As a member of the Romance Writers of America, I have the opportunity to enter dozens of romance writing contests every year. According to the RWA website, there are 126 state chapters of RWA in the United States, 6 in Canada, as well as 19 special interest chapters. The special interest chapters are online chapters catering to specific genres and needs - historical, mystery/suspense, paranormal, erotica, chick lit, etc.
Many of the RWA chapters sponsor writing contests to raise money to support their chapters and enhance the writing skills and publishing opportunities for all members.
Some of the contests are geared to the unpublished writer, some specifically for the published author, and some include opportunities for both. With nearly 10,000 members of RWA, the competition to final in any of the chapter contests is tough. The national RWA hosts the RITA and GOLDEN HEART contests. The RITA is for books copyrighted within the year of entering the contest, and the GOLDEN HEART is for unpublished writers with a completed manuscript.
If a writer is looking to enter a contest, there are several factors to take into consideration.
Money: The cost of the contest, including postage, paper and ink. Although many contests are going all electronic so the latter isn't always a concern. However, for published writers there is the cost of shipping their books.
Time: Researching contests and the amount of time to polish the pages being submitted.
Final Judges: Is the final round judge an editor who works for a publishing house that publishes the genre you write and the word-count of your manuscript? Or perhaps an agent you would want to represent you and your work?
Scoresheet and critique: Many of the contests post their scoresheets on their websites, and there is usually some kind of critiquing offered -- but not always. This helps in the decision making process whether to enter a particular contest. Keep in mind, the national Golden Heart contest does not offer any critiquing, you simply receive a letter with your final scores.
Which contest to enter: There are a variety of contests to consider for unpublished writers, so depending on your need or expertise you can make your decision. For example the GOLDEN HEART can only be entered if you have a completed manuscript, but the first round judges only read the first three chapters and synopsis.
Other choices available are: 1st chapter contests, synopsis, query letters, individual scenes such as where the hero and heroine first meet, or first kiss, or first time making love. Some offer a contest where the scene features the villain.
So, make your decision on whether you desire a critique, or the editor/agent is one you want, or the prize is enticing, etc.
Be aware, however, that if you have a piece of writing polished and perfect and your goal is to get in front of an editor or agent, you better have the rest of the manuscript finished. The professional editors and agents sign on to judge these contests with the ultimate goal in finding fresh, undiscovered writers ready to be published. I have heard many stories of finalists having requests for partial and full manuscripts and they aren't finished writing the book. Not only does this make RWA look bad, it's a waste of time for the editor, and unfair to other contestants who might have finaled in their place with a completed manuscript.
That said, there are many newbie writers who use the contest circuit to enhance their writing skills with the critiques offered. As long as they submit knowing their piece needs work and they probably won't final.
It's about being professional. Follow the contest rules and regulations with the understanding of your responsibilities.
I usually enter only two contests a year due to limited funds. Although I'm on the prowl for one right now, so wish me luck, and here goes...