Emerging writers receive all kinds of advice about whether or not to enter literary contests. The odds are steep with hundreds of competitors for even the smallest publication or press and the entry fees add up.
I have entered a fair amount of writing competitions over the past 5 years. Last summer, I earned a semi-finalist ranking for the Mark Twain House Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Contest, an honor that came with neither publication or mention on the contest website. Don't get me wrong, I was thrilled with this honor, and I do consider it an honor.
I believe that every notch you earn by entering literary contests earns you something, be it prize money, publication, recognition, or at the beginner's level, experience. That said, choose those contests wisely! My strategy is to choose around 5-8 contests a year -- that is what I can financially and emotionally budget. If each entry fee is approximately $20, you're talking $110-$160 for the privilege of landing in the slush pile.
On the other hand, many contests come with a free subscription to whatever journal you are submitting. In other words, your $20 entry fee is really paying for an online subscription to a journal you should probably be reading in the first place. Consider the entry fee your commitment to read more of your contemporaries, a valuable research tool as you figure out how to get published.
My last word of advice on literary contests is this: apply -- if you qualify -- for conference scholarships! While I am not broke, I am a struggling artist and my family lives on one full-time salary. In this day and age that is considered stretched thin. I don't set aside much money to advance my writing career because it cannot always be a priority. My kids, the house, the pets -- these are my pressing financial priorities, leaving me a few hundred dollars, if I'm lucky, to invest in my writing. I have -- I'm truly pleased to say -- received my third conference scholarship. I have either received a full or partial scholarship to attend The Kentucky Women Writer's Conference, where I attended a workshop with the fab Meghan Daum, and the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, where I had an essay critiqued by Hope Edelman. These were critical experiences I would not have had had I not applied for admission scholarships. This summer, I will attend the Hippocamp Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster Count, PA as one of 2 partial scholarship recipients and I couldn't be more thrilled. Hippocampus Magazine, the literary journal which sponsors Hippocamp, will also be publishing my scholarship application essay, "Live to Tell. Tell to Live."
Keep checking those classifieds in the back of Poets and Writers and The Writer's Chronicle and CWROPPS. Make sure the contests are a good fit between what you write and the publication or contest to which you are applying. And best of luck!