I'm a finalist in a romance writing contest sponsored by an RWA chapter. At the moment, I'm waiting with some anxiety for word from the contest coordinator; the winners will be anounced at the RWA National Convention later this week. I don't know about other genres, but if you write romance, there are plenty of contest opportunities out there.
For the working-toward-publication writer, contests have a lot of perks--your manuscript can take its first steps out into the publishing world, writers/readers give you feedback, and you get practice in preparing a manuscript before sending it to an editor. Many of you have heard of RWA's Golden Heart contest for unpublished writers, but I'd suggest checking out the many chapter contests that occur all through the year. Every issue of the RWR: Romance Writers Report lists current and upcoming contests. On the RWA website, Members Area, Member Resources, there is a tab for Chapter Contests. With these lists, you have plenty of time to choose and prepare your entry. If you make the finals or win, you have affirmation that your writing is publication quality and motiviation for kicking your writing into high gear.
For published writers, there are several contests to which you can send your published book (RWA's RITA Award is one of those), but I'm talking about a published author sending out a manuscript to a contest.
But you're a published writer, you say, why do you enter manuscript contests?
Simply to try out new ideas. My published writing has been in the "sweet romance" category, but I've got ideas and drafts for historicals and paranormals that I'm not so sure about. My critique group gives me wonderful feedback and encouragement, but they don't all write in those categories and may not know the market as well. Sometimes, for a special project, I want to get a few more opinions, see if I'm really on the right track. I take those projects out into the contest world.
I look for contests open to published authors. You need to hunt a little because the usual restriction is that you must not have published for the last five years or never published in that category before. But when I have a manuscript ready, I can usually find 5 or 6 contests to enter. And I note which will give more feedback than just the judge's score. I don't expect to win. I don't expect to make the finals. I do expect to read the feedback I receive and learn and practice. This year my manuscript was a historical set in the Regency period and I've gotten feedback from 6 judges already, a 2nd place in another contest with a request from the publisher to see more and, of course, that finalist status that I'm waiting on.
I also judge writing contests every year. It's another great way to learn about writing. Each contest provides judges with judging guidelines and those that provide feedback remind you what editors are looking for in a manuscript--well-paced plot, memorable characters, vivid settings, good dialogue. It reminds you to look at your own manuscripts with a more objective eye. At the same time, you help other writers improve and move closer to their writing goals. It's all good.
Entering contests helps you learn and improve your writing and may open doors. Judging contests gives you a chance to serve and to see writing from the editor's perspective. Valuable lessons in both.
Consider a contest. Use what you learn. Become a better writer. Good luck!
P.S. For those of you going to RWA, have a great conference!!