Writing Contests: To Pay or Not to Pay that Entry Fee

by Ed Davis on November 14, 2012

mailbox image by Seattleye http://www.flickr.com/photos/seattleye/2543406006/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Familiar Story

We who play the writer’s sweepstakes game know the feeling. You find this contest that seems to have been conceived to reward your kind of writing.  You enter with high hopes, beating the deadline by at least ten minutes. Then you wait. And wait some more. Finally you fire off a query, and the sponsors send you an e-mail with the winners’ names (yours conspicuously absent). Not only did you not win, but the sponsors didn’t even bother to inform you! You receive exactly nothing for your investment of time, money and hope.

Ah, contests:  the pain and the glory. I’ve entered many and won a few, and I quickly learned what to expect.  Since entering writing contests can be expensive and time-consuming, I’ve got two primary pieces of advice:  “Target the Market” and/or “Go Local.”

Do Your Homework

I’ll get back to my two points in just a moment. First, the opposite:  going national.  Anytime you enter a national competition, you should know that you’re up against serious (and numerous) competitors, perhaps hundreds of writers with credentials, experience and a LOT of talent. How do you know if you’re ready for that?  Experience, of course, including research.

I recommend studying Poets & Writers magazine and getting a taste and feel for what’s being published, where and by whom (very intimidating). If you think you’re ready to submit, then seek the opinions of published writers who write and publish the kind of stuff you do.  Let them tell you when you’re ready to go national (you might have to attend a conference, take a class and pay them).  You can throw a lot of money away if you don’t have any idea what you’re doing. For instance, there’s no sense submitting genre fiction to a contest that clearly only rewards ultra-literary work or the sponsors’ friends.

Contests Galore

If you’re a beginner, or even intermediate writer, why not achieve some modest success on the local level first?  Any city of any size has an active writing/reading community and offers contests.  Dayton, Ohio, is no exception. My former employer Sinclair Community College has sponsored a writing contest for over thirty-five years; while the cash prizes are modest, one’s work is always nicely published, there’s a great banquet and several past winners have gone on to fame and glory.

The Dayton Metro Library also has an annual contest (check with them for details).  Also, the local literary journal Mock Turtle co-sponsored a poetry contest with Antioch Writers Workshop (AWW) in 2011, whereby I won a full scholarship to AWW’s annual conference last July. Furthermore, the Dayton Daily News offers an annual short story/poetry contest, also in conjunction with AWW (info about last year’s contest; check the website later for 2013 info).  Except for Sinclair, none of the above required an entry fee—and Sinclair’s fee is low.  Such contests are publicized in local newspapers and newsletters and sometimes flyers in bookstores and libraries.

True, local contests do not carry nearly the prestige of winning ANY national contest, but they do have other perks. The Mock Turtle/AWW prize above was worth at least $600 in workshop tuition—nothing to sneeze at for a single poem!  (And I had a wonderful time at this extremely well-run, national-quality workshop.)  Plus, winning and being published locally means that there’s a greater chance your friends, family and co-workers will see and read your work. During a tough day, it’s nice to pass someone at work who says, “Hey, your story in the Daily Snooze rocked!”

Hit the Target

By “targeted,” I mean a contest where, due to membership in a special group, ethnicity and/or geography, you’ll have an advantage (these contests can be local or national).  I am, among other things, an “Appalachian” writer by virtue of being born and raised in West Virginia; my “rootsy” works make me eligible for contests limited to “Appalachian” writers.  Peruse the ads in Poets & Writers and you’ll see announcements for contests targeted to residents of certain states, under-thirty or over-fifty writers, and other demographics.  Thus, you’ll only be competing against others in that group, and some of them are targeted enough to be pretty small, greatly increasing your chances of winning.  When I write my check for such a contest, I’m usually convinced I have a pretty good chance of actually winning.

typewriter image by HeavenlyCabins http://www.flickr.com/photos/31693711@N08/3029785927/Of Judges & Manuscripts

It doesn’t hurt to consider the judges (if they’re named) and what their interests are. If they’re published (and they should be, or have academic credentials), Google their publications and see if your work is anything like theirs. This may not always be an indicator; winning usually depends on simply the quality and quantity of entrants, but studying the judge might give you a nudge one way or the other. Choose carefully, then take the plunge!

Of course I must point out that the only thing the writer really has control over is the MANUSCRIPT itself—so of course it must be the absolute best you can do. At the very least its mechanics must be perfect.  Revise, revise, revise—with the help of your writing community and/or teachers.  You don’t want to be instantly eliminated due to your spelling or use of a hard-to-read font. (Also, follow submission instruction to the letter. I was always shocked, while judging Sinclair’s contest, at how many entrants failed to submit the fee, exceeded length or other requirements.)

“Third Best”

After writing and entering contests for over 30 years, I finally won a national contest for fiction writers:  the annual Hackney Award for the novel in 2010.  Way back in the 1980s, I submitted my first completed novel to the Hackney; it didn’t win, but the manuscript was returned with a penned note on the first page:  “Judged third best.”  On another more recent entry, best-selling novelist Lee Smith wrote one word:  “Wow.” Each comment, coming at vastly different points in my writing career, meant a lot.  You can see why I submitted to the Hackney again, 30 years later, and why I’m still submitting the story that earned Smith’s small but significant compliment.

What to Avoid, What to Seek

Of course there are things to avoid:  cronyism, contests whose judges seem to publish their friends (be sure submissions are “blind”—no names on manuscripts); and contests whose entry fees are out of line with the offered prizes, e.g., an entry fee of $25 for a mere $50 prize.  (So far I’ve never entered a contest costing more than $30). Unless you really need the money, it may be more rewarding to submit to contests that offer publication or some combination of publication and money. While I regret the Hackney Award did not include publication, I can, however, now mention the prize in my cover letter as I continue to submit the novel.

Personally, I prefer contests that reward several, not just a single, writer; and those that guarantee writers at least something for their money:  a subscription to a journal or a copy of the compilation of winning work (which can be enjoyable, educational and supportive of the art you profess to love).


It’s good to have some humility, too. Try not to resent winners, when they ain’t you!. “Resentment,” says one of  Ann Lamott’s characters in her novel Rosie, “is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the [person you resent] to die.” Amen. Life is too short to waste a moment on envy. I should know; I’ve wasted many.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Geoffrey Porter November 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm

I’ve never entered a contest, and while it’s tempting, I doubt I ever will. I knew this woman, and she was all proud of winning a contest, but I don’t think they had many entries, because I read their story and I was not impressed at all…

I guess that kind of thing in general bothers me, a market that is on a deadline, they have to publish x stories every month or every three months. Daily Science Fiction is like that, 5 stories a week get published, and I think sometimes they publish sub par stories to meet their quota, granted they published one of mine, so maybe I shouldn’t say that… I just feel like with a contest there are gonna be far fewer submissions, so there may not be a really good selection of stories to choose from…

I’ve considered holding a contest in my fiction magazine, but the headache overall I don’t think would be worth it… The biggest part of it would be processing electronic transactions to collect the money, and I don’t know if merchant accounts would really allow a contest kind of scenario…


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