I spent a lot of time entering writing contests this year, and, upon reflection, I don’t think I’ll repeat that next year. I’m not sure how competitive contests are compared with submitting directly to a magazine (probably depends on the contest or the magazine). However, my experience has narrowed it down to a few pros and cons worth considering.
The prize money for a contest seems to be larger than the regular pay I would get in many cases. Earlier this year, I was privileged to win second place in an On The Premises contest. It was an incredible experience. Working with the editors after I placed in the contest was incredibly valuable. I also think that contests draw more attention to specific stories than might otherwise come to a story alongside others in a magazine. Whatever my decision about contests in general, the On The Premises contest specifically was well worth it, and I plan to continue participating next year.
I thought I’d heard the cons before, main one being that contests often have entry fees. I don’t care so much about that. However, I recently observed a con that is going to be the major factor keeping me away from contests in the future: the chance of receiving editor comments on rejected entries is slim to none. Every mature writer knows that there are many rejections along the road to publication. But I’m learning that not placing in a contest is significantly different from not being selected by an editor for a magazine. While not all editors provide comments, some do. Even for the ones that don’t, I can sometimes glean hints about what may have been the issue with my submission based on how the editor responds (sometimes this is based on facts such as how quickly I received a response, and sometimes this is just a gut feeling). The thing is, whether my piece is accepted or rejected, I’m establishing some relationship with an editor, however slight, when I make a regular submission. Contests, on the other hand, don’t have this personal touch for those rejected. While I had a great personal experience with On The Premises once my story placed, my experience with other contests has been that it’s otherwise a wad of nothingness. I’m not connected to or learning from a person. I get some hint from the winning story, but no targeted clues that I can learn from.
Earlier this year, I got some comments along with a rejection that were revelatory in revising the piece (which I still haven’t placed yet, though I do like it much better now). I started craving that. When I realized that contests aren’t likely to provide me those kinds of clues, I made a decision to focus more on straight submissions.