Should You Enter Writing Contests?

It’s Thursday and I want to bring you a strictly opinionated post today. The subject matter is something I hold true and is not touted as “the correct answer”, so be warned to take with grains of salt!

I’ve talked about submitting short stories and the like to editors for magazines, e-zines, journals, anthologies. Most of the time submitting stories for publication consideration to these types of things is free, costing only time and effort. If they’re not free, it’s usually the price of postage for snail-mail and printing your story for the more old-fashioned publications.

But writing contests are a whole different ball-game. A writing contest is usually a one-time event. It may see your story published at some point as a reward for winning the contest, but likely it will be available on whatever space you submitted the story to for the contest and you will receive some form of payment.

Where I have a problem with writing contests versus publication submissions is that a writing contest often has an entrance fee to submit your story. It may be a token payment, like $5, or it may be more substantial, like $25 or more.

So now you’ve written a story that you think may be publishable, but now you have to put some skin in the game if you want it to be considered for some writing contests.

You have to pay someone to decide your story isn’t good enough.

Now, it should be apparent that I feel strongly against writing contests that have entry fees, but they’re not all bad. Some are reputable competitions run by respected publishers or companies and they are merely seeking to recoup the costs of running the contest.

Most people who are submitting stories are not good enough to be paying for the right to submit stories, so they shouldn’t be doing it. Just like any other competition that requires you to pay for the privilege of competing against other people who’ve paid to compete, there’s a level of professional skill that you should have acquired before you start down that path.

But here’s the rub. Writing contests often don’t have a substantial prize for the winners, and if you are a non-placing loser you often get nothing. A similar competition is a poker tournament that a player must pay some token amount to play. But the winnings for the top players are often substantial, and so the gamble is worth it to many people who are probably not quite skilled enough to make it that far.

Similarly with fee-contests, if you’re not good enough to place, you probably shouldn’t be paying for the privilege. And if you are good enough to place, there’s a hundred different venues these days to get your stories out there for free and considered for publication. If you’re good enough to place in a paid contest, you’re good enough to get paid for your writing without having to pay someone first.

I’m not even claiming it’s a scam. Certainly some writing contests are a little questionable, but that doesn’t mean they all are, or even most of them. I’m just saying that you need to know your skill level and you shouldn’t be looking to spend money in the extreme off-chance you’ll make a tiny bit more money.

Choose your submission places wisely, and always remember to write the hell on!

3 thoughts on “Should You Enter Writing Contests?

  1. Thanks for your opinion Rick, and you know what they say about opinions! So here’s where I’ve always hesitated–how do I know if I’m ready to get published if I’ve never submitted anywhere before? Let’s say I feel I’ve got a story that stands out and is truly ready. Now I have to do the hard work of sending it out (say for free) and getting a dozen different opinions on it, and get rejected. So I send out another story, and another, and on and on. How do you figure out if it’s crap and you are deluded, or the editors just don’t want that particular piece?

    I graduated high school in ’92. In the 90’s, to get a job the experts were still saying to send your résumé everywhere. But what they were finding (and I was too) was that it’s a crapshoot, and a lot of work for the return. Within a decade nobody was doing that anymore. They were networking, and indeed that is exactly how I got 3/5 of my last jobs since 2003, without the proper skills (the last two were because of skills I gained at the first 3). Point being, blasting your stories doesn’t necessarily do anything. But kissing butt doesn’t improve your writing and get you published either.

    On the other hand, self-publishing doesn’t mean you have a great story–you might just be a good sales person.

    So maybe it’s better to hone in on the venues that most reflect one’s writing skills, style, genre before submitting? What do you think?

    • You pose some interesting points, Gene!

      To start with, you’re absolutely right that the market isn’t kind to blindly blasting your work out there. Knowing where to submit to, and who to make friends with, are extremely important in getting anywhere with publishing in any kind of expedient manner. But despite that, you still have a body of work and a need to continue making your work better while you’re pursuing submissions.

      It’s not a simple, cut-and-dry situation, unfortunately. Everything interweaves and connects and the tapestry that forms is unique to every person. It’s the classic Catch-22 of requiring experience for entry-level jobs despite having no experience in your field of study because entry-level jobs won’t hire you until you get experience.

      I view it as a balancing act. If you’re struggling against Pro paying markets ($0.05 a word and above) and getting nowhere, nor getting any actionable feedback, you may need to step back and evaluate your own work again. You can go after semi-pro markets that pay usually $0.01 to $0.04 a word, and if you try with that for a while and still don’t get anywhere, there’s a lot of free venues that you can put your work out there for. I hesitate to let other people publish my work without offering me some kind of payment for it, but it’s a valid situation for many people.

      The exposure early on may lead to making valuable contacts, and those contacts may lead you to landing some stories somewhere, or at the very least they may help as a mentor of sorts in getting you through a barrier and into the next level of author creation, so you can start pursuing paying markets with more confidence and experience than you did before.

      Going the self-publishing route can bypass all of that, but for 99% of self-publishers (myself included), you still have to do all that work in making contacts and networking and establishing a fanbase. And if you don’t have something that someone out there likes, you’re not going to manage to make any money.

      Honing in on the venues that reflect your skill, style, and genre is extremely important. One of the things that many fiction magazines and anthologies talk about when it comes to rejecting stories is that the stories are very commonly just not a good fit for the publication, even though they’re good stories. If you can find your market, you have a much better chance at penetrating it.

      All of this is to say that networking is exceptionally vital, but I don’t necessarily equate paying to have your work reviewed for publication or a contest prize as the same thing.

      No matter what, you’re going to do a lot of work, question yourself constantly, and struggle as you grow until one day you’ll realize that all that struggle has given you the experience you need, if you can just communicate that to people. Whether that’s through the submissions themselves or through the way you comport yourself in conversations and networking, it’s all a skillset you have to build.

      I just don’t think paying for the privilege is worth it when there are so many good, free avenues for you to pursue your submissions. When I say there’s a hundred free venues for you to explore, it wasn’t to suggest that you should just blindly submit to all of them. You’ll do everyone, starting with yourself, a big favor by hunkering down and doing some research before you ever submit to a publication.

      Hope you’re doing well, Gene!

      • Thanks Rick, I have to agree with everything you said. I’ve considered contests, but the entry fee I’d have to pay each time to go against truly prize-winning authors is a tough match. I keep an eye on Glimmer Train whose contests and submission prices are relatively low. I just don’t think my stories are a right fit yet there. I keep looking around and editing stories. At some point the path will become clear. I’m well, hope you are too!

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