I don’t believe entering contests should be the point of writing anything. However, I admit I’ve always been attracted to them. Sure, it’s a great confidence booster to win, and I don’t mean winning a top prize alone. It’s all relative to the size and type of contest. Winning an honorable mention in a major contest with a large number of accomplished entrants can mean more than first prize in a tiny contest with ten entrants and a $5 first prize. But I’ve always been thrilled to win in the tiny contests as well.
Contests can serve as valuable nudges in two ways:
1) Contest deadlines give you something to work toward. Better to pick a contest with a distant deadline so you’re not rushing substandard work as an entry. However, if you’ve been languishing and unable to rally yourself to write, simply revising some work to submit to a contest can get you moving again. Be realistic about your chances of winning, and don’t enter something truly embarrassing. Sometimes the adrenalin of trying to meet a contest deadline actually can propel you to a higher level of performance, though, so it’s not impossible you could turn out quality work at the last minute, even from scratch.
2) If the contest is themed, you have the added benefit of focusing your inspiration on a specific subject, concept, or even format. Themed contests for which you must write about a specific topic can energize your imagination. If the format is unfamiliar—flash fiction or a formal poetic form such as a sonnet—the contest gives you an excuse to try a new style.
Contest information is widely available. The Resource Links page on this site includes several sources that provide free information about reputable contests, especially Poets & Writers, Writer’s Market, and Writer’s Digest. In addition, WinningWriters.com offers free newsletter subscription and paid access to their premium database of over 1,200 contests.
If you write poetry and are interested in trying the subject-based contest, I recommend the national competition sponsored by The National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS). It has a March 15 deadline, so you’ll have to scurry; contest guidelines are available here. You don’t have to belong to NFSPS or a state poetry society to enter, but note that some contest categories are closed to nonmembers, who also pay a higher entry fee ($1 per category or $5 for Category 1, the major award). Some category subjects and forms include “Let the Good Times Roll,” environmental issues, the pantoum, a gloss, humorous rhymed poetry, children’s poem, and a “Spoon River” soliloquy from the grave. Note that guidelines are specific about format and other matters. While you’re checking out the NFSPS contest, go to the state links page and see if your state has a poetry society. Membership fees are usually low and automatically include membership in NFSPS; societies have get-togethers and ways to share information and feedback; and societies sponsor their own contests as well.