I enter a lot of writing contests. Some of them are just for fun, some are for publicity or experience purposes, and others are for the challenge. Whether it is a writing prompt, a topic, or even a required style, writing contests can be a surefire way to beat writer’s block. The prizes certainly help in that regard, too!
Although I will write and rewrite until I feel my submission is as polished as possible, I don’t actually expect to win. For me, it feels a lot like buying a lottery ticket. My odds are about as good as anybody else who enters the contest, sure. Maybe a little better, as I’d like to think not all of the submissions will meet the requirements and that others are low quality. I’m too much of a realist to assume I’ll win. Contests I find on the internet probably have thousands of submissions, especially if the winner is published on a well-known website or in print. Even more submissions are likely when there is a monetary prize as well.
Some contests are best to avoid, even if they have great prizes to be won. The best way to learn which ones you should dismiss is by reading the fine print. It might sound like a lot of legal language and mostly appear to be nonsense, but there are a few key phrases to look for. The wording might be different depending on the publisher, but the gist is always the same. It has to do with ownership.
Some places feel that once you submit a piece to them, they have the rights to it – even if you don’t win. That may not be a deal-breaker for you, but it does change a couple of things. For one, you can’t submit that piece to any other competitions. If you write something specific for that contest, that might be OK with you. But you should know that it means it can’t be published by you or anybody else, ever. The part that really bothers me about this caveat, and why I feel the need to mention it, has a much more serious consequence than your work never seeing the light of day. Some places believe that because they own the piece, they can publish it at any time. And, while that could be a good thing for you in a variety of circumstances, it is possible that it will look and feel a lot more like theft. Depending on what that fine print says, they might not even need to let you know, give you credit, or compensate you in any way. So do yourself a favor and read the fine print to be sure you know what you are getting into.
If you’re going to enter a competition, go for it. Be realistic about your chances of winning and don’t count your winnings before you get your congratulations letter. Also be sure to protect yourself and your work by reading the fine print about the contest. If you’re not sure who will retain the rights to your submission, email or call to find out.