Freelancers don’t always think about ROI, or return on investment. For us, it basically breaks down to whether or not a particular project is going to earn us enough money to make it worth our time. Any writing project requires an investment of time.
Most days, contests simply aren’t worth the investment of time. First off, there’s no guaranteed pay out. While you may be confident of your skills, there may be a contestant out there with an edge. Second, a lot of contests offer very low payouts, or no payout at all. Plaques may be pretty, but they don’t pay the bills. Lastly, some contests will ask for all sorts of rights that they have no claim to and that you can’t afford to give away, like when the fine print says “All entries become property of the contest.”
So when are contests worth your while?
- When you already have a poem, short story or other applicable piece to enter all ready to go. Now, this isn’t to say that you should give away something you have a market in mind for or that you’re confident that you can sell. But if you have something that you wrote for an experiment, a contest might be a prime place to try it out. There are plenty of contests for already published pieces, too.
- When you need a change of pace. Most contests have specific themes, and if you are starting to feel burnt out on your main projects, it can be useful to concentrate on a new topic for a little while. And as long as you make sure that you keep the rights to your piece, if you don’t win you may be able to turn it in for another contest or sell it to a related market.
- When you just don’t have enough work. If you have some time that you need to fill, well, it’s better to have a chance at a profit than a guarantee of no profit at all. Contests can also be ideal for short periods of time: say you have thirty minutes left before you quit for the night – you may not want to start a new project, but that can be just enough to pound out a piece of flash fiction for a contest.
- When the price is right. Personally, I aim for mid-level contests – something around that dollar per word range. Anything less isn’t worth it, in terms of how much time I’d have to spend on the project. And as for the bigger contests, sure, I’d like to win a nice hefty prize, but it’s also important to remember that everyone else does as well. Contests with big prizes tend to have big marketing budgets as well. Everyone knows about them and everyone enters them.
Unfortunately, there isn’t just one super fabulous listing for contests, though. You have to keep an eye on mailing lists covering topics you write about, keep in tough with local writer’s groups and follow websites. I do recommend Hope Clark’s fabulous online newsletters if you’re just starting out, though. There’s always a couple of good contests listed.