Entering a writing contest is more fun than buying a lottery ticket. If the contest has no entry fee, it's cheaper too, unless you're sending your entry off to one of the decreasing number of publishers who still insist on snail mail. The potential rewards are great, including cash, other prizes, and a fantastic line for your resume.
Lots of publishers and organizations offer no-fee writing contests, ranging from the biggest names in magazine publishing to one-person websites created as labors of love. I've looked at many contest pages, and came up with this list of the ones that I found most interesting. The list includes poetry contests, fiction contests, and an essay contest. All the contests listed below offer cash or gift-card prizes.
* Poetry contests *
Blue Mountain Arts, publisher of popular greeting cards with heartfelt verses printed on watercolor backgrounds, has a biannual poetry contest. There are three prizes: $300, $150, and $50. You can enter as many poems as you want. Contest rules and entry form
The Wergel Flomp Humor Poetry Contest Prizes are $1,500, $800, $400, and 12 honorable mentions of $75 each. The contest started when a writer, just to see what would happen, submitted a deliberately bad poem to a vanity publisher which told everyone they were "winners" who would be published in an anthology. That moment of inspiration eventually led to this contest where writers now compete to write the worst poetry. "Your poem must be in English (inspired gibberish also accepted)." Contest guidelines.
* Fiction contests *
At the Electric Dragon Cafe site, the editors believe that "popular fiction, like the food you eat, need not always be good for you." They have a quarterly contest (may be semiannual for a while). "All types of science fiction, fantasy and horror with fantastic elements are welcome." Each contest has a topic, photo, or theme. Prizes are $25 and $10 bookstore gift certificates, a writing journal, and publication on the site. Contest rules.
Highlights for Children has an annual fiction contest with three prizes of $1,000 or tuition to the magazine's writers workshop. Stories may be up to 750 words, except for stories for beginning readers, which should be less than 475 words. Contest rules.
The American Kennel Club has an annual fiction contest with prizes of $750, $500, $250, and possible publication. Stories, as you might expect, should feature a dog, specifically "an AKC-registrable breed or a breed listed in the Miscellaneous class." Maximum length 2,000 words. Contest rules.
Review Fuse, a site where writers critique each other's work, has monthly writing contests that rotate among flash fiction, short stories, 1st chapters of books, and poetry. You must give four critiques of other authors' work. $50 prize. Contest rules.
* Essay contest *
The big-circulation magazine "Real Simple" has an annual personal essay contest with the theme "Life Lessons." One winner gets $3,000, a trip for two to New York, and his or her essay published in the magazine. Contests open for submissions from May to the first week of September. You can see the rules for the last contest and read the first winning essay here: Second Annual Life-Lessons Contest