Why Do You Enter Writing Contests?

by Jami Gold on April 25, 2013

in Writing Stuff

View from diving platform high over lake with text: Are Our Expectations Too High?

A couple of weeks ago, someone (I won’t name who because I don’t want to embarrass her) asked me what score I’d received in a writing contest. I didn’t want to answer at first. I worried about making her feel bad or seeming like I was bragging.

Yet I could understand her question. She’d noticed I was a finalist in a contest that she’d also entered (the Winter Rose contest, sponsored by the Yellow Rose RWA chapter), and she wanted to know what kind of scores were needed to reach finalist level.

That’s a great question. When we’re first starting out, it’s natural to want a goal to aim for. I’ve found it gratifying to use contests as a tangible measure of the improvement in my writing.

What’s Your Goal When You Enter a Writing Contest?

Writers have many reasons for entering contests. Years ago, I shared several of the reasons I had for entering contests.

Then, like now, there are more contests in existence than would make sense to enter. Every RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter seems to have at least one contest. Just adding up those would probably mean entering a contest a week. Um, my wallet and my sanity say no to that idea. *smile*

In that old post, I listed the various things I looked for when deciding which contests to enter:

  • Receiving Feedback: Contests that encourage their judges to give feedback with their scores.
  • Final Judge: Contests with a final judge (agent or editor) I’d like to have look at my work.
  • Prestige: Contests I’d heard of, or “name brand” sponsors.
  • Category Breakdown: Contests with categories that matched my story.
  • Ease of Entry: Contests with electronic entry.

Back then, one of my main goals was receiving feedback. I can remember when my scores ranged from 78-87%. Not horrible, but nowhere good enough to final. Contests were a way to get more insight into where I needed to improve.

However, just as my writing has evolved over the years, so have my reasons for entering contests. I no longer look for feedback from contest judges. Now, my top determining factors are the final judge (anything to avoid my dreaded query letter *smile*) and the prestige of the contest.

For either of those goals to have a chance, I first have to final. Any encouraging feedback from the first round judges is nice, but the agent or editor final judge will never see my writing unless I make it to the final round. So while I always hoped to final before, I’m now at the level of “final or bust.” No pressure. *grin*

What Does It Take to Final?

I’m still not sure I want to answer that question. Some writers might feel discouraged by seeing the gap between their contest scores and the scores at the finalist level. Other writers might like the challenge, or do what I did—take satisfaction from seeing their scores improve over the years.

Knowing the kind of scores we need to final might help us temper our expectations (and head off disappointments) until our scores are in the right ballpark. So even though I hate the thought of doing anything that could seem like bragging (I don’t think I even announced my last couple of finals), I thought I’d share my experiences.

Please keep in mind that the scores necessary to final can be very dependent on the contest. Some contests might be known for having harder judges, so all the finalists would simply be the best of the lower scores. Also, every contest I entered was sponsored by RWA or an RWA chapter, and other genres and organizations could have completely different ranges.

In addition, contests with a low number of entries can be “easier” to final in than those with high numbers.The number of entries in my category probably ranged from 15 to 200 (educated guess), depending on the contest.

My Contest Finaling Experience

Over the past 12 months, I’ve entered Treasured Claim into 10 contests. I haven’t heard back from one of those contests yet, so I’ll limit my analysis to just the remaining nine. (I’ll also take a guess at the number of entries based on the prestige of the contest.) (Note that I don’t have scores back for one of the contests yet, so I know only the result.)

  1. Guess at # of Entries: High
    Score: 92%
    Result: No Final (I missed finaling by one point out of 200.)
  2. Guess at # of Entries: Medium
    Score: 94.2%
    Result: Finalist
  3. Guess at # of Entries: Medium-High
    Score: 98.46%
    Result: Finalist
  4. Guess at # of Entries: Medium-High
    Score: 96.5%
    Result: Finalist
  5. Guess at # of Entries: High
    Score: 95.45%
    Result: No Final
  6. Guess at # of Entries: High
    Score: 96.5%
    Result: No Final
  7. Guess at # of Entries: Very High
    Score: Unknown
    Result: No Final
  8. Guess at # of Entries: Medium-High
    Score: 98%
    Result: Finalist
  9. Guess at # of Entries: Medium
    Score: 97.5%
    Result: Finalist

What Can We Learn from These Numbers?

Unless there’s a low number of entries, our scores would need to be in the 90+% range to have even a chance at finaling. As you can see, my scores were all in the 92-98.5% range and I still didn’t final every time. (That’s not a complaint. I’ll take five finals out of nine contests. *smile*)

The contests I didn’t final in were at 92%, 95.45%, and 96.5%. Yet in other contests, I finaled with a 94.2% and a 96.5%, so like I mentioned above, a great deal depends on the contest.

In other words, if our writing tends to score below that 90+% range, we’ll only hurt ourselves and waste our money if our one-and-only goal is to final. Instead, our priority should probably be on contests that are known for giving feedback. A final could always come as an unexpected bonus, but we shouldn’t focus on it.

