Does Spending Dollars on Contests Make Sense?

by Darlene Cah

I learned (or perhaps, just came to accept) later in life that I’m competitive. Yeah, I like to compete, like to do my best, like to win. When I was in high school I entered art contests. As an adult, I showed my horse. So when I turned my efforts to writing fiction, entering writing contests was a natural course of action, and I entered quite a few over the years, never taking the top prize, but getting a second place prize (in poetry! Go figure!), a couple of finalist spots and one honorable mention.  Each time, I was thrilled to be chosen and proud of my efforts, fired up to get back into the fray!


Bucks up, Baby!
But all this jumping into the arena, going for literary gold, costs some serious coin. Depending on the genre—from flash fiction, short story, poem to poetry chapbook, novel, screenplay among others—you could spend anywhere from $15 to $50 to $100 or more. Prizes can range from the honor of publication to a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. From what I can tell short story entry fees seem to average around $15, and may include a subscription to the sponsoring literary journal if there is one.

Now, a $15 or $20 reading fee won’t break the bank (though some weeks, it would definitely leave major dents!), but when you find a few contests that would be ideal venues for your hilarious southern farce, well, it adds up pretty quickly. So is it all worth it? Well, that depends.

Chances are…
My 5 Writers colleague, Brad Windhauser, discussed the odds of winning, so you know going in, chances are slim. Contests with substantial prize money, the promise of publication, a famous or renowned judge or a prestigious reputation will draw way more entries than lesser-known competitions. Then, again, you never know what will resonate with the readers. Your story might have that quirky edge the judge relates to, the voice that cuts through the clutter.

Adjust the Budget
Numbers and I don’t get along. We have an adversarial relationship going way back to when I failed “ruler” in second grade, or maybe it was third. See? Numbers! And don’t get me started with long division and Sister Dolores! So, just thinking about setting up a budget for anything has me guzzling Aleve, but I’ve heard that some writers set aside a certain amount of money every month exclusively for entering contests.


Choose Wisely
When you have limited funds for contests, it’s best to plan which competitions will be a good match for your work, much like how you would decide on where to submit your story. Be objective, really objective about the work you want to enter, which means you’ll also have to be brutally honest. You’re spending hard-earned money. Don’t waste it on a story you love, but frankly needs more work, to enter a contest where you’re unlikely to make it past the first round or readers. Guilty on all counts! Enter a polished piece to an appropriate contest. My riding trainer once told me he wanted me to be the best of the best, not the best of the worst. That advice works for writing competitions, too.

And the Winner is…
It sure would be cool to cash that check, give that reading, see your story in the contest winners’ anthology. It may happen. It may not. Did you finish the story? Did you send it out? That in itself is an accomplishment.

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