Writing competitions can be enormously useful if you approach them with balance and detachment and don’t give them too much importance in the greater scheme of your writing. They are just another tool at your disposal. A means to an end. They aren’t the world. You’re going to do well from time to time and bomb from time to time. From the point of view of an author who sold as the result of a competition, here’s my thoughts on comps as:
An editing tool
Competitions aren’t a great way to edit your work. In fact they’re an excruciatingly slow, confusing and entirely frustrating way to edit your work. Different judges will offer different edit suggestions on different parts of the book in different styles (theirs!). If you want guidance editing, join a crit group. Faster, cheaper and entirely less demoralising.
What comps ARE great for is market-research. Getting an idea of whether your story, characters or style appeal to readers of the genre. For about $30 you will get written feedback (of varying quality, it must be said) giving you a fairly clear idea of whether three or four individuals (readers or writers in the genre) have liked your work. And you get a score to give you an idea of how much/little they have liked it relative to others. That’s a pretty convenient service.
A foot in the door with an editor/agent
If you’re careful, yes they can be. My full manuscript of WILD ENCOUNTER is sitting on a desk at Berkley thanks to a competition final. And I sold to Harlequin Mills & Boon as the result of a competition. If you choose competitions that have a) ACQUIRING judges and b) are from the right LINES for your work then getting your work onto their desk can be a fast-track to a request. Do your research. If the judge for your category isn’t an acquiring editor (ie: they can’t make a contract decision) or if they acquire/edit for historical and they’re judging romantic suspense then even winning isn’t going to do much good in practical terms. Other than look good on your query letter. Which brings me to…
A way of growing a credit-history
Although agents and editors disagree on the relative worth of listing your competition wins in query letters or proposals (general rule of thumb is don’t name them unless they’re exceptional), what seems clear is that it is always helpful to be able to say that ‘this story has finalled in four RWA writing competitions and won two’. It tells the editor/agent (at a glance) that you’re polished and literate which makes your work that much better than some they must see. It also tells them that the story has broad enough appeal to be able to score highly in a range of comp settings. It won’t get you a sale but it might get you a request.