I know this title sounds click-baity, but hey-- the formula is solid! Bear with me and read on.
I won't claim to be an expert on writing contests. I've never judged one, I've never hosted one. But I have participated in a few, and it was through one that I even got my lovely agent. So I'm comfortable saying that I know a little bit about them, at least on a participant level. And now that I'm no longer entering them, it's time to pass on what I've learned.
Everyone who enters an online writing contest typically goes in with some end goal variant of getting an agent. Or at the very least, getting an agent's attention. But there are a few things you can get from entering even if signing a contract for representation isn't your end result (this time!).
I'm assuming, by the way, that if you're reading this, you know the basic gist of how most online writing contests work. If you don't, feel free to ask in the comments and I'll explain the structures I've run across.
1.) Feedback. This, my friends, is the single most valuable thing I took away from every contest I entered. Many have a structure where everyone who enters must critique X number of other entries. Which meant that I was getting at least a few different opinions on my work, whether I made it to the agent round or not. This was huge, especially when I was new to the online writing world and hadn't made any friends for critiquing yet. It gave me a new, fresh, random insight into my work. Even in contests that don't follow this structure, I usually wound up with some form of feedback because, well-- see below.
2.) Friends. Speaking of friends for critiquing, I met some of my favorite people online when we were co-participants in contests I entered. Most contests have a twitter hashtag. If you hang out on that hashtag and chat with other entrants, friendships will sort of naturally form. Even if you aren't the super social type, it's fairly easy to find at least one other writer you share something in common with-- even if it's just the genre/ category you write in. I've found several awesome critique partners and betas just by entering contests, whether I made it in to the contest itself or not. Plus, there's an awesome sense of camaraderie and community amongst the participants. It's nice to have someone to commiserate with when you're angsting over whether you'll be picked or not.
3.) A future. (Okay, I'm just having too much fun with this list alliteration). One of the things that I liked the most about entering contests was the fact that it pushed me to be better. It wasn't just me anymore, punching away at my keyboard behind the curtain. My writing became a public commodity. I had accountability. I had people looking at my words and telling me what they thought of them, and it wasn't always nice. It's so easy to get sucked into the vacuum of the query void, with feedback from agents themselves becoming rarer and rarer these days (due to the MASSIVE volume of queries they receive now!) Entering contests helped show me that my work was resonating, or not, more accurately than a form rejection.
4.) A face. Every writer needs a brand. It's always been slightly fascinating to me that my two chosen careers-- zookeeping and writing-- are ones that shy or introverted people trend towards because they seem like awesome, reclusive jobs. But both have become so much MORE demanding socially, especially with the advent of the internet and the huge leaps made in zookeeping the last 20 years. It's now my job to connect people with animals, not just take care of them. And as a writer, I don't just get to put words on a page anymore. It's my job, too, to connect people with my books. Querying can seem rather anonymous because email addresses don't go anywhere besides an inbox. But a contest gives you a face. People can see who you are with a few clicks. It's a great way to begin building that brand you'll need someday.
5.) Fortitude (Ha! Made it through all five!). Most of all, what I got from contests was the courage to keep trying. I'm not the type of person who gives up easily anyway, but boy, there were definitely times when I wanted to. Having the encouragement of my mentors and fellow participants made me realize that whether I made it this time or not, I wanted to keep trying. It is SO IMPORTANT to keep trying. When I felt my lowest, when I was sure I was the worst writer out there, these contests kept me going. Because at least I would come out of it with some feedback, a new friend, and a little hope.
So there you have it. It's not just about getting in, and getting read, and getting an agent. Sometimes, what happens around those things is more important.
And whatever you do, keep going back to #5. Stick it out. Keep trying. When the time is right, when you are ready, when your book is ready, it will happen. And it will be amazing.