I belong to several online writers’ groups. One discussion that keeps recurring is: Should you pay to enter a writing contest? I’m not talking about the obvious scams or “contests” that are no more than money makers for the “sponsors” or ways to build email lists or sell books. (Writer Beware, a site maintained by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has an excellent article about how to spot the scams. The same article also has good information and advice about all contests, bogus or genuine.)
The answer to the question of whether to pay to enter contests is easy for some writers—no, never, ever. For me, it’s on a case by case basis. Is the contest sponsored by a journal or entity I respect? Do the entry fees seem reasonable, i.e., enough to pay the judges an honorarium, plus enough to pay out the cash awards, if any? Is there some other guaranteed benefit that comes with payment, even if one is not a winner? These range from critiques or comments from judges, editors or successful writers in the field, to a subscription to the sponsoring journal or other perks. If there is no prize money, do you get a certificate, plaque, or other recognition? One of my favorite potential rewards is being included in a print anthology made up of the winning entries, even if there is little or no cash prize. There will be a greater number of winners, improving my chances, and I’ll have something to add to my shelf of published works.
Then I think about the downside. Some contests require exclusivity until the awards are announced. This means my work is tied up in the event I see another, perhaps better market. Some contests allow you to withdraw. I’d opt for the flexibility. Will developing my entry distract me from other writing actions that would be more helpful to my writing vision? Then there is the investment in time, energy and focus. Each contest has its own rules for length (will I need to cut, or add, words?), formatting and method of submission. That means that every time I enter a new contest, all that work has to be re-done. That effort is no different from answering any other call for submissions. Perhaps I’d be better off going that route.
So, there are really two questions: should you enter writing contests at all? And if so, should you enter those that require an entry fee? I have and will continue to go the contest route, at least for now, including ones for which I pay for the privilege. I have no advice for others, except to educate yourself, focus on your goals and stick to actions that foster those goals. Then, I believe, you win every day.