Soon after someone starts writing, they’ll come across “writing contests”. If the writer doesn’t discover these themselves, well-meaning friends and family will start sending them links.
The contests themselves are offered by a broad array of organizations. Some you’ll have heard of, others you won’t. They prominently advertise the prize, usually a small sum of money and sometimes a commitment to publishing the winner and maybe the runners-up. They’ll highlight the judges, usually authors you’ve never heard of who are presented as if they’re people you should have heard of.
If comments are allowed with the announcement, you’ll see people tagging their writer friends with encouragement to enter. It all seems like a great thing for a new writer to give a shot!
In the fine print, you can start digging up the requirements. There might be some unifying theme or genre expectation, although at other times you can submit anything you want. There’ll be a submission deadline and submission requirements, usually with a fair tight number of words allowed.
Digging deeper, you finally get to the meat of the writing contest. You’ll find a “modest” entry fee. After you get over your confusion, you finally understand that they expect you to pay to enter. There might be a larger fee that will get you feedback from the ‘celebrity’ judges. Many times you’re allowed to enter as many times as you want (as long as you keep paying the fee).
What’s Going On Here?
New writers are struggling to establish themselves and understand the writing industry. Presented with a professional-looking website and set of rules, they naturally wonder if this is the way forward. The other people submitting must accept it. If they talk to other writers about paying money to enter contests like this, they’ll get some responses along the lines of “writing is a business and you need to invest in a business at the start”, “if you have confidence in your writing, you should be willing to bet on yourself”, or “they need the entry fees to fund the prize” (making the contest a lottery, I suppose).
You get similar, indignant defenses of vanity presses whenever they’re denounced. It’s sad when victims defend the con-artist who exploited them.
Perhaps a new writer will enter a few contests. They plunk down their money then don’t win, or pay for feedback that isn’t very useful to them. After a few such losses, their confidence is shaken and they start wondering if maybe they don’t have what it takes.
They’re wrong (or at least the contests aren’t giving them useful information). The contests exist to collect the entry fees and, in the vast majority of cases, are part of a large number of scams that exist solely to extract money from writers who dream of being read.
What About The Few Legitimate Contests?
Even the legitimate contests are poorly run and make some questionable decisions. One of the best-known writing contests, run by a church and endorsed by Neil Gaiman, had a judge who was selling writing courses on the side (wanna bet whether or not his students had an advantage?) Some writing contests are free to enter but are run by organizations selling writing software or services. Obviously, these are just marketing exercises where the contest’s purpose is to get contact information for leads that they then try to sell products or services to. Some contests require, as part of your entry, that you promote the organization running the contest on social media, turning the contest into cheap advertising for them.
What About The Award?
The award might go to one of the entries, or to a friend of one of the judges or people running the contest. Writers love to add to their biography that they won the such-and-such award or even add it as part of the cover on their books. Readers don’t care about these and, other than a few prestigious awards, other writers won’t be impressed either.
If a writer’s vanity requires an award, they should just get a friend to make up an award and give it to them. Such a made-up award is about as useful as the awards from most writing contests.
So I Can’t Enter Any Writing Contests?
Part of the beauty of being a writer is that you can do things in your own way. If someone understands what’s going on and still wants to enter a writing contest, power to them. It’s their money and time.
I would steer clear of any contests that charge any amount of money. Writers have far better uses for that cash than wasting it on a writing contest. If it’s free to enter and you’re willing to throw away the time involved, have at it.