Good old writing contests. The mainstay of the writing world, they’ve been offering publication, cash, and/or exposure for just about as long as writers have used pens. (Or so it seems.) Writers clamor to enter the Big Ones in the hopes that they’ll win and become hugely successful.
The problem is, everyone else is entering those same contests. Translation: Your chances of winning, particularly as a new writer, are almost nil. (And the Big Ones usually have a price tag that matches their prestige.)
Now, you might actually win one of the Big Ones on your first try. You might be that one in a million writer who has talent oozing out of every pore. Maybe. However, you might have to face the fact that you’re merely mortal and you need some practice and seasoning before the Big Ones become a serious option.
So what do do?
Try entering some smaller, maybe local contests. You’ll find them sponsored by small magazines/journals, libraries, colleges/universities, Chambers of Commerce, tourist attractions (yes, there are writing contests that ask writers to include a certain location in their stories), or small publishers. There are also prizes that target specific groups, such as Native Americans, African Americans, young or old authors, people from a certain state/city, etc., or people who write about very specific topics.
These small contests often aren’t well advertised, so you have to keep your ear to the ground to find out about them. These are usually the kind of contests you stumble on serendipitously when you run across a flyer or find a mention in the local paper. You may hear about it at your writer’s group, or on local/merchant websites.
Sure, some people pooh-pooh these Small Fries as not worth their time, but there are several reasons why you might want to consider the smaller contests.
You might actually win.
This is the biggest reason to enter Small Fry contests. The field is usually smaller, giving you more of a chance at victory. Sure, the prize likely won’t be huge, but even if it’s “just” publication in a small magazine or story collection, that’s a career booster.
Even if the contest doesn’t offer publication, winning (or even making the finals) is something you can list on a query letter.
They’re often (comparatively) inexpensive.
The Big Ones can have high entry fees. While many contests range from $20 – $30, there are some that go as high as $75 +. If you’re on a budget, even the $20 contests can add up quick. But many Small Fry contests may only charge $5 – $10, and a number are free.
While there’s an argument to be made for money=quality of contest/prize/prestige, there’s also an argument to be made for entering multiple contests with lower fees to increase your chances of winning. It’s up to you, but it might be worth it to spread your money more widely rather than dropping it all on one big contest.
They may provide more feedback.
Many of the larger contests either provide no feedback at all, or only to a shortlist of finalists. Smaller contests sometimes provide feedback to all entrants. With fewer entrants, they often have the time and ability to do so. It may not be an extensive critique (they’ll usually indicate in the rules how much feedback you’ll receive), but it may be better than nothing.
They’re confidence builders.
Entering contests gets you used to the submission process and the ups and downs of rejections, near misses, and successes. And they do so without some of the emotional investment involved when you submit to agents and editors. “It’s just a contest, not a make or break publishing opportunity,” is an easy way to take the pressure off. And if you win or make the finalist round of a few contests, you’ll have much more confidence in your work and your chances.
Locals might have an edge, or even exclusivity.
Locally sponsored contests may give priority to local residents, or they may even require you to be a resident to enter, whittling the field down immensely. If you qualify, your odds of winning may be higher than national or global contests.
Deadlines can help train you as a professional writer.
This is true for big and small contests, but the process of writing and editing a submission to meet a deadline is excellent training for a career as a professional writer. With smaller contests, however, you can likely afford to enter more, giving you even more practice!
The practice is good for you.
Speaking of practice, you can’t go wrong by using contests to practice your writing. Everyone benefits from writing more, so the more pieces you write for contests, the better your writing becomes overall. (Or it should. If you’re just cranking out crap to sling at every contest you see, then this tip probably isn’t working for you.)
If you know you want to enter Contest X, you know you’d better put your rump in the chair and write. There’s nothing like a concrete deadline or goal to get you moving. If you’re entering several contests per year, you’ll always have motivation.
It’s a low-risk way to try out a new genre or form.
Contests that cost little or nothing to enter can give you a safe way to experiment. Not sure whether you’ll enjoy or be good at sci-fi when all you’ve written is romance? Find a good sci-fi contest that’s free to enter and give it a shot. The process of writing will tell you a lot, but if you get feedback from the contest, that will tell you more. If you win, it will boost the legitimacy of your genre switch. It’s easier to convince an editor that you can write in another genre if you’ve demonstrated an ability to do so.
As with anything, be on the lookout for scams. Sadly, just as in much of the writing world, there are those who will take advantage of a writers desperation to be published, or to gain a credential for their query letters. If anything seems odd, fishy, or too good to be true, give it a pass, or at least do your due diligence on the contest and sponsor. Don’t get sucked into something that will put you or your work at risk.
Also, don’t use contests as a way to escape your “real” work. If you have other jobs in the hopper, those come first. Contests make a good activity for your spare time, those pieces you don’t know what else to do with, or as a test balloon for new work. If you have other deadlines and responsibilities, don’t let contests eat up your time.
Contests can be a fun way to gain more experience and exposure. And cash prizes can give your income a nice boost. Sure, the Big Ones are great, but the Small Fry contests have a lot going for them, too.
(Photo courtesy of qimono)