My take on writing contests was first published in Tiny Lights, but it’s been a while so I’m offering this update. A few years ago, at one of my MFA residencies, a panel of three literary magazine editors (from Tin House, Ploughshares, and The Gettysburg Review), unanimously advised: “Enter only free contests, never pay anyone to read your work.”    

I wouldn’t go to that extreme, but my own rules for entering writing contests are:
  1. Enter only contests that have been around for a while and offer some prestige
  2. Give preference to contests that award 2nd and 3rd prizes and honorable mentions, not just one prize;
  3. Get something out of the entry fee, namely at least a copy of the journal with the winning entries in it, or a critique of your entry.
I think there’s merit in entering contests, having a deadline is one, the off chance of getting that recognition is another, but I do think one has to be cautious. Poets & Writers has good standards for listing contests, one being that they never list contests with less than a $1000 prize.
Your chance of winning a contest is much slimmer than your chance of getting a piece accepted if you spent the contest money on postage and submitted the same story to several different literary magazines. That’s my new rationale anyway. Simultaneous submissions are standard procedure, all you have to do is keep good record of your subs and if your piece does get accepted somewhere, immediately notify the other publications.

What’s your take on writing contests? Any missives you want to add?