Are you sometimes stumped for an idea? Tanja Cilia from Malta uses contests as a way to jump start her muse. Tanja told me "when I enter a contest I never know whether there are prizes or what they are. All I care is that I am eligible. I use these things as writing prompts because I must write, I feel I have to write, I mean, so I might as well.... and sometimes, to be honest, they are an escape from what I OUGHT to be writing.... such as columns and features, but they give me a kick to do them, like the forbidden fruit, you know?"
When I asked Tanja if she only submitted to free contests, she replied "Not specifically to free contests, (or) whether or not they have prizes - just to those for which I am eligible, because as you know I am from Malta and sometimes we are precluded... Sometimes, the prizes are things, not money.. in fact, I have just won a set of Mission Impossible Series 5, a couple of books, a Zune... BUT I am especially proud of the fact that my work was put first in a couple of sites (no prizes, but to me that was worth the effort!).
There are a lot of places where you can look for contests: Writer's Market lists a large number of contests and awards arranged by subject. New contests are announced in a variety of writer's publications. Hope Clark's Funds for Writers, a free publication, (http://www.fundsforwriters.com/) generally lists four or five new contests a month. For a paid subscription, Kathy Ptacek's Gila Queen (http://gilaqueen.us/)market listing also has a regular section on contests. On The Premises, an online magazine, routinely posts contests on their web page (http://www.onthepremises.com/index.html). Do a web search for other writing contests.
When you decide to enter a contest, be sure to check the guidelines carefully; the same as you would for a submission to a magazine. Some contests are not for all writers. Many are regional, or age specific, or are restricted to unpublished writers. Contests can be a way to try out a new genre or research a new area for your writing. Sometimes, you are given a few words of a starting sentence, sometimes you are given a theme. Whatever you are given, be sure to follow the rules or your entry will be disqualified.
Be like Tanja and use those contests as ideas to start writing. Submit your entries and you too will be a winner. Even if you don't win a prize, you will have written a story, article, or poem.
Good luck hunting out the right contest for you.