If you mean which ones are legitimate, the ones promoted in magazines like Poets & Writers, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest have proven themselves fair and ethical. There is a good article about writing contests in the May/June, 2011, issue of Poets & Writers. Four contest judges share information about the process and a little history (see the video interview at pw.org/content/writing_contest_advice). The contests I list on my website come from reputable sources like these. At any rate, there are sites I’ve indicated in past posts as well as list on my site where you can vet the sponsors of contests.
Years ago, I entered a contest and won a small prize and publication which never materialized. Months later I received a letter that the sponsor was being sued and that there would be a settlement. Nothing ever came of it. I don’t believe that happens these days, especially if the contest is sponsored by a university, writing organization, or an established publication. A few sponsors who are looking for an exceptionally high-quality ms, on rare occasions, have not awarded a prize. This has usually happened in genres that had a small number of submissions.
Regarding fees, almost all contests charge them. The fees pay for the screening readers, judges, administration/office costs, and prizes. In many instances, the fees are not enough to cover these expenses, so some contests are additionally funded by grants or the sponsors themselves. In the event there is not an award, fees are not returned because the funds have already covered the costs of the contest.
Otherwise, the answer to the question really depends on you. It’s a matter of your purpose, your experience, and your genre. If you simply want to add to your writing resume and/or are just starting out as a writer, cash prizes and publication may not be important to you. On the other hand, if you are looking for a venue to get your book published along with a nice sum of money, look for those contests offering that. Familiarize yourself with the sponsor and the contest. Read the works of past winners.
Among the contests that look good to me are
- Final Draft 2011 BIG BREAK film script contest
- Wordpress contests
- Writer’s Digest competitions
- The Writer competitions
- Contests sponsored by writing organizations like Southwest Writers
- Belleview Literary Review
- Graywolf Press Nonfiction Award
- George Mason University’s “So to Speak” Nonfiction Writing Contest
- Richard J. Margolis Award
- Literal Latte
- The Tony Hillerman contests
Entering a contest can be a positive experience even if you don’t win. Years ago, I had a ms I’d submitted to a contest returned to me with some great feedback--not something that usually occurs. There are some kind readers and judges out there who might just take the time to encourage you if nothing else.
Trust yourself and keep writing.