All writers have seen them. Especially lately. Ads for writing contests. All you have to do is shell out $10, $15, even $25 for the submission fee or reading fee and you could win BIG. $3,000 for a single poem? $20,000 for a short story? This sounds like a dream for so many unrecognized writers. Unfortunately, like all things that sound too good, I don’t believe these contests to be a good investment. Here’s why.
The Odds Are Against You
Because so many people enter these competitions, the chances of winning become smaller and smaller until they shrink to a fraction of a percent. When it comes to large contests, and the ones with high dollar amounts always are large, they attract huge volumes of people.
To lay it out even more clearly: Imagine you enter a competition with only 25,000 entrants, including yourself. If the quality of the manuscripts isn’t taken into consideration at all, and the winner is selected randomly, your chances of winning would be 0.004%. Which means your odds of walking away with a rejection email would be 99.996%. These odds aren’t quite as bad as the lottery, but keep in mind, a lot of competitions have plenty more than 25,000 entrants.
But wait! You say, I am highly talented, trained, and educated! I would fare better than the average person! Then okay, let’s take a look at our next point.
There’s Usually Little or No Transparency
I have yet to see a competition announce exactly how they will be examining manuscripts and determining winners. It would seem natural that every manuscript would be read in full, but is that actually happening? Moreover, who is tasked with culling the herd before the finalists are handed to whatever celebrity judge the organizers hired? Sometimes I wonder if it’s not like job applications for a popular position: half of the applications are thrown out and never even glanced at. People who go to the next round are in the lucky half that made the cut.
Some competitions offer feedback options, but those usually incur an extra cost on top of the submission fee. Of course, there also usually isn’t a guarantee regarding who the feedback would be coming from or what their qualifications are. In the end, paying exorbitant fees for only feedback, not editing or even proofreading, is ridiculous.
There are plenty of editors out there who are eager to work with up and coming writers, who will ultimately charge less and provide more helpful advice. There are also writing groups on social media and forums that can provide feedback for free. If someone is just starting out and looking to improve their craft, they’re better off starting out small with free feedback, instead of thinking feedback from someone in a competition has more importance.
Taking Advantage of Beginning Writers
The writing world is intimidating, that’s for sure. There’s some elitism and classism, mixed in with a lot of uncertainty, and a dedication to master a very difficult craft. Because writing is so widely ignored and dismissed when it comes anyone other than literary gods penning it, beginning writers often want validation for their progress. Winning a competition is, of course, a great way to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, what most beginning writers don’t realize is that when these calls for submission go out, it’s almost always to everyone, including professional writers. Because the beginners don’t know who they are competing against or what the level of competition is, the organizers can plan on gleefully taking beginners’ hard-earned cash along with everyone else’s while the beginners stand little chance of making it through the first round of competition.
Although being rejected is something a writer will have to become accustomed to, paying other people money for writing is something they should not have to deal with. Even if writing is a hobby and spending money here and there is not something a beginner minds, spending money on contests just means there will be more of them. Which brings me to my next point:
It All Adds Up
Say you decide to enter 12 competitions a year, or one every month. Not really a lot, when you think about. At $25 per entry, and keep in mind some are even more expensive, this adds up to $300 a year. Which is great for organizers of these competitions, because you are guaranteed to spend money, but your chance of earning it is very slim.
Imagine if you won one contest with a couple hundred dollars as a prize in your year of contest entries. You would still be $100 in the hole because of all the other entry fees. When you get started with a submission fee contest, you are already behind.
What Will You Have Gained?
If you look at the most likely scenario (you don’t place in the competition) and all you have to show for it is $25 less in your bank account, what exactly is entering the competition going to accomplish? It’s true that somebody wins these things and they probably have entries from past winners available to read. But when a competition boasts of 500,000 entries the previous year, it takes a lot of brashness on a writer’s part to assume they’ve got this.
In the end, if you’re left with a rejection email and little else, what did you actually gain? Even if someone wants to be super Pollyanna and say that now you have a piece of work you can submit to other places, this is true. But if it didn’t place in competition, and you received no feedback on it, how exactly will you be able to better it for another submission?
The Bottom Line
In the end, there are lots of places to submit to that don’t charge. Most of them don’t pay, but at least you wouldn’t find yourself out money and unpublished. There’s also a lot of resources available such as writing classes, groups, forums, etc. if someone wants to find community, improve their craft, or seek validation.
Trish Hopkinson’s website often features lists of journals and online magazines that don’t charge for submissions.