prizes and guidelines change daily -- and many contests cease to exist after one or two runs. If you buy a book that lists contests, make sure that the information is no more than one year old. If you're looking through online lists and classified ads, make sure that the links are no more than two months old. Take the time to follow links to web sites, or telephone the contest coordinator listed in a book. Contest web sites should have current deadlines, and a telephone call should yield an informed response to your questions.
Once you've chosen a few likely contests, you need to examine their reputation and legitimacy. Whether you're surfing a web site or calling the contest coordinator, there are a few questions you should get answers to before sending in your work.
1. Who are the judges? Judges should, at the very least, be professionals in writing or publishing. A professional -- especially a well-known professional -- is not likely to risk his or her reputation on an illegitimate contest. Moreover, respected judges add weight to your potential win.
2. How high is the entry fee? Most contests rely on the sale of anthologies to pay for expenses, but some subsidize their prize with an entry fee. For works of under 10,000 words, the entry fee shouldn't be higher than US $10. Exceptions might be if the judge is especially popular -- for instance, a high entry fee for a horror fiction contest judged by Stephen King would be more acceptable than for one judged by John Doe -- or if the prize is a very large cash purse. Even the smallest contests pull in 20 to 50 entries. If, at 50 entries, they would be earning ten times the prize they're paying out, send your work elsewhere.
3. What is the prize? Prizes vary greatly from contest to contest. A contest that offers only publication is suspect. A small contest offering publication on the web site will not be much of a credit, and there's a good chance that the coordinators are getting money from advertising revenue. A contest that offers publication in an anthology but doesn't give contributor copies or royalties is also suspect. They collect all the revenue from the publication of the anthology, and they expect to collect a lot of that revenue from "winners" who want copies of their work. Cash prizes should be proportionate to entry fees, and payable within a reasonable amount of time. Under no circumstances should it be the winner's responsibility to collect the purse in person, or pay to receive it.
4. What rights are requested?bYou should never lose rights to your material simply by submitting it to a contest. If your work doesn't win, you should still retain all rights to it. If it does win, you may be asked to license certain rights to the contest organization -- such as the right to publish the work in an anthology or on a web site -- but you should not lose all rights. If a contest asks you to forfeit the rights to your work if you win -- and especially if it claims any rights to submissions, whether they win or not -- stay away!
5. Who are the past winners? Unless the contest is on its first run, you should have access to a list of past winners. If it's feasible, try to contact the past winners and ask them about their experiences. If you can't contact them, ask the contest coordinator for references such as professional writers or publishers, or writers groups that the contest has dealt with in the past.
Entering and winning a writing contest can be a very gratifying experience. When you submit, pay close attention to deadlines and submission guidelines and edit your work carefully. As in all writing, be patient. You may not win the first contest you enter -- you may not win the tenth -- but that win will come with persistence. Many contests offer critiques as an entry prize, and you should take heed of the advice offered. Keep submitting, and when you do win you'll get compensation for your work and a valuable credit -- not to mention the satisfaction of being declared the best.
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