Everything You Need to Know Before Entering a Writing Contest

Submitting to a writing contest can be a great opportunity. With prizes often in the thousands plus publication, there’s the chance for big money and big exposure.

Of course, the odds aren’t in your favor. Any writing contest with a big prize purse is getting hundreds, if not thousands of submissions. If you want to win, your entry is going to have to be incredible, and you probably also need to be a little lucky.

Unfortunately, there are also some bad writing contests out there. Given that most writing contests require an entry fee (usually between $10 and $25), you need to be sure you are only submitting to reputable contests that actually give every entrant a fair chance to win based purely on the merit of the writing.

Before you submit to any writing contest, you need to do your research. Otherwise, you might just be throwing money away, not to mention wasting your precious writing time. To make sure that doesn’t happen, let’s explore the things you should consider before entering a writing contest.

First, a little about my writing contest qualifications

Before we get too far into this, I’m going to spend just a paragraph explaining why you should listen to me when it comes to writing contests. So here it is: as managing editor at Bartleby Snopes, I ran my own writing contest for 8 years. During that time, we received over 3,500 entries and awarded over $12,000 to our winners. Every dollar was accounted for, every submission was read fairly, and every entrant received a timely response regarding the status of their submission. I received one complaint during those 8 years, and that was from someone who accused me of being sexist because all five winners from our blind-read contest were male that particular year. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that 7 of our 10 winners in the final two years of the contest were women.) So if you can put that one complaint aside, then you can call me something of an authority on writing contests. So let’s get on with it.

Everything you need to consider before submitting

Obviously you need to know the rules and make sure you follow them all to a T so your entry isn’t disqualified. Here are the big things you might not have thought about before entering a writing contest.

Where the entry fee goes

If you’re paying to enter the contest, you should know where your money goes. Does it fund the prize money? Does it pay for contest advertising? Does it go to support other projects? Is it a payment for a guest judge of some significant esteem? Does it line the pockets of some rich editor who is only out to make a buck at your expense? If you don’t know where the money is going, there’s a good chance the contest is a scam, especially if there are thousands of $20 entrants for a $500 prize! A good contest will explain why there is an entry fee and where that money goes. You should especially be wary if one publication is holding a bunch of contests at once or in quick succession. This is a good sign that they’re more interested in making money off writers than in supporting writers.

The contest timeline

The contest should clearly post milestone dates, including when the contest ends, when winners will be notified, when non-winners will be notified, and when winners will be announced. That’s at the very least. It’s also good to know when your entry will be read. Will they read entries as they come in, or will they wait until all entries are received and the submission window has closed? Not that one is necessarily better than the other, but that information should be made obvious to you because you deserve to know how your entry will be handled. It’s also important to know how many rounds of judging there are and exactly what the judging process is like.  If there’s no timeline, don’t submit. If the timeline is very long, then submit cautiously, keeping in mind that this particular piece of writing is going to be tied up for a long time.

Who the judges are

Speaking of judging, who is going to be reading your submission? It’s important that you know who the judges are so you can get a sense of their tastes. Many contests will bring on bigger-name writers to be a judge. Most of the time, these writers are getting some type of payment for serving as a judge. This certainly isn’t a bad thing (just think of it as a type of advertising). You don’t need to know how much they’re getting paid, but you do need to know who the judges are and what they are looking for in the contest. It’s even better if the judges share some tips on what they are looking for in a winning entry. If you can’t find any information on the judges, don’t submit.

Whether or not your entries will be read blind

Are the judges going to see your name before they read your submission? If so, don’t enter. A contest with that kind of bias isn’t going to end well for you unless you know someone at the contest or you have a name they want to publish. Make 100% sure that all entries are read blind before you submit to any writing contest. And then make sure you follow their guidelines and don’t put your name in the body of your entry. This will often disqualify you from the contest (and you probably won’t get your entry fee back).

