Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Writers Beware: Writing Contests

For many (if not most) of us, this writing gig is a tough one. There are many reasons for this difficulty, not the least of which is that early on, as we are learning the craft, the rewards are sometimes few and far between. (The fact that my mother, bless her loving heart, thinks I’m brilliant only carries me so far). As the rejection slips pile up and year after year passes by, it is quite easy and only natural to become discouraged. A little validation from the outside world would be nice. Maybe even some encouragement from people who don’t know us.

Of course, publication and inclusion on one or more of the best seller lists would satisfy nicely, but for most of us, that just isn’t realistic until we’ve spent several years (or decades) figuring out how, exactly, to best turn these ideas and images in our head into captivating, memorable prose and poetry. So what do we do for encouragement in the meantime?

One option many writers have chosen is to enter writing contests. There are thousands of them out there: poetry contests, short story contests; contests for recently published books, self-published books, and unpublished books; regional contests and contests for every genre you can think of (and quite a few you’ve never heard of). In short, if you’ve written something, there is a contest is is eligible for.

Contests are enticing for several reasons. They, and how your work finishes in the competition, can give you a good idea of how your work stacks up against similar works out there. Winning a contest, or even being given an “honorable mention” can be a great ego boost and potentially a point in your writer’s resume. Winning or placing in a contest can also be a major selling point to your work, particularly if you are nowhere near a household name.

However, all is not rainbows and chocolate truffles in the world of writer’s contests. Because so many writers are out here, all hoping to make names for themselves and wanting to see how good their writing really is, a certain class of individual had jumped into the process. Scammers. They prey on the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers with no purpose other than to take their money.

Writers beware indeed.

I ran into a classic one not too long ago. I saw an ad for a “World’ Best” poetry contest in the local weekly newspaper. There was no entry fee and an address in state. I decided to enter, just to see what happened. A couple of months later, I received an envelope in the mail containing a certificate naming my poem an “honorable mention” winner. My poem would be included in the “World’s Best Poetry” anthology, which I could buy at the discounted price of twenty U.S. Dollars.

No, I did not buy the anthology. I’m fairly sure every single poem they received won “honorable mention” and was included in the anthology. The entire purpose was to sell copies to people who wanted to see their name in print.

There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. For many people, it’s worth twenty dollars to see their poem in a published book. However, should I include that contest among my writing credentials in a query to an agent, she would laugh in my face. It holds zero professional credibility. If you’re trying to build a reputation as a professional writer, contests like this do not help.

Others are even worse. Some have entry fees: $50, $75, even $100. This buys you the opportunity to buy a roll of stickers you can attach to your book cover. Others simply use the contest to try to sell you their editing, or self-publishing services. In other words, they tell you you’re talented and could be one of their “featured” writers, if only you agree to send them even more money. Worst of all, like the contest I entered, these contests hold no credibility in the larger literary and publishing world.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are good contests out there, respected, legitimate competitions that would genuinely garner people’s attention, should you win them. After all, Nobel, Pulitzer, and the National Book Award are all writing contests of a sort.

So how do you tell the good contests from the scams? Research, primarily. Go online and see whether a contest you’re thinking about has any reviews or participants’ opinions. There are also some things to watch out for: entry fees. Many legitimate contest have no entry fees at all. Those that do are not all that expensive because their primary purpose is not to make money. Another clue is how long the contest has been around. The most legitimate contests have been around for a while; the scammers tend to close up shop more often. Third, who are the judges? Most legitimate contest either name the judges, or make it easy to find out who they are; scammers never name the judges. Often, they probably don’t exist. The last item to check is who exactly is sponsoring the contest? Many legitimate contests are run or sponsored by a legitimate literary entity: a journal or magazine; a college; a writers organization (such as the PEN/Faulkner Award); or an arts organization. Most scams are run by some organization that sounds proper, but often just a name.

You can also check with writers’ fact-checking sites like “Writer Beware.” They offer one stop clearing houses of all scams and questionable people taking advantage of the writing community.

So do your research before entering a contest and remember the silver rule: “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.” Good luck on all contests you do enter and good writing to all.


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