Five Ways to Spot a Writing Contest Scam

writing contest scams - do not enter

Do not enter writing contest scams!

Today’s guest post is by John Yeoman of The Writers’ Village.

Have you ever been scammed by a writing contest?

I run a short story competition at Writers’ Village, so I have an interest in asking. We attract around 1200 entries each year, and with total prize values of £1500 ($2400), we’re edging into the big league. So I get angry when I hear about contests that don’t play by the rules and give all story awards a bad name.

Here’s a recent example.

One of my contestants told me he was about to submit an entry to a contest that we’ll call GeeWhiz Stories (not its real name). The contest announced total prize values of £4000 ($6400). That’s top money! At a £10 ($17) entry fee, it would need to attract 400 entries just to cover its prizes. Yet with low page rank, its website couldn’t be getting much traffic. Nor did its name appear in the web’s top contest directories, like Ask About Writing, Places For Writers, or Compete Around The World. So how did it attract over 400 entries annually and fund its prizes?

It didn’t. GeeWhiz was a scam.

I ran a Google search for “geewhiz scam” and the results were hair-raising. It seems contestants had to wait up to a year to get their prize money. Sometimes the check bounced. The contest demanded first publication rights for winning stories, yet it took six years to publish them. Was the anthology available on Amazon? Did it have an ISBN? No. It could only be bought at an obscure page on the GeeWhiz site.

GeeWhiz had been operating like that for seven years. How did its directors sleep at night? None of this points to deliberate fraud, of course, but it suggests incompetence on an epic scale. From the comments I read on writing forums, it seems GeeWhiz is not an isolated case.

To be sure, the vast majority of contests are honest. Many are staffed by hard-working, unpaid volunteers. However, standards in the writing-contest industry — and it is an industry — differ wildly.

Several of my contestants have been entering shady contests for years. I asked them to share their thoughts about where some contests go wrong, including the ethical ones. Here’s what I heard:

Seven Ways Writing Contests Get it Wrong

1. Contests typically hide their deadlines and entry instructions. To find them at the site is a game of finding a needle in a haystack.

2. Their rules are often so complex you need a PhD in law to interpret them. Only after you’ve sent them your cash and story do you realize entries are accepted only from green-haired Klingons who are willing to attend an award ceremony in Mordor. You tell them that, alas, you are not a Klingon. Do they send back your entry fee? No.

3. They fail to acknowledge your entry. Your self-addressed postcard is not returned. Nobody responds to your increasingly frantic emails. Have they received your entry? Who knows? Who cares? Obviously, they don’t.

4. You’re never told if your entry was unsuccessful. You have to work it out for yourself by studying the photos of the smug winners posing at the award ceremony in Mordor. Are you pictured? No. You conclude you didn’t win.

5. They demand that your entry be anonymous. Your name must be revealed only in the entry form and thereafter concealed by a reference number. Can’t they trust their judges to be impartial? If not, their judges are amateurs. Would you trust amateurs to assess your story?

6. ”No correspondence will be entered into.” Nor will they give contestants even minimal feedback on their entries, except occasionally upon payment of a large extra fee. Why? Is it because the judges have not read the stories and subsequent correspondence would reveal that?

7. The winning stories are not published at the contest site or elsewhere. True, there may be a good reason, having to do with first publication rights. But unless a reason is given, it suggests that the names of the winners were made up, all entries were round-binned, and the promised prize money was not distributed.

How to Spot a Writing Contest Scam

Here are some clues that will help you spot a writing contest scam:

  • The promoter has no obvious credentials in literature, academia or business.
  • You’ve never heard of the judges and cannot easily do an online background check on them. Worse, no judges are named.
  • The text on the contest website shows evidence of illiteracy. If a contest cannot even place its apostrophes in the right places, it is not qualified to determine which stories deserve awards.
  • The contest does not showcase the work of previous winners. Why not? Unless the contest has not been run before, the organizers should flaunt such proof of their credentials in order to encourage future entrants.
  • If the winning stories are showcased, did they, in your opinion, deserve an award? If not, you might feel motivated to enter the contest because you think you could easily beat that standard. In fact, if the stories are terrible yet still won money, ask yourself this: did the organizers write the stories themselves? If so, did they ever hand out any cash prizes?

In other words, if a contest smells like a money-making scam, it probably is. There’s nothing wrong with running a contest to make a profit. How else can the prizes be funded and the overheads paid? But if a contest demands an entry fee, it should maintain professional standards.

John YeomanAbout the author: Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humor and judges the Writers’ Village story competition. Dr. Yeoman is not courting your entries but would welcome your comments. His free 14-part course in winning story contests for profit can be found at:

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3 Responses to “Five Ways to Spot a Writing Contest Scam”

  1. Jean Jackson says:

    #5 There’s are reasons for blind entries. Many local contests allow members to enter. In that case name recognition is a factor. Even at the state levels people who are not known by face are recognized by name.

    I note that the editor of our local paper (not a contest, but still a chance for publication), which does allow names on entries, frequently publishes the same known poets, some of them his buddies. Newbies don’t have an even chance.

    I think Dr. Yeoman should have referenced local contests, which by far are not scams and are run by hard-working members of organizations dedicated to writing.

  2. Julie says:

    Writers of the Future is a well-regarded, non-fee-charging contest that’s been extant for over twenty years, and they’ve always (at least, as long as I’ve been entering) done anonymous entries. Probably because they keep seeing the same people over and over again (I’ve garnered eight Honorable Mentions, myself), and maybe it’s difficult to keep seeing the names and not feel BAD after awhile that the person isn’t doing better? This way, they’re not tempted to throw a pity prize at someone just because they keep trying.

    At any rate, I know that my entry is judged on the basis of how good it is and not because of extraneous factors like the fact that I’m a woman, or from Utah. (A disproportionate number of the winners are from Utah, it’s weird.)

  3. John Yeoman says:

    Jean and Julie, you make some excellent points. True, if the judges are elected for their authority as authors, not as judges, there could well be a problem of involuntary bias. An anonymous entry requirement might then be understandable. Perhaps my question derives from my experience as a university tutor. I get to know my students very well. Some I like and some I loathe. But heaven help me if I let that personal bias get in the way when I grade their assignments!

    Am I being too demanding to request a similar degree of impartiality among contest judges?