As an author, I’ve been on both sides of the table, judging several contests, and entering them too, throughout my writing career. From the judge’s side, I’ll tell you I’d much rather sit down with a cup of tea and read through entries, than stare at the same monitor I’ve worked at all day. I print out digital entries, because so far I’ve not bought a reader, although I’m looking at tablets.
With earlier manuscripts, my entries didn’t reach the mark. But after many workshops and classes on the craft of writing, I saw a sea-change in the scores.
Now on to the wisdom of entering contests. A writer, unless you’ve won the lottery, should be selective about contests.
First, do a little research to see if this is a legitimate contest or simply a scam. It’s pretty easy to find out. If the contest is sponsored by a legitimate writers’ group, like an RWA chapter or Historical Novel Society, or by a state association like Florida Writers, you know it’s legit.
Next, read the details to see who is judging. Don’t look at the prize money or the award. Except for the most prestigious awards, the prizes aren’t big. The real win, the biggest reward, is that you can use a nice win to catch the eye of an agent or editor. Most admit that contest wins get their attention.
Thirdly, look to see if the contest returns comments, or only scores. If a contest offers feedback, it’s like getting a mini-critique.
An aside, and one worth noting for published and unpublished writers: strangely, there are contests which do not take Advanced Reading Copies. Your professionally-edited book can/must be entered in unpublished, if the release date falls after a certain date. This seems to me a bit unfair to an unpublished author who has to compete with my edited book. I don’t really understand the reasoning for not accepting an ARC.
Google literary awards for your state. I took a chance and entered Florida Book Awards, sponsored by the state Humanities Council and Florida State University. There was a fee, and we had to mail a book to each of the judges, a time-consuming job, but it was worth every minute when I received that Bronze Medallion at the Awards dinner for The Tapestry Shop. Recently, I entered a small local contest. To my surprise, all three finalists’ entries were sent to places like HarperCollins, Medallion, etc. for final judging. Not only that, the contest offered a breakdown of genres, so that my historical wouldn’t be lost in the Mainstream category, or bunched in with SciFi.
To my delight, both my two entries finaled. One went to Medallion, the YA went to HarperCollins for final judging. After reading comments from both editors (one of whom gave me First Place for my historical. I went to work and revised according to their suggestions. No, I didn’t get a contract, but now, in a query letter, I can say “an editor at Medallion gave this story First Place in the final round of judging”. How cool is that? Feedback from an editor, and bragging rights, all for forty-five dollars. This contest, sponsored by a local writers’ group, was opened to non-members, too. So look at local and regional contests. I know, it’s like buying a lottery ticket, but you can’t win without trying.