I’ve only been poking around for a short while regarding writing contests. So far, most of the ones I’ve found require some sort of cash outlay or else a massive lobbying effort to get God and Everyone to vote for your particular offering.
Those aren’t writing contests. Those are fundraisers and popularity contests.
That’s not to say the outfits that do such things aren’t legit. I’m sure (most of them) are. And I guess the ones that require an entry fee are just defraying the costs of the execution and prize. Fair enough. The ones with the voting are a bit sillier, in my opinion. It’s sort of stupid to call it a WRITING contest. Writing isn’t what’s being judged. The voters aren’t going through and reading all 4500 entries before going, “Ahh, this one! This is the diamond in the dung heap!” They’re usually clicking a link from a friend, or a friend of a friend, and rallying to a cause.
(I probably say this because I’m bitter. There are still two weeks of voting in the one of these I fell into, and I’m in a respectable-yet-demoralizing 42nd place out of 398. I have 125 votes. I don’t see any way of catching the leader, who currently has more than 400. So, yeah. On the plus side, in this particular contest, the editors will also pick some entries, so there’s a second chance at grace.)
Anyway, this contest business is all a bit too much like trolling for an agent. You throw something out into the universe, you pray for a response, and if you’re really persistent and really lucky, you win.
OK, so here’s the new approach: You enter contests and send queries for the practice. Instead of spending a week writing something and then a month begging everyone you know to vote for it, just toss it on the heap and see if anyone stumbles over it. (Odds are not good, since pretty much everyone at the site is probably only there to vote for someone else already. But still.) Instead of writing a query and sending it off with minor tweaks to 100 different agents, write the query 100 different ways. I’ve tried this, and I think my query has vastly improved over the past three iterations.
I kind of miss non-commercial writing, but I’m sure I’ll find time for it again at some point.