If you’re a writer struggling to get published, you might consider entering a writing contest. Writing contests can seem like a great way to get some accolades (and cash) for writing, but not all writing contests are created equal. Some are from reputable, known publishers or companies that are legitimately searching for great unknown writers, but other contests exist simply to collect entry fees and publish useless vanity books of content without regard to quality. So how can you figure out which contests are worthwhile?

1. Find your genre – What sort of writing do you do? There are contests for poetry, short stories, screenplays, you name it. There are also contests for more narrow categories, such as science fiction short stories, history/military themes and mystery thrillers. Decide what sort of writing you enjoy best and focus on finding contests that fit your style. If your style is too narrow (if, say, you prefer to write only haikus about 19th-century haberdashers), you might want to broaden your efforts a bit.

2. To fee or not to fee – Many contests include entry fees for participation. Some sites will tell you to avoid all such contests, but in reality, there are often good reasons for the fees. Sometimes, fees help to reduce the sheer number of entries received (removing the “I just feel like entering a contest today” crowd and leaving the serious writers in the running), and other times, the fees help to pay for the staff readers and judges who must pore over the hundreds of written submissions that must be evaluated for the contest. The key to contest entry fees is this: what is reasonable? If a fee is under $20 for a reputable contest (see point 3 below), it’s probably fine. But if the fee is higher, and if it’s billed more as a lottery ticket than a legit contest entry (“send us your $100 entry fee for a chance at the $20,000 grand prize!”), steer clear.

3. Who is running the contest? – The source of a contest matters. There are hundreds of contests out there, most with cash prizes, but many are a waste of time. If the contest is run by a respectable publisher, a known publication or a literary journal, you can probably rest easy that it’s a legit contest. These sources are looking to “discover” new writers who might not otherwise have been published, and their contests are designed for that purpose. Contests from sources you don’t recognize, however, can be red flags. Avoid contests that make a bigger deal about the prize money than the prestige, skip the ones that don’t make the fine print clear, and don’t waste your time on contests from companies, local groups, internet “contest mills” or publications you’ve never heard of (and that don’t turn up many results in a Google search). The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site has some GREAT tips for figuring out which contests are worthwhile and which are to be avoided; click here for their advice.

While you might think that entering any contest you can find is a good way to cover all the bases, consider this: would you care if Publication XYZ applauded your work? If you’ve done your research and haven’t heard of a particular publisher or company, you probably won’t care what they think of you (and no one else will, either). They’re not likely to help you get an agent or a publishing contract, and they’re not going to be your big break.

4. Check the deadline – Good contests tend to have deadlines well in advance of when the contest is announced. Be sure to give yourself enough time to create a good submission! Don’t wait until the last minute – remember, entry fees are nonrefundable, so if you’re willing to put in the effort for a contest and send money to boot, keep an eye on the calendar and make the time for writing, rewriting, editing, etc. before the submission date arrives.

5. Keep your day job – Just as playing blackjack all day long isn’t a reasonable way to earn a living for most people, entering writing contests is not going to be easy money or a way to get out of the rat race (at least not until you get that big book deal you’ve been working toward). Contests are something you should do while you’re working on your writing career in other, more traditional ways, like sending queries to agents, attending events and doing research. Be sure you keep a list of the contests you’ve entered so you can remind yourself which ones you’ve already done, but don’t dwell on your entries or expect big prize money to come rolling in. Just enjoy the process and use it as practice; if you DO win, that’s icing on the leatherbound cake!

Sources: BlogHer, SFWA