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Writing Scams

How to Tell If a Contest Is a Writing Scam


How do you evaluate whether or not a writing contest is a writing scam? You can start with the criteria we try to follow when deciding whether or not to add a writing contest to our calendar. While you may want to be even more selective, these questions will provide a baseline.

1. Do They Charge a Fee?

Free contests, we love you! Generally all free contests get a thumbs up, unless something about the contest or the contest website is inappropriate for younger readers.

2. Who Hosts the Contest?

If they charge a fee, as most do, where is the money going? In the case of the Greensboro Review, which has a contest in September, for example, the review is attached to a scholarly, nonprofit institution. So we give their contest the green light. Likewise, we will list contests hosted by small or academic presses, who use fees to publish the winning manuscript. An example of this would be UNT Press's August contest. We also post contests like the Ramble Underground Short Fiction Contest in November, because the modest entry fee only funds the prize (the amount of the prize goes up as more people enter).

3. What Do the Winners Get?

If it's a free contest, then a little publicity is ample award. But if people are paying to enter, some of that money should go to the winner in the form of an advance or monetary prize. With regard to book contests especially, authors will have spent years of their lives on their manuscripts: they deserve some monetary compensation.

4. Does the Entry Fee Include a Subscription?

If the previous requirements have been met, this isn't a deal breaker. But it's a nice gesture on the part of the press to provide writers with a subscription, if it's a journal contest, or a copy of the winning book, if it's a book contest. The extra copies don't cost the press much, and they give writers a chance to learn more about contemporary writing and about that press's style in particular. It's just good business.

5. Have We Heard Complaints About the Judging Process?

The site Foetry highlighted rampant nepotism within the world of poetry contests, and sites like Anotherrealm's Preditors and Editors and SFWA's Writer Beware Blogs continue to track instances of corruption throughout the publishing world. While we can't track every single listing, we will remove contests if it comes to our attention that the judging process is unfair. If you have evidence that a contest we've listed is sketchy, please email us at fictionwriting@aboutguide.com.

6. What About Residencies, Grants, and Fellowships?

Again, it's easy to check to see whether or not the contest is affiliated with a nonprofit institution. The Dobie Paisano, for instance, charges a fee to apply for the fellowship in January, but it's sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters, two nonprofit organizations. We may feature other worthwhile retreats, such as La Muse, on the site, but we won't necessarily list their deadlines on the calendar.

7. Does Everyone Get Published?

We also avoid posting listings for contests in which everyone gets published in an anthology. Though it's not strictly a scam, it takes advantage of new writers' desires to get published. The contest material makes them feel as though they're being honored so that they'll buy the high-priced anthology. But if everyone who enters gets published, it's not really an honor, is it?

8. Is the Contest a Ploy to Get Writers to Use a Service?

Contests in which writers are offered criticism -- and then pitched opportunities to receive more for a price -- are also anathema. And never pay a literary agent to read your work, through a contest or otherwise.

9. Are There Typos in Their Promotional Materials?

Read the materials, including the website, carefully. If they're in the business of publishing writers, they should know a thing or two about writing. Misspelled words, grammatical mistakes, and sloppy design can signal scams, and they're a good indication of how your own work will be treated. Even if the organization is perfectly legitimate, you can still feel embarrassed -- rather than proud -- when you see your work in print. Do you trust this organization to care for your work? Do you like how they've presented themselves?

10. Final Thoughts.

Think carefully before parting with your money. Consider how the organization might be manipulating your understandable desire to see your work recognized. Do some research, through the sites listed on our calendars or on your own (and note that links at the bottom of some pages are supplied by Google, and not posted by us), and post queries in the forum to see if others have experience with a contest. A little time spent with questions like these will save you disappointment later.
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