Paying For A Writing Contest: Is It Worth It?

To submit to today’s literary contests, writers can spend anywhere from $0 to $50. But generally, the average for entry fees is around $15. After spending countless hours tweaking every line and sentence of a poem or story, many writers find it difficult to fork over this kind of money.

It’s not just that many new and emerging writers are young students that makes this difficult. Most contests and journals take quite a bit of time to read submissions, even listing periods of up to six months in delay to hear back from their editors. Because of this, it’s not unusual for writers to submit one piece to multiple publications. If each contest charges $15 to enter, then the cost of doing so quickly adds up.

It begins a vicious cycle. Writers take better, more time-consuming jobs to help support their writing endeavors, but then soon discover they have little time or energy to write.

I may sound sympathetic here, but I’m not. I once went to a lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She looked at the audience of hopeful writers and said “It’s no one’s fault you wanted to be an artist.”

It’s important that if you’re going to be a writer, you develop a thick skin. That when the author of a bestselling novel tells you it’s no one’s problem but your own that you decided to be a writer, you listen.

Writers, including myself, want to be taken seriously. On the bus the other day, a coworker began telling me about her friend, “the novelist,” who self publishes young adult books online and has now been picked up by a larger publisher. She’s making a living doing it, my coworker told me. I don’t know how, she went on, it seems like she’s never doing anything to me. I cringed. I suppose writing does look a whole lot like doing nothing from the outside.

Being taken seriously means not only desiring to be able to earn a living by the work we do, eventually, but also to be respected for that work. A long day of brainstorming and plotting might, to a stranger, appear a whole lot like me pacing my studio apartment in my underwear—but that’s how real work gets done folks.

Let’s look at the facts about writing contests:

1. Contests mean cash prizes. In some cases, very large ones (we’re talking thousands of dollars), making a $15 entry fee suddenly seem pretty small. If you don’t win, your money is still supporting a publication you admire, while also helping other writers maintain their careers.

2. “Losers” of a contest still get something. More often than not, if an editor enjoyed your work but it didn’t make the cut as a contest finalist, you can still ask about getting the piece published in the magazine or journal. This can lead to relationships with editors as well as visibility.

3. Speaking of visibility—there are some individuals who define creativity as not the act of creating work but the act of putting said work out into the world. By that view, creativity is only bestowed upon a writer who actually publishes his or her work. Whether you agree with that view or not is entirely up to you. At the very least, I think we can all agree that no agent, editor, or reader will ever find your work to have substance if it never actually makes its way into their hands. Agents, especially, subscribe to journals and magazines they respect in order to scout new talent.

4. The process for judging contests submissions is generally more fair than regular submissions. Contest submissions are usually reviewed blindly. Your name does not appear on the story, only the cover letter, and therefore, none of the judges will be considering the caliber of your name and how well it will sell copies when reading your work.

5. Contest judges are generally literary heavy-weights. A few months ago, I came across a contest judged by Margaret Atwood. I didn’t submit because grad school is a blood-sucking vampire, but just knowing that one of my writing heroes could have touched my story, read my words, and perhaps, even got some small ounce of delight from it would have been enough for me to pay the entry fee.

You’ll meet plenty of writers who tell you that paying to submit is not worth your time or money, but before listening to those writers, be sure to do your research, find mentors, and form your own opinion. Artists don’t often like to think about their work in terms of money. The idea of paying someone else to read your work, only to tell you it might not be good enough, is a bit heartbreaking. But this is where the thick skin comes in.

Writing magazines and journals have a bottom line just like any other business. Reading takes time and then even more time to thoughtfully consider. I don’t want someone to be concerned with the bottom line while reading my work, and that’s why I don’t mind paying for it.

But what’s your opinion? Share with us below.

Melanie Figueroa

Melanie is the Editor in Chief at The Poetics Project. Having earned a masters in writing and book publishing from Portland State University and gained experience as an in-house editor, she now works as a freelance editor and writer. Her favorite book is The Bell Jar. You can follow Melanie on Twitter or Instagram @wellmelsbells.

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