Contests: The Value Beyond the Prize

Do you enter writing contests?  I ask because writers have differing views on whether it’s of value to their career.  The value of entering writing contests is far more significant than just trying to win a cash prize or bragging rights.


Let me share what I’ve learned about entering contests.

1 – Contests are practice for writing to a deadline.

Deadlines were created to give the writer a mark at which to aim.  Setting a specific date to receive a manuscript, or specific chapters of a work, allows editors and publishers to plan their projects and fill their publishing schedule.

Any writer who wants to go big-time must learn to complete his work before the given deadlines.  Writing contests provide the writer with opportunities to practice meeting short deadlines.  Many of the contests I find are ongoing at the time I read the rules.  This means I may have only a month or less to write, edit, rewrite, and submit my entry.  It also means I become better at estimating what I can accomplish in a specific timeframe.  As I grow more comfortable estimating how long it takes to complete stories of a certain length, I use this knowledge to decide whether or not I should attempt an entry in specific contests.


2– Contests teach you to frame a story within a given word count.

Beginning writers, especially, tend to write long and large.  They sigh with satisfaction while eyeing their 1,000 page, single-spaced manuscript.  When they submit their baby to an editor, and receive a curt note explaining that the imprint only publishes manuscripts from 70,000 – 100,000 words in length – well, let’s just say, it’s nearly impossible for them to murder their babies by cutting words to meet requirements.

Choosing a variety of contests allows the writer a chance to experiment with writing complete stories in 5,000 words, 2,500 words, 250 words… or even, six words.

The word count discipline of writing contests builds the writer’s confidence and ability to tell his story with exactly the right amount of words.


3- Contests teach you to read.

Okay, they teach you to read and follow instructions.  How’s that?

The rules of every contest are different, and more important, they are specific about the desires of the contest sponsors.  If the rules state the writer must submit her story of no less than 287 words, but no more than 431 words, any story with a word count outside those parameters will be disqualified.  It won’t matter if this story grabs the reader and wrings every emotion from him, engages his attention throughout the entire adventure, or creates worlds of fantasy unrivalled by any known author.  If the story does not meet the requirements stated in the rules, the writer fails her very first test.

If the contest sponsor requires the story be submitted on foolscap and written by hand in purple ink, using a duck quill… the smart writer is at the library within the hour researching how to make foolscap and where the nearest duck farm can be found.


4 – Contests may have (nice) cash prizes.

Admit it, a few hundred dollars would come in handy for adding to your reference-book shelf.

Yes, some contests have entry fees, and you’ve heard that the money is supposed to come to the author, not the other way around.  Well, consider each contest fee carefully against your personal financial situation, and if the prize money is a hefty offset to the entry fee, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth the investment.  (Remember, by now you’ve been practicing meeting deadlines, writing within a specific word count, and reading and following the rules.  What do you have to lose?)


5 – Contests are often judged by well-known authors, poets, editors, or agents.

If your writing impresses the judges, and depending on how much time they can devote to the contest entries, you may receive critiques or advice that help you improve your writing and increase your chances not only to win the next contest you enter, but to reach publication beyond the contests.

Anytime you can put your best work in the hands of someone in the industry… well, enough said.


6 – Contest winners are often published.

Sometimes more than once.  That’s right.  The contest sponsor may publish the winning story (and often the finalists) online or in print.  Those stories may end up in anthologies, or be picked up by other publications.  In most cases, the writer may not even have to submit her story elsewhere to have it republished.


7 – Contests add to your portfolio.

So you’ve finished and polished your story well before the deadline.  You are right on the word count.  Your homemade foolscap would fool historical experts, and your purple ink is absolutely royal in aspect.  You’ve met every contest requirement and have reached the judges’ desk.

One day, long after you’ve forgotten you entered, you open an email, or a snail-mail, that informs you that you have won the contest!  Hurray, party time, celebrate, call all your friends and family.

And once the party is over, hurry back to your desk.  Add the contest and the prize you received to a new line on your portfolio.  Every line in your portfolio allows agents, editors and publishers to see your work as enriched by experience and effort.

The last contest I entered was the Words with Jam First Page Competition 2013, judged by best-selling author Sue Grafton.  My entry, First You Survive, was short-listed.  To read the winning entries go on over to the Words with Jam and enjoy the stories.


What’s the last contest you entered, and why did you choose it?  Share some great writing contests with us – leave a comment.