Monday, September 27, 2010

To Enter or Not to Enter: The Pros and Cons of Literary Contests

High levels of frustration
got you down?
When I first started writing I had no idea what I was doing, just as many of you out there probably felt the first time you sat down to put a great idea on the page. I wrote the first draft of my first novel and believed I had written my soul and there was nothing else I wanted to do with my creation.

It's not that I didn't believe I'd written something great/earth-shattering/the next amazing breakout novel, it's just that I needed to write my book in order for a part of me to heal. Once I was done, I had no great ambitions.

Flash forward a year later. (Oh, the difference a year makes!)

I pulled out my novel and really considered what to do with it. Publish it, of course! Until I read all the publishers' websites and realized that they didn't take anything unsolicited. Period. What next, I thought. One publisher's website suggested Writer's Market, so I headed out and picked up the three-inch thick tome of wisdom and thought I'd struck gold. Did any other writers know about this holy grail full of agents, publishers, and contest info? No, I must be the only one. Right? So, I read it. One article focused on contests and how the author of the article had found his way in the writing world by navigating this route. Thus, I started on my long journey of entering literary contests.

Now, if you read my bio, you'll see that I've won some awards for my writing. Out of those I've won or placed in, I don't think I can begin to tell you how much money sifted through my hands because of all the others I entered but earned squat. Contests can really help your writing (I'd say career, but just give me a minute on that one) but there is also a very dark side to those enticing cash prizes and supposed claims to fame. A side that no article, agent, publisher, or even contest chair warns the participants about. But I will!

The Pros of literary contests include the following:

1) Your work is finally our there for others to read. This, in a nutshell, is what we all want.
2) If you win or place, it is the most fantastic feeling in the world, as if yes, you've finally arrived.
3) If a contest includes a critique, this is incredibly helpful to any writer, mainly because these are people    who don't know you (meaning not your mother, sister, aunt, good friends, etc.) who have anonymously read your work and agree that it is either praiseworthy or crap that needs a lot of revising.
4) If the contest allows for the readers to read their work in front of God and everyone at the conference, jump at the chance. It allows for you to see the affect your writing has on others (When I did a reading of one of mine, I had people coming up to me really wanting to know what happened next, and I only read the Prologue!)
5) Of course, the money, if there is a great cash prize (otherwise it can be a bit disheartening to receive a check that's hardly worth the paper it's printed on, or just a nice pat on the back for placing).

The Cons of literary contests include the following:

1) The amount of money you'll find yourself shelling out (My cheapest contest was $5 and my most expensive was $100. Quite a range, if you ask me). We all want to be told that our work is great, but be careful!
2) Unprofessional/unqualified critiquers/judges. (I found myself overly irate with the last contest I entered. The critiquer was clearly unqualified to be critiquing my category -- It had nothing to do with my writing, but instead all of my research that they "picked apart". This person really had no idea what he/she was talking about -- so I sent a letter to the contest chair. In the end, it seems it's always the writer's fault. I was picked to critique in the same contest, and believe me, having been published was not a requirement. You just needed to know how to put a coherent sentence together.)
3) Conferences connected to contest banquets and results. (I'll probably post later on down the line about my aversion to conferences, but when they try to fleece the winners/finalists of all their winnings by attaching a conference to the contest results that really chaps my hide. We are writers. We have no money.)
4) Little to no honesty concerning entrants. (What I mean here, is that most contests don't have a cap on the number of entries they receive. Depending on the contest, that could either be good or bad. Major literary contests need a cap, otherwise you're competing amongst a few hundred other entrants per category. For small, local, or largely unknown contests it's not much of a problem. I would actually direct most writers along these routes because so few people enter. Do beware of contests that seem sketchy or the cash prize is so big that it makes you wonder. More often than not it's a scam.)
5) The fact that you sent off a crappy manuscript when it's too late to do anything about it. (Most contests specifically state that if you made corrections after mailing out your entry, then you'll have to pretty much send out a new entry with another check and everything. Here, it's the author's fault. Read through your work, make the corrections, and make sure it's the best thing you're capable of writing before slapping a stamp on that envelope. Otherwise, you are most definitely wasting your money.)

Enter a literary
contest and
see what happens!
My hope is that, in some small way at least, I gave you some direction on whether literary contests are a good option for you or not (I still tend to be a sucker for entering them ☺). For me, they have brought little fame and no agents/editors ringing my phone off the hook. In my experience with querying and pitching, I don't even really think agents care too much about contests and whether you've won them or not (at least that's the impression I get when I'm met with their glazed-over expressions). But shouldn't that say something about my work, that it's not only received all this great feedback and accolades from anonymous sources, but that it's also generated so much interest among my peers that they feel compelled to ask how the story continues? I guess not. In the literary world, unpublished is still unpublished.


  1. nice info,thanks for sharing with others

  2. I love that you enter (and win) literary contests, Mary Mary. And I didn't know that you regarded your first novel as a healing exercise.

    Really enjoyed this post.

  3. A very helpful and thorough report. I am glad to know, agents (despite what they might say) do not care about contests. I still think it´s wonderful to enter and win, but if you don't it might work against you in the sense that you feel you wasted your time or that you are not good enough.
    In my country there's a rumor that most literary contests are rigged, but that it´s not the case in USA.

  4. Interesting post, Sister Mary. ;)
    My experience with contests is also bittersweet (more bitter than sweet because I came close in a few of them, but didn't win.) My worst experience by far was a TV script contest organized by a Mexican TV station that demanded a lot of work from the participants (you had to present 10 complete episodes for a proposed soap opera plus synopsis of 120 episodes, character profiles and copyright registration.) After weeks of work and a few months of waiting for the results, the station announced that there was no winner!! (I guess none of us were good enough to win :((((( )

  5. Actually, I've won one contest. But it was a blog contest organized by an editor (the sweetest man ever!) Does that count? :) The winning prize was a manuscript review.

