How Writing Contests Can Kill Your Freelance Writing Career

Writing contests can sound appealing sometimes, right? You can do something you love, pit yourself against your colleagues or peers, maybe win a prize of some sort for the effort, and get a little bit of attention in the process. Then again, that sounds a lot like work when you think about it.

I'm not a huge fan of writing contests. That's not to say I don't think they're ever worth participating in - but I'd say easily 90% would be a waste of time by my standards.

I came across one last month that I'd consider in that better 10% - one I would have really enjoyed. I almost entered. Then I came to my senses. Reality set in - I had several websites needing my attention, three novel outlines waiting to move onto the next step, an e-book that needed to be finished, etc. I made the right decision not to enter the contest (in this case for a short radio show script). Why? Because it would have taken time away from more important projects.

I think this is where a lot of contest entrants go wrong - they join contest after contest in the hopes of getting some recognition without realizing there are far better ways to get their name out there, earn from their work, and build a reputation.

All of your work as a freelance writer is essentially one big contest already. You pit your portfolio and marketing abilities against all competitors targeting the same markets you are. If you have the best portfolio, or market yourself the best, you come away with paying gigs. If you really excel in the "competition" you'll come away with better gigs (for example with well-known clients) which will help boost your reputation and potentially even lead to more gigs.

Do we really need to do what essentially amounts to spec work for other contests, when we're already "competing" with existing samples? In most cases, I'd say no (although I know others disagree). I don't believe in writing custom samples for any prospective client (who should absolutely be able to make a hiring decision based on portfolio pieces), and I don't view contests as being any different in the grand scheme of things.

Here are some of my personal "rules" regarding entering writing contests:

  • DO NOT enter if it's going to interfere with typical working hours.
  • DO consider entering if it can be done entirely in your spare time.
  • DO NOT enter if you have other projects that need attention (your own sites, investing in your writing career with informational products, etc.).
  • DO NOT enter if the "prize" wouldn't be worth the time invested.
  • DO consider entering if the prize would be more than you typically earn for the time invested.
  • DO consider entering if you're interested in it solely for fun (such as to toy with a new writing style) and not because you really care about the prize.
  • DO NOT enter if the submissions are anonymous (if you won't get public exposure during the bulk of the hype surrounding the contest, you can find better ways to get exposure - guest posts, advertising, or other marketing efforts).
  • DO consider entering if you can re-use previously unpublished work rather than investing a lot of time into something new.
  • DO NOT enter if the contest sponsor requires you to give up rights to your work upon entry rather than upon winning (in other words, make sure you can use that material elsewhere before entering).
  • DO consider entering if the contest is being sponsored and promoted by a major company
  • DO NOT enter if you don't already have a decent client base (there are far more effective ways to build a reputation to attract clients - if you don't have clients yet, spend that "extra" time on marketing your services in ways known to have a better return on investment (ROI) than taking chances on contests where most of your prospective client base will never see your work).

What do you think about writing contests? What kinds do you enter? Do you have any additional guidelines that you follow when deciding whether or not it's worth your time (which is a valuable asset to any writer) to enter?

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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7 thoughts on “How Writing Contests Can Kill Your Freelance Writing Career”

  1. I agree with you on this. I’ve been creating websites for schools for years, as well as writing a few travel articles for print magazines and ezines. I’ve entered a few writing contests because I thought that I might get some exposure outside of the niche areas that I’m in (international education and life in the tropics). But, I’ve never really gotten much out of the writing contests. After just completing my first ebook, I’ve found a big spike in both my websites and several of my blogs.

    For me the best approach seems to be to stick with my strengths and see where that leads me.

  2. I haven’t entered a writing contest in years, unless you count my desperate desire to get comment of the week at The Comics Curmudgeon.

  3. Writing contests might be a good “project” for those who want to try their hand in an area they’ve never done. Some people do so well like Evelyn Ryan, the Mom in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio — she saved her family by entering many jingle and poetry contests when they were popular in the ’50s.

    Personally, I don’t bother. I’m lucky enough to stay busy with my clients. Once in a blue moon, I’ll find something fun and try it knowing full well that my chances of winning are marginal.

  4. I’m all about recycling. The only contests I have entered in the last few years are ones that were for previously published material AND did not require an entry fee!

    I do like the idea of entering a contest that is in a new genre than I normally write. But I am already so good at procrastination that I’m not sure I need any more excuses in my life!

  5. Most writing contests require a fee. Unless you trust the sponsors, who knows how all the fees they acquire are used? Sure, there may be a $100 prize (or $1000 or $5000), but if the contest sponsors are receiving who knows how much in fees, and the prize money is only a fraction of that, what happens to all the other money?

  6. I have entered a writing contest which was free. Entering the right writing contests can actually lead to more writing work/clients. I entered the Blue Mountain Arts/SPS Poetry contest and was offered to write for them because I was chosen as finalist. I have work pending as I type this. There are lots of poetry/writing contest tips on the “net.” And there are poetry/writing scam places to check out also just use caution and common sense when applying. It is a good feeling to be chosen as finalist.


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