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For nearly as long as long as there have been writers, there have been writing contests. Some are designed for bragging rights alone, while others offer cash prizes or chances to be immortalized in a book or receive free merchandise or whatever. There are countless numbers of contests that require entrants to create slogans or poems or creative essays, sponsored by an equally countless number of non-profit organizations, publishers, government agencies, corporations and so on. Writing contests have always been a good source of income for the starving artists among us, and are often the first to publish an upcoming talented writer.

But how can you judge whether or not that writing contest that caught your eye is on the level? Many scam contests appear to be run by legitimate publishers or non-profit organizations interested only in promoting the art of writing. They may charge high entry fees or assume all rights to your work without your knowledge. They may pressure entrants into purchasing expensive books that contain winning works, or keep their names on a mailing list for years to come. There is a lot that can go wrong with a writing contest, but thankfully much more that can go right, so there are still plenty of reasons to enter a legitimate writing contest- money, prizes, exposure, pride.

So what sort of questions should you ask before deciding to enter a writing contest? Plenty, but here are the most commonly asked questions by those who want to avoid the scam artists.

1. What organization is sponsoring this event? By sponsorship, you really should mean who's providing the money and/or prizes. The organization who posted the ad for the contest may or may not be the ones who will be responsible for the distribution of prizes. Check for small print on any contest flyer or advertisement. Scammers often change names to avoid the stigma of wearing a known scammer name. Legitimate contests usually spell out the name of the sponsors, or at least a complete listing of prizes. If you see a contest sponsored by a church, a well-known agency, a major manufacturer, a well-known college or any offshoot of these organizations, chances are the contest is quite legitimate. If you can't trace the lineage of the sponsors, or they have deliberately eliminated that information or will not release names, then be very cautious.

2. Where is the entry fee going? Many writing contests do not charge entry fees, but that does not make them legitimate by definition. Some scammers will obtain your 'free' entry along with your personal contact information. Several weeks later, you may receive a large packet of unsolicited mail from the sponsors, asking you to consider purchasing various wares. If the prizes are modest and the sponsors appear sincere, then they probably are using their own money to fund the prizes, or have received donations. These contests are almost always a fair deal for writers.

By extension, an entry fee in and of itself does not imply either legitimacy or scamming. Many organizations simply do not have the resources to fund a writing contest themselves, so they ask for a modest fee to cover prizes and judging costs. Ask yourself if the value of the prizes is in direct proportion to the amount of the entry fee. Paying a $10 entry fee for a $25 cash prize is not cost-effective. The sponsors only need three entries to cover the cost of the prize, and the rest of the money goes directly into their own pockets. If the prize is closer to $100 or more, then a $10 investment is more reasonable. Professional writers can often write off entry fees as expenses when filing taxes.

3. Who will be judging my work? Some legitimate contests will keep the identity of the judge(s) secret, in order to keep the contest as fair as possible. This is not an attempt to deceive the entrants. Other contests appoint members of their organization to act as judges, which means that some non-professional readers may be in charge of evaluating your work. Again, this is not unheard of, and does not usually result in an unfair result. The situation to be most cautious of is when the judging process is not revealed at all to the entrants. Some scam contests will simply draw names at random, fulfilling their responsibility as judges.

4. Am I giving up any rights to my work? Contest information should include some mention of the copyright situation you will be facing. Many legitimate contests will state that any entries submitted become the property of the sponsors and will not be returned. This could very well mean that your entry, winning or not, could appear later in a company magazine or ad campaign without your permission or further compensation. Most corporate sponsors will simply destroy non-winning entries, rather than run the risk of infringing on copyrights later on. Other contests may request one-time printing rights, or perpetual electronic rights for website entries. This is standard procedure, and most contest organizers will respect an author's request to return rights following the contest. What you want to avoid is giving away all rights to your work forever, unless you have been well-compensated. This commonly happens with commercial or slogan contests, where the sponsor produces a derivative advertising campaign using your idea. You may or may not receive any residual benefits if you agree to hand over all rights to your work.

5. Can I get a list of winners? Most contest sponsors are more than willing to release the names of former winners or provide a list of current winners following the contest. If they seem hesitant to release such information, or if the list contains untraceable information like "Larry M. of Michigan", then you may want to do some more investigating before entering that specific contest. A list of winning works may also give you some insight into what style of poetry or writing has won in the past. This information can help you narrow down your choice of entries, and will increase your chances of winning.