How winners (and non-winners) will be notified

We touched on this briefly a couple points ago, but let’s get into some more details. You have the right to know exactly how you will be notified about the status of your submission whether you win or not. If you are expected to check their Facebook page every day for the next six months, that’s a sign that you don’t want to submit. They should make it easy for you to know if you’ve won or not. After all, you’re paying money to enter their contest. At the very least, you should receive an email indicating whether or not you’re a finalist. I’ve been seeing a lot of reports lately about contests not bothering to notify non-winners about the status of their submissions. When I ran writing contests, I always notified non-winners immediately when their entry was out of the running.

When you can read this year’s winners

If you’re spending time and money to enter a contest, you probably want to see who actually won the contest. The contest rules should explicitly state when the winners will be revealed and when they will be available for public consumption. If there’s no plan for when and how the winning entries will be published, then you don’t want to enter.

How and when the prizes will be awarded

You want to make sure that you are on board with how prizes will be sent to winners. If they only pay with PayPal and you have some type of moral opposition to PayPal, you probably shouldn’t enter. If they only pay via check in the United States, then don’t enter if you live in another country. You also want to be certain that prizes will be paid out in a timely manner. If they don’t plan to pay you for twelve months after the winners are announced, then there’s a good chance you’ll never get paid at all. We always sent out prizes within a week of notifying the winners (often the same day). If it’s more than a month, you should have some doubts.

How many people will likely submit (ignore for a first-year contest)

With any contest, you should be able to see your approximate odds. Since a writing contest is subjective, it’s impossible to give exact odds. 1,000 submissions doesn’t exactly mean your odds are 1000 to 1. But knowing approximately how many entrants can help you see the value of the contest. You might be less likely to spend $25 to enter a contest that has 10,000 entrants when there’s an opportunity to submit to a $10 contest with 500 entrants, depending on the prize money, of course. While these numbers can change wildly based on the popularity of the contest during a particular year, it’s good to see some estimates. Then you’ll have some idea of what you’re up against.

Where you can read previous winners

Speaking of what you’re up against, where can you read last year’s contest winners? If you can’t access them anywhere, then you shouldn’t submit to the contest. If it’s a short story or poetry contest, you should be able to read past winners for free. If it’s a novel or collection contest, then you should at least be able to see excerpts from past winners and have easy access to buy the books if you want (if they’re out of print already, then it’s definitely a no-go). If you can’t go back and read what won in the past, you shouldn’t enter. And you shouldn’t have to pay to see it, especially if you already have to pay to enter the contest.

The bad writing contest warning signs

To make things easy for you, let’s recap some of the big red flags that should send you running away from a writing contest:

  • You can’t read past winners for free (obviously ignore this for a first-year contest)
  • You don’t know who is judging the contest
  • You can’t find any judging criteria
  • Contest entries aren’t read blind
  • The cost of entry doesn’t align with the prize money (example: $25 entry fee + 500 submissions with a $500 prize)
  • The contest has no clear timeline or a very lengthy timeline

Entering a writing contest often requires a significant time commitment (writing, editing, submitting) along with a financial commitment. Don’t submit unless you’re sure you have a chance to win and that the contest is legit.

Do you submit to writing contests? Share your experiences (both good and bad) in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Everything You Need to Know Before Entering a Writing Contest

  1. I submitted to my first official contest in November. I went in knowing I had 0 chance of winning as it is a known publication and it’s offering a large prize. There was also $25 entry fee. I am an amateur and don’t have much experience but I think that authors should consider what they are looking to get out of it. If you’re looking to win, tough luck. You will get frustrated.

    I entered because I wanted a challenge: write 1500 words. It was not easy. I even got another short story out of it that ended up too long. But I accomplished it and that is the real prize for me. I am proud of that. Once the contest is really over next month the rights get released back to me, I will be using the story elsewhere.

    I also wanted to get out of my sci-fi shell. I wanted to write an unconventional main character for myself – in this case my main character was a woman. I write mostly men, but the main character in my first attempt was a magical person which was also unconventional. Now I have created two new worlds I want to explore which is priceless compared to any monetary prizes I won’t win. The effort paid off, in my mind.

    However, I had never thought of most of these points you list here and I will be more discerning with future contests.

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