Why Bother With Writing Contests?

What’s the point of writing contests? Can they really help a writer’s career? Or are they just a waste of time and money?

I asked myself those questions recently as I evaluated whether to enter The Preacher’s Bride into contests. There are plenty of contests for both unpublished and published authors. Writer’s Digest has several throughout the year. Romance Writers of America has numerous contests both national and chapter. Amazon even has one: Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest (deadline Feb. 6).

Most contests for published authors require the book to have a copyright of the preceding year, usually the author’s most recent release. Because the copyright on The Preacher’s Bride is 2010, my book is now eligible for 2011 contests. Most contests for unpublished authors simply require the first 15-30 pages of a manuscript. Some don’t even require that the book be completed.

Each contest usually has a fee of anywhere between $25-$40 (sometimes higher). And published authors must send in three to five copies of their books for the judges.

But what benefits are there? Why bother?

Of course, everyone entering a contest hopes for a final which can help a writer’s career in many different ways. The Preacher’s Bride finaled in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers which helped me land my agent and subsequent book contract.

So, yes, finaling is an obvious benefit. There may not always be monetary prizes, but the recognition alone is well worth it. Finals, and especially winning, can help propel writing careers forward for both unpublished and published writers.

But not everyone will final. In fact out of those who enter, only a small percentage final. So does that mean contests end up being a waste of time and money for the majority of those who enter?

Are there other benefits contests can offer writers? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Benefits of contests for the Unpublished:

1. Inexpensive way to get objective feedback: I adamantly believe every writer needs to get outside feedback (meaning beyond family or friends) before pursuing publication. Freelance editors are a viable option, but often cost-prohibitive. Contests, on the other hand, can be (but not always) a way to get some initial objective feedback.

2. Learn how to handle negative feedback: Usually contests have a panel of judges who look at each entry. It’s highly unlikely that all the judges will find nothing wrong with a manuscript. Learning how to decipher feedback and getting criticism (some even hard) is all part of the process of growing as a writer.

3. Compare our skill level with others in our genre: Most contests have a point system and rank skill level in a variety of areas. This can be a good way to see where we fall in the “pack.” Lower to average numbers may indicate that we’re still very much in the beginning of the learning stages. Higher numbers could mean our skill level is nearing publication readiness (although not always).

Benefits of contests for the Published:
(My critique partner, Keli Gwyn, gave me these points when I asked her for advice.)

1. Gain new readers: Our judges may become fans and talk up our book to others.

2. Cost-effective marketing: A contest entry fee is a lot less than an ad but can get our name in front of a number of people and is a tax deductible business expense.

A few cautions for Unpublished when entering contests:

1. Confusion: Contest judges are subjective (just like everyone else). We need to be at a place in our writing careers where we already have confidence in our voice and skill level so that we can wade through the opinions and advice without losing ourselves.

2. Entering too soon in our writing careers: Judges need to be honest (as well as kind). When we’re too new in our writing, even tactful feedback can seem overwhelming and too critical. Such feedback has the potential to damage the fledgling confidence of newer writers who might be better off waiting until they’ve grown more before entering the contest circuit.

3. Focusing too much on the contest entry and not enough on the entire book. Anyone can spiff up the first chapter or two for a contest. It takes infinitely more work and skill to get the rest of the book just as polished. I’ve seen too many writers spend far too much time focusing on their contest entries, but they aren’t able to back up that entry with a viable, saleable book.

So what’s your opinion about contests? Are they largely a waste of money for the majority of writers who don’t final? Or do you think there are benefits even to writers who don’t final? If so, what?

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