1. Prize money
3. Brand promotion
There may be some others, such as networking or supporting a cause, however the big three are the same across the board. However many competitions require a fee to enter and it is a game of skill, not chance. There are also several pitfalls you should be aware of.
A prestigious competition with a big prize that is open to everyone, published or unpublished, is going to have a lot of entrants. You could be competing with authors who have been published for thirty years, who are reasonably big names. Not to mention everyone else with a story and a daydream.
If the entry fee is moderately high, that money may be better spent elsewhere. Such as more niche competitions—ones specific to your genre, location or publication status.
You also need to be highly aware of the contract you are signing by entering the competition. If the story is going to be published—and usually it will be—where? And what rights are they asking for? Be aware some competitions may ask for rights even if you don’t win.
Some competitions appear to just be a money making scam. The entry fee is $10 and the prize is $500. If 1000 people enter, that’s $9, 500 in profits for... what? Pointing to a story and handing the writer $500.
I personally prefer competitions that don’t have entry fees. However I am also aware that there will be a lot more entrants in those competitions, because entry fees are a hassle and off putting to a lot of other authors too.
So let’s assume the competition is legitimate. The entry fee is reasonable, there is good promotion for the winner and a decent prize. You’ll have stiff competition, but you know the win would be great for your career. What else should you consider?
First, read as many of the past winners and runners up as possible. Think about why you think they won and, realistically, if your writing is up to that standard. If all the other winners are literary, do you really think your dystopian steampunk elves novella is a likely first prize contender?
It’s also worth researching the judges. Be aware of who you are trying to impress. Every judge thinks they are impartial, but none of them are. The judge who posted the homophobic rant on her blog is not going to score the lesbian romance story very highly, no matter how great your style is.
Some people seem to have a knack for competitions and they work as a massive boon to their careers. If you are one of those people, competitions are a worthwhile investment. However there are some people who think publishing revolves around them, and without impressive wins in your query letter, you won’t find an agent. Don’t be that person.
My biggest tip for entering competitions? Follow the guidelines. You don’t want to be disqualified before the race has even begun. Because you won’t get your $15 back and you could have spent it on getting ‘Anti Social’ instead.