No, I didn’t get a pawnbroker to re-etch my name over the real winner’s
It’s great to get published. I’ve had the good fortune to be published in lots of magazines and newspapers, and I’m grateful for the editors who have given me the opportunity, particularly when I first started out, and had nary a clip to my name. But there’s a special—and sometimes odd—kick that comes from doing well in a writing contest.
There’s some ego investment there for sure. But I think the ego vector comes less from “Wow, did I kick Shakespeare’s old booty all over the place in that haiku contest!” than Sally Field’s famous, “… this time I feel it—and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”
Writers can be inward sorts, languishing a league or two below the surface in their writing caves, so validation of any sort is manna precious.
The reason I bring up writing contests right now is that I recently won second place in a travel-writing contest over at Dave’s Travel Corner. Dave had solicited contest prizes from some of his travel industry connections, so in addition to $100 cash, I received two travel books, a certificate for a private tasting for six ($180 value) at a fancy-schmancy Napa winery, a Vegas.com promotional kit (my article is set in Vegas) that included a deck of cards, nice poker chips, coasters and more, and last but not least chewy: two big packs of licorice vines. Now them’s some winnin’s.
Paying to Play
Dave had the generous spirit not to charge for entry into his contest, but many contests do require entry fees. I’ve seen novel writing contests where the fees went upward of $125, but of course, reviewing novels for contest entries could take up a great deal of reading time. Many contests I’ve entered were free, but a good number of them required entry fees between $10 and $25. Some years I’ve probably spent between $100 for contests, others maybe half that much. But I’ve had fair luck with my entries.
Right now I’m enjoying the tail end of a free year of Carol Tice’s Freelance Writing Den (normally $25 a month), and have found the Den a deep well of excellent writing resources, as well as a congenial place for writers to congregate. I won that free year just by writing—no fee—a blog post. Here’s my doffed cap to Carol and Linda Formichelli for choosing me.
I’ve won tickets to a Broadway play; admission, lodging and meals at a good writer’s conference; a few cash prizes of $100 or more, and long ago, that lovely glass plaque that adorns this post. That plaque is one of my prized possessions: being named on anything with John Steinbeck’s name is good gravy. The fact that it came with $1,000 cash and that Leon Panetta presented it to me (in lieu of an ill Thomas Steinbeck, John’s son) made that gravy all the warmer.
Contests (With Caveats), Si!
So, to answer the question that this post poses: I have to say Yea! Contests can give you good exposure. They can also stretch your writing: you will often be given a theme or a prompt to follow, and it can be a helpful challenge to push your words into places they wouldn’t go otherwise. And sometimes you might be able to enter an article or a story with a piece that you’d written some time ago and hadn’t found a home for. Don’t forget that Sally Field thrill. Not to mention, there’s the potential for licorice.
Make sure the contest is credible, make sure to follow the contest guidelines to the letter, and of course, don’t spend money that you can’t afford. (I’ve lost WAY more contests than I’ve won.) I was going to list a lot of writing contest resources, but the smart fellow at The Competitive Writer has already done that.
He provides links to writing contest advice and resources, like Hope Clark’s great Funds for Writers newsletter and Moira Allen’s Writing World, two newsletters I always look forward to receiving. He also lists contest databases, care of fine publications like Poets and Writers. One other source not on his list is the yearly Writer’s Market, which can be obtained in print or online or both. That publication has a Contests and Awards section that lists contest specs, fees, deadlines and prizes.
Oh, but don’t enter any of the ones I intend to. I’m sensitive, you know.