Chuck Sambuchino wrote an article titled 'Contest Basics.' He covers the tips every writer should know when it comes to competing.
Yes, Virginia, there are rules - The quickest way to a disqualification is to ignore the rules as set by the contest. Know the format, number of copies, & entry fee. Lacking in any of these is akin to a snowman without the body, carrot & corn-cob pipe.
Timeliness is Required - Save the date, mark the calendar, know the deadline. If snailmailing, the postmark date is important. Missing the date means missing the boat & monies may be non-refundable.
Cost-Benefit Analysis - Fees should be commensurate with prizes. Most contest fees are relatively nominal; however, 10 contests @ $15 a pop = $150. Choose wisely to maximize your well-earned dollars.
Beauty Queens vs. Beet Queens - National competitions with many entrants will provide greater prestige than local ones. However, it may be beneficial to start local then widen the circle as you gain confidence.
Know the playing field - Research is crucial to the writing process & to the contest process as well. A win can be a springboard. Treat it with the respect it deserves. Know the judges, buy the publication, read past winning entries. Have an accurate picture of where your piece fits into the contest puzzle.
Do the Homework - Contests are updated frequently. Some close shop; some lose their backing. New contests pop up every day. Check websites before hitting send or raising the mailbox flag.
One Size Does NOT Fit All - Publication credits, age, location - the demographic details. A children's writing contest is not going to review a Regency romance and vice versa. When searching for contests, make sure you're bits fit the blips. You'll save time, energy & heartache down the lane.
Contest rules are there. Learn 'em, live 'em, like 'em - they'll get ya farther down the yellow bricks.