Note: I can only speak of RWA contests. I know nothing of other writing contents, for good or ill.
Entering a writing contest can be a lot like playing the Lottery. Whether you get someone who loves your work or hates it depends a lot on chance.
Reasons to enter a contest:
- You want feedback from someone who knows nothing about you, not even your online alias. Sometimes, I suspect family and friends of pulling their punches. An anonymous person online is much more likely to tell me an unpleasant truth.
- You want a real (e.g. outside) deadline to force you to get the writing done. If you are unpublished, you are writing for yourself. Sometimes you need an external deadline.
- You really, really want your work to be read by the particular final judge in the contest. Contests can be a way to avoid the Dreaded Query Letter. (Though not the dreaded synopsis, sorry. If it goes to the final judge, you’ll have to write one.)
- You are looking for a diverse group of people to give feedback. Even in the field of Romance, tastes differ. Some people like traditional/inspirational/sweet. Other people think dinosaur porn is the greatest thing ever. You can get some pretty different opinions of your writing.
Reasons not to enter a contest:
- You do not like dealing with people who Do Not Get your writing. The truth is, there are a lot of people who fall into this category. (And this is true even for famous writers.) They don’t get your jokes, they don’t like your characters, they yawn at your plot. It is very easy to make the jump to “they don’t like me” when dealing with these people. Do not make that jump. Really.
- You have written a book that doesn’t really pick up steam until the third chapter or so. Contests are judged by volunteers who have lives and usually manuscripts of their own. They do not want to read your entire book. They are judging you only on the small sliver of your talent that they see in the first 10 pages or 20 pages. Not all books shine in a contest.
- Your book is written for a narrow niche market. If you’ve written a book about a one-legged soccer player who plays the ukelele until he falls in love with the ghost of an Eskimo meth addict, then becomes a paranormal detective to track down the shapeshifting whale hunter who betrayed her, well… your book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If the judges cannot fathom your characters or your plot, they’ll have a hard time with the scoring.
Personally, I think that even if your manuscript does fall into one of the above categories, it would still help you to submit if to a contest if you need an external deadline to finish your work. But you might not benefit from the feedback.
Be prepared for the fact that the feedback you get can be extremely frustrating. I have gotten results back where I had both the highest and the lowest score in a contest. This baffles me. I understand how tastes may differ. What I do not get is why people have such different interpretations of the mechanical aspects of writing. (Grammar, etc.) My personal pet peeve is people who criticize my grammar when they know not of which they speak. That is a great way to annoy me. (In case you were looking for a way to do that.) Luckily, I have not encountered too many of these people.
The feedback you get from a contest can range from the sublimely helpful to the ridiculous. But if you keep getting the same feedback from all the judges, then you probably need to think about what they’re telling you.