There seem to be an awful lot of contests for writers out there, all offering a mixture of monetary rewards or publication or both. As a relative newby to writing, I was wondering if it was worth entering contests, just to get some "runs on the board" so to speak. You know, so I have something to put into a query letter when and if I ever start querying my novel.
You're right. There are a lot of contests out there. And most of them won't do anything to boost your career or raise your credibility as a writer. Some of them might even lose you some as their rules give the contest-holders rights to your work you really shouldn't give up.
But contests can be fun, and some actually are worthwhile. The trick is to figure out which is which.
The first thing you need to do when you see a contest is read the rules very carefully. Make sure you know exactly how your work is going to be treated both if you win, and if you don't. Some contests ask writers to give them first right of publication even if their story doesn't win rather than relinquishing any hold on the piece as soon as the contest results are announced.
Make sure any contest you enter is being held by a reputable organization, especially if you have to pay a fee to enter. Personally, I don't pay to play, so if a contest has a reading fee or other charge to enter, I won't do it. Too often contest-holders rely on collecting entry fees to pay out their promised monetary prizes.
Any contest with a huge number of categories to enter sets off red flags for me. It feels like a way to make everyone feel like they're a winner, even if they aren't very good. Really think about whether winning an award for the best Australian sci-fi romance in verse from a non-Australian writer (fictional example of course) is worth anything in the long-run.
Writer Beware often has useful information about contests and often calls out those who have particularly bad terms and conditions, or are ripping off writers. I suggest checking there before entering anything you might have a weird feeling about.
Like everything, doing due diligence takes time and effort, but in the long run, you'll end up feeling safer and more confident if you take the time to do it.
Good luck with any contest you do decide to enter!