Writing Contests:Should You Take a Shot?

There are writing contests everywhere. Besides the small ones on blogs for opening lines and flash fiction and such, there are dozens of more formal ones put on by local chapters of writer's groups. These contests usually involve submitting part of your manuscript (15, 25, 50 pages depending on contest) and sometimes a synopsis or query letter. In the first round, your work is evaluated by a panel of judges which typically includes published authors. Then if you final, you move on to another judge--and here's the exciting part--this judge is usually an agent or an editor at a relevant publishing house.

Photo by Reggie Alvey (click photo for link)These contests cost money, which I know makes some think--wait, I'm paying for a contest. Aren't those usually free? But keep in mind that these are often put on by local chapters who have their own administrative costs to run such a venture and this serves as their non-profit fundraiser. The fees are usually reasonable--most around $25. If you enter at the national level, like RWA's Golden Heart, then the price goes up.
So is entering a contest worth that $20-$50 bucks you're shelling out? Well, I entered a number of contests (and won a few!) before I signed with Sara and here are the benefits I see:
1. You get to see your score sheets and feedback from the judges. So basically a critique, in some cases, by a published author.
2. If you place, you now have something to add to that bio paragraph in your query letter. (And I know that bio paragraph gives a lot of unpublished writers anxiety because--oh crap, what the heck do I put in there?)
3. Impartial feedback. These judges are not your mom, your friends, or even your critique buddies whom you already have a relationship with. The judges don't even know your name when they are looking at the manuscript.
4. There are sometimes small cash prizes if you place and your name may be listed in some of the trade magazines like Romance Writers Report.
5. Did I mention that if you final, your entry usually goes to an agent or acquiring editor? Hello, nurse! No slush pile to sit in--your work in front of someone who can make something happen.
On the negative side...
--Winning doesn't guarantee publication. It doesn't even guarantee you'll get a pages request from the agent or editor. 
--Judging, like anything else, is subjective. I've won some contests, finaled in others, and then didn't place at all in a few with the same exact manuscript. 
--It costs money
--If you have a book that doesn't neatly fit into a category, it can be hard to figure out the right section to enter your manuscript in.
And just as a side note, many of these contests are run by romance writers chapters. However, that doesn't mean your book has to be straight up romance. Almost every contest has a young adult category and a mainstream fiction category--as long your book has "romantic elements", you can enter. Here are the upcoming contest for RWA chapters. Of course, there are other contests for specific things like memoirs, screenplays, paranormal, horror, mystery, thrillers, etc. If you want a comprehensive list of a variety of contests, check out this link. Although this site lists last years dates, these contests are run yearly, so check out the provided links on the page to get updated info.
As for me, I enjoyed entering contests. It built my confidence tremendously. There's really nothing like winning and knowing that the judges thought your entry was the best of the bunch. But also, even when I didn't take top prize, I usually received great feedback that helped me improve. So I definitely recommend them.
How about you? Are any of you going to enter any contests this year? For those of you who have done the contest thing, what was your experience like?

*This is a revamped post from November 2009