1. They Cost Money
Many writing contests have an entry fee. Sometimes signup forms will tell you this is to cover the prize money; other times it’s left unexplained. This is the first way writing contests get you. If the fee is within the $60-$80 dollar range, then it’s an obvious scam. The people running the contest collect all the fees, pay a small portion to the winner, and then keep the rest for themselves, earning a tidy profit for little effort on their part. And that’s assuming there’s a prize at all. Less-reputable contests can find ways to avoid doing even that much.
But even if the fee seems more reasonable, and if the contest runners show how all of it is going to fund the winner’s prize, this is still a sign to stay away. This sort of contest, for all practical purposes, is a form of gambling. Everyone puts in money, and only one person* walks away with any reward. Statistically, that person is unlikely to be you. You’re spending money on something with a very poor rate of return, and any financial planner will tell you that’s a bad idea.
Even if a contest isn’t deliberately trying to scam you, entree fees still represent an added cost the writer shouldn’t have to pay. You’ve already sunk many hours into writing the story. Perhaps you’ve paid to have it edited. Now, instead of being paid for your work, the contest runners want you to pay more for the small chance you might get a prize later. And of course, those same contest runners will probably use the contest as a marketing tool, assuming they aren’t just pocketing the entry fees. This means you’re paying for someone else’s marketing. Just say no.
2. You May Give Away the Rights to Your Story
If a writing contest doesn’t have an entry fee, chances are good it’ll get you another way: by taking rights to your story. In this scenario, you enter your story for free,* the winner gets a prize of some sort, but the contest runners get to publish all the entries they like and profit from them.
This is a popular method when someone is trying to start a publishing outfit but doesn’t want to properly pay authors. A new publisher tricks you into signing over your rights for a fancy contest, and then the publisher happily makes money off your story. Repeat after me: you should only ever give away rights to your story as part of a publishing contract where you are paid for your work or if you are deliberately giving your story to charity.
Stealing author rights is a particularly sneaky method because it’s not easy to spot. To be sure a contest isn’t doing this, you have to get into the weeds of fine print, and most of us writers aren’t lawyers. Trickery can be hard to spot, which is one reason I recommend you avoid writing contests completely.
3. You May Be Pressured to Buy Things
Some contests aren’t out to bilk you for entry fees or publish your story without paying you.* Instead, these contests push the services of whoever is running them. These contests exist on a spectrum of obvious scams to merely annoying.
At the extreme end, the contest runners will pay a little money to a “winner” and then try to market the other submitted works as an anthology. This kind of contest makes money by selling your own story back to you plus whoever else has been convinced to enter. This is a terrible deal for you not only because are you paying for your own work but also because the standards for these “anthologies” are ridiculously low. If you’re hurting for stories to read, look to the countless free publications all over the internet that actually pay their authors.
A less obvious sales tactic is for the writing contest to be little more than trawling for the contact information of potential customers. A company that provides services to writers, often editing or book production, will hold a writing contest. The company then has the contact information of everyone who enters, all of whom are the target audience for the company’s services. In this kind of contest, the prize will often be whatever service the company offers, with options to buy more of course.
Those who don’t win can expect their inboxes to soon be filled with “special offers” from the company, which is the worst consolation prize ever. Don’t be surprised if these sales pitches come in the form of flattery about how good your story was and you just need to spend a bunch of money to push it over the top!
4. Writing Contests Don’t Help Your Career
For writers, the path to success often seems arcane and unknowable. So when a writing contest tells you that winning will earn you the prestige needed to finally be recognized, it’s a tempting offer. The only problem is that it’s completely bogus.
The question of what will get a writer noticed is very difficult to answer, but we can be fairly sure it isn’t writing contests. So many writing contests have such extremely low standards, or are outright scams, that editors and publishers aren’t likely to be impressed by them. They might even hurt you by association.
What’s more, telling writers that winning a contest will get them noticed is nearly identical to telling writers to work for exposure. This is the sadly common idea in American society that artists, writers included, should be willing to work for free because maybe someone will notice their work and pay them later.
Unfortunately, this is a self-perpetuating cycle. We’d never tell plumbers to fix toilets for free in the hope that someone will pay them for it later, because no one would ever pay to get their toilets fixed if they could get it for free. While it’s possible that putting some of your work out there for free can get you attention, letting someone else profit off it in the form of a writing contest is doing yourself a disservice.
5. If Your Story Can Win a Contest, It Can Be Published
Perhaps the biggest draw that writing contests have is the large prizes they flash around for first place. Sometimes there’s a clause in the fine print that allows the prizes to be shrunk, but even so, it’s the lure of those big payouts that gets people to sign up. What’s an $80 entry fee if you win $1000?
Of course most entrants won’t win, but what if you’ve got a really good story this time? Your setting is fascinating, your action is exciting, and your protagonist’s emotional arc brings readers to tears. Surely you should enter this time, right?
Nope. For one thing, many contests don’t really care about the quality of your story because the contest runners are only in this to make a quick buck. But even if you do find a contest where quality matters, you still shouldn’t enter. You should submit the story for publication instead.
If your story is good enough to win a contest on merit, it’s good enough to be published. Being published at a reputable outlet is the one thing we can say for sure will help your career. This way you’ll know that if they use your work, you’ll get paid. Being published is also the only sure way to get your name out there as an author, and editors will pay far more attention to which other outfits have published you than any contests you’ve won.
6. The Exception: When a Contest Isn’t a Contest
As with all rules, there is an exception. Sometimes you find a writing contest from a reputable publisher that doesn’t charge an entry fee, publishes the winner at normal market rates, and only asks for the rights to your story in the event of publication.
This is actually a call for submissions that someone has mislabeled because they think “contest” sounds fancier. Go ahead and enter your story in one of these if you find it, but you should still check over the contract because even reputable publishers aren’t immune to trying a bit of legal trickery.
But outside of this unusual exception, you should stay as far from writing contests as you can. Trying to determine which ones are a scam and which ones are legit is exhausting, and even those that can be called “legit” are usually a waste of your time and your words. Writing is hard enough already. Don’t open yourself up to those who want to take advantage of you.
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