Contests are a great way to get your foot in the door. They look great on a resume too. Getting published by some online publication that no one has ever heard of is one thing: winning a contest (even an obscure one) means you at least had enough talent to be chosen.
But here’s the catch. Contests come in all shapes and sizes. Some are so poorly run, or badly disorganized that they never actually get around to picking a winner. Don’t laugh: its happened to many writers I know, including yours truly. Others are pure scams: the winner is someone the editor owes a favor to, or worse, a relative.
So how do you distinguish the good from the bad? This is particularly important given that contests often have very specific guidelines, and thus a contest submission often takes more time than your average query letter. Here are some time honored traditions that freelance writers use to decide whether a contests is worthy of submission.
AVOID ALL CONTESTS THAT CHARGE SUBMISSION FEES
This is one rule that NOT everyone lives by. Some writers have no problem dishing out five or even ten dollars per submission, if they think they have a good chance of winning even more money.
Others, however, swear by this rule. Their point is simple. They have already spent loads of time and energy writing, not to mention a significant amount of money in stamps, paper and ink. Many writers feel that any contest that asks for money is a dishonest one: they’re not interested in your submission, they’re interested in your submission fee.
The choice, ultimately, is up to you. But remember this: if a magazine needs your $5 submission fee to stay afloat, its probably not much of a magazine, and therefore not much of a contest.
THEY GOTTA TALK THE TALK
Some contests don’t even try to sound professional. They’re just broadcasting the fact that submitting to them is probably a waste of time. Often writers use colloquial expressions, humor, profanity and other cheap tricks to get your attention. Run, don’t walk from contests like these. A reputable contest doesn’t need a hook to get your attention; they rely on reputation.
Contests worth submitting to generally use similar language. Some buzz words to look for are: “3rd Annual,” “reprints welcome” “SASE” “winners notified on or before July 7th” “judging will be done by a six person panel” “see website for details.” Also, reputable contests often mention author’s rights (first time, non-exclusive, etc.) and they almost always mention when and where the story will be published. And if there’s a cash prize to be won: they’ll tell you exactly what it is.
Think about it. If you were running a contest for the sole purpose of gathering submission fees, you’d put as few restrictions on it as possible. On the other hand, if you cared about getting great submissions, you’d make the make your advertisement very specific, to weed out inappropriate submissions.
Freelance writers play the numbers game. They submit, submit, submit, and let someone else worry about whether their submission fits the category or not. Contests know this, and they often ask for specifics like: two hard copies, an author bio, or an entry form, in order to weed out lazy submitters. Furthermore, they often put very strict guidelines on their contests: word counts, specific restrictions on subject matter, and concrete deadlines.
The reverse is also true: a vague contest is usually a bad one. Be wary of contests that say things like: “Submissions accepted year round” “Awards are between $5 and $100,” or “Winners receive exposure and/or monetary compensation.”
Above all, go with your gut instinct. Be a smart shopper. You’re used to being ripped off when you go shopping, and as a result, you’re wary of deals that seem to good to be true. The same is true of writing contests. Approach a contest the same way you’d approach a used car dealer. Not all used car dealers are cheap; but its better to play it safe. It’s the same way with writing contests.