I come from a financial background, so my mind is drawn to numbers. In competitive writing there are outflows and inflows, or in more generic terms contest fees and contest winnings.
Again, I'll reference Dr. John Yoeman at Writer's Village - he offers a manual about how to profit with competitive writing. I've read the manual, and it's got good stuff in there, but the dirty little secret is that it make take quite a bit to get to a point where competitions are putting you in the black. I'm not there yet, but I hope to be. In order to better understand the two major pieces, I'll discuss fees and winnings below.
Fees range from free to hundreds of dollars. And if you enter into many competitions, the costs will add up. The biggest thing here is to make sure you know what you are paying for.
Free contests are great for building a foundation. If you are a new writer, or new to a genre, or just want to do this on the side, they are probably the place to go. You have nothing at stake and you have the potential of winning something. Keep in mind free contests often have small cash prizes or will just offer publication. Also,free contests will draw more competitors than fee based contests. (Generally speaking). The last thought I have on free contests is look out for scams. Sometimes contests are just devices that pray on the writer's fragile ego and desire to get published. "Sorry you didn't win our contests, but we'd love to have you featured in our anthology, which you can buy for the low price of a million dollars!"
Most contests are in the $5-$30 range. This is where knowing what you are getting in to is important. Check and see if the contest offers critiques/feedback/or review of any sort. If you can get commentary on your writing could be worth the cost of admission. Some entry fees will get you a subscription to the publication sponsoring the contest. Also consider how big of a competition it is. This can be hard to do at times, but sometimes they will post how many entries there were in the prior year. If the number is in the thousands, you might be better of somewhere else, unless your piece is that good. Finally consider what Dr. Yoeman calls the prize to fee ratio. His rule of thumb is a $60 prize per $1 fee So a $5 fee should have a top purse of $300.
Contests above $30 are worth a long hard look. Maybe it pertains to your strength as a writer or maybe you have extra cash to burn, either way, tread carefully.
The one thing I've found is that having some skin in the game and paying a fee does effect the quality of my writing. If I've got $30 on the line, I want to make sure I'm giving myself the best chance possible to win.
Prizes can be monetary or non-monetary or a blend. Non-monetary prizes can be subscriptions to the sponsor, getting published by the sponsor, or some physical prize (I won a giant nut-toll for my True Minnesotan entry).
For monetary prizes, keep in mind that the larger the prize, generally the larger the number of contestants.
Also consider if there's only a grand prize winner or if there are consolation prizes for top entries.
Lastly, there's your reputation as a writer. Winning a contest may propel you to the next level in your writing career, but also for certain prestigious contests, just getting mentioned will fatten up the resume.
Finally, if you are fortunate enough to win a huge prize, be aware that the tax trolls will be coming your way.
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