Today, I'll talk about contest submissions. You romance writers will find many contests posted in the back of "Romance Writers Report," a monthly magazine published by Romance Writers of America for its members. Rules vary from contest to contest, so be sure to follow them closely. You can often find a detailed list of rules at a website posted in the contest listing. Contests will almost always require you to enclose a SASE for return of your manuscript and judges' scoresheets. This is important, as judges will often comment directly on your manuscript pages. (Once in a while, they'll reply via E-mail instead of by SASE - yay for saved trees! I hope other contests begin to offer this option soon.)
Deadlines for submission of your entry and fee, first-round judging, final-round judging, and contest winner announcements will be given in the rules. If you're lucky enough to final, you may be given the option to polish your work before it goes on to final-round judges. I strongly encourage taking advantage of this opportunity, paying special attention to issues that have been pointed out by multiple judges.
Judging is not a fast process - you must be patient. It can sometimes take four to five months for final results to be tallied, but the feedback you receive can be invaluable. Contests can help you get your manuscript in its best possible shape before it even sees an agent or editor's desk. Prizes are usually offered for winners: a piece of jewelry, cash (often your entry fee is returned if you win), certificates, plaques, engraved pens, and even a manuscript critique, to name a few. The best thing about contests, though, is the feedback you'll receive - and everyone gets that, no matter how they place in the final standings.