Are writing contests legitimate?
Most of them are. If in doubt, Google the name of the contest and the name of the sponsoring person or group. If you find unhappy contestants, it might be best to stay away.
What’s the benefit of entering writing contests?
Some offer a good money prize, some arrange to have the winners’ entries considered by agents, publishers, or producers, some offer publication. Most don’t give you feedback on your entry, but a few do.
Some writers also find it useful to have a deadline, and find writing contests give them motivation to sit down and write.
Last but not least, winning or placing in a contest can be a nice indicator that you're on the right track. However, don't assume that not winning means your writing isn't good. Judging writing is very subjective and writing that might not even place in one contest could win first prize in another.
Does winning a contest get me more credibility with publishers, agents, or producers?
A handful are well-known and prestigious enough to get you some recognition. If you do an internet search you’ll get an idea of how much attention a particular contest gets.
The smaller contests won’t have any impact in this context.
What’s a reasonable entry fee?
That depends partly on how much money the winners get. If the entry fee is $25 and the first prize is $250, that’s not a great ratio. A lot of contests charge just enough of an entry fee to cover their costs. Some don't charge an entry fee at all.
Some advertise a big prize, but in the small print it says that they pro-rate the prize--that is, it's a percentage of the entry fees they receive, and that big number applies only if they get thousands of entries.
What are the dangers of entering writing contests?
Sometimes the contests may just be a way for the sponsor to get the names and emails of people to whom they then market services like editing, publishing, and workshops. If anybody tells you that your entry is almost good enough but you should hire them to help you edit or rewrite it, be wary. The same goes if they offer you a publishing contract that calls for you to pay for it.
One good source of information is the Writer Beware blog. They do a fine job of alerting people to questionable practices and companies and they have a section on contests and awards. It goes into more depth on the kinds of scams that sometimes are associated with contests.
If you feel pressured to buy any services, cut off communication and let the Buyer Beware blog know. If you have spent money on what turns out to be a scam, get in touch with your local law enforcement agency. Don’t be embarrassed if you were conned, it happens all the time, even to smart people.
What rights am I giving up if my entry wins?
That’s different for every contest, so do take the time to read the contest’s rules. Some contests claim the right to publish your material one time, others claim the rights to include your material in an anthology, etc. If you are not comfortable giving up the rights indicated in the contest’s rules and conditions, don’t enter.
A publisher that sponsored a contest wants to include my work in an anthology even though it didn't win. Is there a catch?
Probably. They tell you your story or poem is exceptional and they want to include it in an anthology they publish. In reality they'll publish every entry.
Sometimes you have to commit to buying a certain number of copies, sometimes not, but either way they make their money by selling copies to the authors not to the general public. Often these anthologies cost a lot, and they don't have any credibility with agents or legitimate publishers. Also, because they don't discriminate at all you may find your writing next to some really awful stuff.
Some contests put the winning entries or even all the entries on their web site. Will my work get stolen?
You have to weight the possibility of your work attracting attention from publishers, editors, and readers vs. the possibility of somebody taking your work, putting their own name on it, and passing it off as their own. This doesn’t happen all that frequently, but it does happen.
How can I check whether anybody has put my work on the internet under their own name?
One way to check is to take a unique phrase from your work and do a Google search for it. Don’t use a phrase that includes a character’s name because that’s the easiest thing for a thief to change with a simple “find and replace” command. So instead of Googling “Martina dropped the antique coin into the wishing well,” Google “dropped the antique coin into the wishing well”. If that particular phrase appears somewhere else on the internet, Google will lead you to it. Then you can see whether somebody has stolen your work or merely used the same phrase by coincidence.
Some contests ask you to write on a specific topic. Is it worth my time to do this?
That depends on whether you think you might be able to do anything else with the material if you don’t win. For instance, if the contest is for a short story based on a theme like betrayal or family conflict, that’s broad enough for you to be able to submit the short story to publications or make it part of a collection later if you don't win. Some ask you to write about a specific person or place, and those might be harder to market.
What if I have specific questions about a contest that’s not addressed in their rules or terms and conditions?
Email them. Most will be happy to clarify or give you additional information.
Where can I find out about writing contests?
I'm going to start listing some of them on this site, so go ahead and subscribe to this blog. I try to make sure that the contests I feature are legitimate but please use your own judgment as to which ones are worth your time and effort.
For friendly guidance from idea all the way through to publication, get my book, "Your Writing Coach," published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.