The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Contests

After my first year of writing, I became what I affentionately call, a contest whore.

I entered all sorts of contests–granted, only in the Fall. I don’t know why. I guess with the start of the school year, it seemed a reasonable time to take a stab at entering new manuscripts into new contests.

I entered “First Kiss” contests, the contests where they look at the first meet, the ones where they look at the first fifty pages. And ever since my first contest entries, I’ve judged them. First as an unpublished author. Then, last year, I could judge as a PRO. This year, if I get asked to do it again, I will be a published judge.

So over the years, in judging contests, I’ve come to a few conclusions about entering contests. And since we’re at the beginning of my contest season, I thought I’d go over some things you should think about when entering a contest.

1. DON’T worry about it if you don’t final. It doesn’t matter. Maybe you got a judge who didn’t understand what you wrote. Maybe you got a judge who typically writes sweet mainstream and got stuck judging erotica. Or worse, the judge who’s looking for fangs and claws and is judging a western steampunk (and actually wondered why the hero wasn’t a vampire in a paranormal entry. Yeah, that happened to me). Sometimes we judges wind up judging categories we don’t normally read. And that’s fine, but it also (usually) means we might be a bit harsher on the criticism and judging than someone who is in love with your particular category.

2. From my own personal experience: DO look at your overall score, then close the email for a day or two to process. Yes, even if you final.

3. But DO read the criticisms, even if the scores are low. If you need someone else read them to you, do that. That’s fine. I always start with the one who scored me harshest (in my experience, this is usually the published author). First, it gets the harsh stuff out of the way; second, I’ve found that the harshest criticisms are often the ones that I take the most away from. I read the scoresheet one time, then close the email. I will pour over it later, after I’ve let my bruised ego heal for a little bit.

4. DO celebrate the little things. If one of the judges liked a line of dialog, celebrate that. It’s important.

5. DO remember, opinions are like assholes, and everyone has one. You don’t have to agree with the judge’s assessment.

6. DO consider changing something if two or more judges make similar comments. Sure, there have been times when I’ve said to myself, “But I love this part!” And then the critiques come back and my judges hated that very thing. Do I have to change it? Certainly not. Should I consider it? Absolutely. Because if two judges agreed that something needs to change, then there is probably something wrong with how I did it.

7. Do remember that if your scores are low overall, it’s okay. Maybe you weren’t ready. Maybe you thought you were. If you’re anything like me, I didn’t have a critique partner, had never been to a writing group, and not another soul had read my work. Did I think it was brilliant? Being honest, I didn’t, because my self-esteem isn’t that good. Shoot, I’m published and I still struggle with “I can’t write for shit” days. But I did think it was good enough to win a contest.

It wasn’t.

So maybe your stuff is brilliant. Maybe it’s not. It’s okay if you aren’t ready.

8. In that same vein, I can’t tell you the number of times that, as a judge, my FAVORITE entry didn’t final. To this day, there is one entry I remember. I loved it. I thought it was the most beautiful piece of writing. It didn’t even final, and I can safely say I was more offended for that author than I was when I didn’t final either. I hope one day I see that work published, because I would buy that book. No, seriously. Not finaling doesn’t mean your work isn’t good. It just means that judges are human, and everyone has their own particular quirks.

9. Do remember that some judges will be harsher than others. Some judges go by their gut feelings. Other judges, like me, take the rubric we’re given very literally. When I judge, I don’t go just by what I liked–I’ve had entries I’ve liked very much that I marked down because of the rubric. I am not a touchy-feely kind of judge. I will grade each individual component on its merits. So if you get a low mark in an area, it doesn’t mean your work is bad. It could be that the judge loved it, but thought your work could use improvement in certain areas.

10. In that same vein: DO read the comments. This is where your judge will put caveats, such as: I love the story and your voice. Even on entries that I’ve marked down, I will make sure that I tell the writer what I like about the entry. I always put it in the comments, because, as a judge who is very literal in her interpretation of the scoring rubric, sometimes my scores don’t reflect how I feel about the work as a whole. Yes, you may get a scoresheet back that looks low, and you’ll read the comments and you’ll think, “But why didn’t you score my work higher, if you liked it so much?”

This isn’t an insult. It means that your work has potential. It may not be ready for publication, but it has potential. What this means is that you’ve mastered the things that are difficult to teach: you have a great voice. You can tell a story. Maybe you struggle with grammar, or setting. Maybe you struggle with characterization. We all struggle with something. One of the things that sells a story for me is the voice, the unique way every author tells a story. If you’ve got a good voice, you can improve every other area.

I promise.

So, when you send off that email, remember: contests are fun, and judges are only human. And take everything we say with a grain of salt.

Happy contests!


10 thoughts on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Contests”

  1. Great post Meggan! I used to be a contest whore too! It gave me the courage to start submitting to editors. I have to tell you #5 is my personal favorite!

  2. Yeah, it feels weird not to be entering contests this season. I’m wondering what kind of whore I can be now that I’m no longer a contest whore. Huh. That was weird to write.

    It’s true though: entering contests gave me the strength to submit to editors. I think I may have to write a post on the Dos and Don’ts of rejections. 🙂

  3. Great post! I have yet to go down the contest road as an entrant, just as a judge!! I think I will keep putting it off!

    1. You know, I actually really liked contests. It was nice getting the critique, and knowing for certain that it wasn’t personal. Maybe the judges weren’t helpful, but they weren’t trying to hurt, either.

      At least, I never have.

      I say, take the bull by the horns and give it a shot (honestly, I like the Heart to Heart contest–I’ve finaled every time I’ve entered). 🙂

  4. Great post. I’ve only entered one contest and it turned out good, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed it. I’ve judged some contests and really liked that.
    I liked your ten do’s and dont’s. They were very informative and great advice.

  5. Well said, my friend. Entering contests is a way to gauge the impact our story (in its current state) will have on readers. Contest comments–and critiques, for that matter–can be a bitter pill. In my experience, some of the elements addressed are areas in which I’m wobbly. We know our deficiencies. The greater test is being honest enough to override our excitement and impatience and do the necessary work to create a well-constructed story. Comments are not about us personally, they’re about the story. And, as Meggan pointed out, can sometimes be about a judge’s reading preference. Whatever the reason, it’s no excuse to shirk our responsibility to ourselves and our readers. I agree, let the ego dust settle…remove emotion from the formula then analyze the information to discover the nuggets that will make the story (and, ultimately you) stronger. The choice is ours. We are still in control of our dream.

    1. Exactly. I think I also forgot this nugget of wisdom: if you final, celebrate with chocolate. If you don’t, console yourself with chocolate. And then move on.

      Consistent finaling in a contest probably indicates your work is ready to go to editors and agents. But just because you didn’t final in one contest doesn’t mean the opposite. I know plenty of authors who didn’t final in their first few contests who then went on to receive contracts.

      This isn’t a job for the faint of heart. The ego will take a beating. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by, Jude!

    1. Good luck, Laurie.

      The first contest experience is an interesting one. Just know, it will be a nerve-wracking experience. And no matter what happens, it will be okay!

      Have fun and keep writing!

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