What should writers know about contests?
The absolute most important advice I can give you is this: read and understand the fine print.
Understand what you’re entering
Know what you’re entering. Know what happens to your work in the event you win (or even/especially if you don’t win). Make sure you’re completely comfortable with it.
For instance, in the event you win a contest, are you comfortable with the prize and what is often a completely non-negotiable publishing contract? Do you want to try for a better deal by going through the traditional publishing route and finding an agent?
There’s no correct answer here: it’s up to you. But make sure a) you know what happens when you enter/win and b) you can live with it. And think very long and very hard about anything that could tie up the rights to your work. And when in doubt: don’t enter.
Will contests help you find a literary agent?
Now: do agents and other publishing types look favorably on successful contest wins/finalists?
Here’s the thing about that. Even the biggest writing competitions have… what, a few thousand entries? Agents get 10,000+ queries a year and take on maybe a handful of clients. Going strictly by the numbers, an agent’s inbox is far more competitive than any writing contest. Accordingly, many agents take contest wins with a grain of salt.
If you win or are a finalist in a large contest by all means, include in the query as a publishing credit. But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a difference-maker in a query. It can definitely help, and there are some genres where certain important contests are taken very seriously, but it’s not usually something that’s going to make or break you.
And if you’re a Semi-Finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough: I wouldn’t mention it. Every time the Amazon contest rolls around agents are suddenly besieged with Amazon Breakthrough semi-finalists, and while yes, it’s a good achievement that you should absolutely be proud of, to us it seems like there are several bazillion semi-finalists.
Writing contests can help
All that cautionary stuff aside: I’m not down on writing contests! I know how hard and lonely it is for writers who are struggling with the Am I Crazies and are wondering about that big question: am I any good?
Writing contests can provide that crucial validation from people who don’t know you and hey, they like your work! It can be a real confidence booster, and that can make all the difference in the world.
So definitely consider entering writing contests, just make sure you do it with eyes wide open.
If you have questions about specific contests: don’t forget that discussion forums are a great place to sound out your fellow writers. Experienced smart people are standing by.
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For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: The Winner Of The Derby Race by James Pollard