  6. I think they can either be a blessing or a curse. It's like Lorena said with the Mexican TV station contest -- You just never know what exactly is going to happen, and sometimes it's definitely not for the better. Like most things in the literary world, all writing is subjective, especially when it comes to contests). It never hurts to give one or two a shot.

    I don't think they're pointless, because if you happen to win one of the granddaddies of them all, then your shot at getting that agent or publishing contract does increase exponentially, if not become a sure thing. But then, I guess nothing is a sure thing ☺.

    BTW Wynn, I'm glad you found my post helpful!

  7. The funny thing is that the blog contest (which didn't cost any money) has been the most helpful to me because I got insightful feedback from the editor that, I believe, improved my novel. (BTW, I see that blog contests at writers or agent websites are becoming quite popular. The prize is usually a critique or an agent agreeing to read your work.)

    The good thing about winning (in your case) is that you can mention this in your query letters and it gives you something to say about yourself in the bio part :) The bad thing is like Violante says, it can really hurt your own perception of your work, and of course, the money you spent for nothing.

    Conclusion: Participate in cheap or free contests, ha ha ha!

  8. Easier said than done. There aren't many cheap contests (or free for that matter) out there, especially in novel excerpt categories (short story contests are the exception, because there are oodles of them). Plus, you have to be a bit choosy if your hoping to have your work read by the right individuals. That's why I said beware of sketchy contests, like ones that charge but really give you nothing in return except a pat on the back.

  9. Nice article, Mary Mary. Thought I'd toss my first two bits in just to get my feet wet here. I have a contest experience to share. I entered a "local" contest, but manuscripts were accepted from all over the United States. Because I was a member of the writers group sponsoring the contest, the entry fee was less (I think it was about $25 back then). More than an interest in winning the competition, all entries were assured a "professional critique." And that's where my sites were set. So, I entered the contest and promptly forgot about it. I received a large envelope in the mail one day and literally had to read the letter attached to my manuscript three times before I understood the relevance. I had placed as a winner in the Children's Book category and the promised critique was attached. In addition, I was given a free pass to the conference, a free dinner at the awards banquet immediately following the conference, and a check. Needless to say, I was thrilled. I attended the conference, which was interesting, but very long. The dinner was good and as the winners of each category were called forward (amid many a blinding flash from the photographers cameras), we learned our placement and received our checks. I placed 3rd and received $50 (so I earned about $25). The piece I wrote was a fun little thing about the day in a life of my favorite mailman (my brother). The critique said that my story would be better if the mailman had faced a life altering challenge that changed him in some way. I would have appreciated a little more adivce, but that was that. I attempted many a rewrite, but I just couldn't find a way to adapt to the critique. My story still sits in my file drawer. So, once the glitz and glory has died, there should still be someone somewhere who is just dying to get their publishing hands on this little story crying out to become a picture book. I learned that being a "winner" doesn't guarantee you publication. Darn!

  10. Thanks so much for your comments, Roni! It's always interesting to hear other peoples writing experiences. I always wonder what happens to all those manuscripts in these contests. I'm sorry yours was resigned to your file drawer. I'm sure there's a lot of beautiful work out there that no one has cared enough to help along and give it a good published home!

  11. Roni,

    It doesn't always have to stay in your drawer. Maybe with time and distance, you'll know what to do with it.

    Best of luck!

  12. Lorena,

    I've been thinking about that and I do believe you're right. My problem is perhaps lack of knowledge regarding submissions. Do I send with a cover letter? Do I submit the entire manuscript only? Do I present in picture book format? Which publisher is the best publisher? It's been such a long time for that musty little piece. Maybe it's time to dig it out and start asking appropriate questions in appropriate places.

  13. I think the best place to start is where I started, with a copy of Writer's Market or Jeff Herman's Guide to Literary Agents. There is a ton of info in these books that deal with all aspects of the publishing world (even children's books). Writer's Market also has books geared towards more specialized markets, like I have one for short stories as well as for novels. Dig around a bit at Amazon and see what they have. Another place to look is at specific publishers websites devoted to publishing children's books. They might have some tips. Also, do an Internet search on children's writing groups or websites. If there's a writing group in your area that you can get plugged into that's also a great place to meet others who write what you do. I hope I helped!

  14. Roni,

    I believe that with picture books you can submit the entire story with your query letter. I'm not sure how publishers react to unagented writer submissions, but I know that with novels, you need an agent for almost all publishers (except small or university presses.) In addition to Mary's suggestions, I would recommend you to join a critique group. Other writers may help you pinpoint whatever it is that didn't work in your rewrite. Also, joining an organization such as SCBWI might help ( The cheap way to find agents is to look for online listings such as or

    They also have the books Mary suggested in the library.

  15. I have been wondering about those contests! I always see send your MS right on next to an amount of $$ to enter. What??! It's like analogizing it with all these martial arts studios...if you pay your $$ you are guaranteed advancement. I shouldn't have to pay to enter into a contest, honestly! So, I have shied away from them. Thank you for your take on this. I did so enjoy reading it!

  16. I see what your saying, LadyJai, but to be honest, contests that don't charge are few and far between. And, this might sound odd, but from my experience, those that don't charge are far more shady sounding than those who do. If you ever do decide to venture into the world of contests, do so with a trusted list of contests like the ones you'd find in Writer's Market. These ones won't rip you off.


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