If I were just starting out contesting now and didn’t know what my scores might be, I’d first look for contests that used more first-round judges. Some RWA contests use only two first-round judges, while others use three first-round judges and drop the lowest score. More judges equals more feedback.

Once we see our scores rise to that 90+% level, we can adjust our goals. At a certain writing level, the feedback of random people can lose its usefulness. Their suggestions about writing “mistakes” are too often inappropriate. Like I mentioned in my post with tips for being a better beta reader, readers I haven’t picked for their high-quality feedback are more likely to fall into that “only 10% usable comments” category.

At that point, it makes sense for our priority to shift toward finaling. So our goal would be to either get our work in front of the final judge or to be able to say that we were a finalist of X prestigious contest.

When I was first starting out, I would have loved to know at what point I should start hoping for a final. I could have saved myself a lot of disappointment by realizing when I was nowhere close yet. I hope others find inspiration by knowing where the bar is for finaling. *smile*

Why do you enter writing contests? Can you think of additional reasons for entering contests? Do you disagree with my take on how our priorities should depend on our skill level and scores? Does knowing where the bar is for finaling make you feel despair, challenged, or encouraged? If you’ve finaled in a contest, feel free to share your percentage score so we can see if my experience is unusual.

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30 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Ava Jae April 25, 2013 at 6:02 am

Very interesting. It doesn’t surprise me that you need to be in the top 10% (well, looks like even more than that, top six or seven percent?) to make it as a finalist in most contests. Out of curiosity, did those contests give you the scores with your entry? I haven’t seen percentage scores before, so I’m curious. 🙂

Also, congrats on becoming a finalist in so many contests! Sounds like you’re getting close!

Reply

Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Hi Ava,

I took the scores given (usually a certain number of points) and figured the percentage out of the maximum number of points possible. For example, 48 out of 50 points would be a 96%.

Thanks for the congratulations! I don’t know if the finals mean I’m “getting close,” but I’ll take the scores as a positive sign of the quality of my writing anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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KR Brorman April 25, 2013 at 6:49 am

I’ve been…well a big chicken about entering, but I truly want anonymous feedback. Thanks Jami, I’m sucking it up and putting something out there this Spring. Now to find a contest with more first round judges.

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Hi KR,

LOL! I’m a chicken about other things, so I understand. I think the anonymous aspect of contests helps me get over the fear. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 25, 2013 at 11:36 am

Hey Jami,

First of all, great job in scoring so high in all those contests! ^^ And no, I didn’t see that as boasting at all. You are giving us factual information that is useful for us to talk about this issue.

Okay, now to reply to this post: I’ve never been a “contest person”, as I’m one of those who firmly believe that stories are waay too subjective to evaluate fairly. One fun example was how I thought Lord of the Flies was absolutely brilliant (as well as creepy), whilst my friend thought it was extremely boring, LOL. Such radically differing opinions on even the most celebrated works like that (there are always a good number of people who dislike even the most popular or greatest literary classics) really makes me lose faith in any golden standard of writing quality anymore, sigh.

However, you made a very good point that we can enter contests just to get extra constructive feedback (esp. as I don’t have that many friends who would give me real feedback; many of them just say a “It was good!” -_-) There was ONE story contest that I entered many years ago, and I was incredibly stupid to enter it because the writing had to be in Chinese. I suck at Chinese (it was supposed to be my first language, but it’s actually my second language now unfortunately), so I put myself at a major disadvantage from the start. (Why on earth did I let myself compete with all those legit-ly good Chinese writers???) What’s worse, this contest never gave anybody any feedback. I wish they did. I’d really have to look for contests where feedback is guaranteed.

There may have been other contests I’ve entered, but I don’t recall any more.

Two other reasons why I’m not much of a contest person (at least not at this moment), are that 1) There are always word limits. I’m the kind of person who likes to be as long as possible or as short as possible. I don’t like limits XD ; 2) As you said, you have to write in their specified genre or category. Again, I like to write about anything I want, so often my stories would probably not fit well in those neat categories. Also, again, I don’t like the feeling of needing to conform to other people’s specifications—it’s like I’m writing for them, rather than for myself.

Of course, I’m just biased here, XD, and I think I really don’t have the right to say much on this issue as I’ve only ever participated in one contest. But after hearing your point about getting higher-quality-than-usual feedback, perhaps I will change my prejudiced perceptions towards contests now. ^^

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Hi Serena,

Thanks for the congratulations and for understanding my goal with the post. 🙂

I understand the reluctance to “contest.” Some of my stories do not score well in contests because of the nature of the story. And yes, I’ve had bad experiences with judges. So there are definite cons to the process as well.

As you said, I don’t think there’s one “golden standard” of quality, but I enjoyed getting the overview of impressions from others. Sometimes I’ll agree with them (the high scores, duh 😉 ), and sometimes I won’t (when they mark you wrong for a grammar thing that they’re wrong about *sigh*). However, after we release our work into the wild as a published book, readers in general will fall into those same categories of liking or disliking our work, so the feedback can be a preview of that experience.

In that respect, the anonymous contest feedback is good practice for dealing with reviews–and unlike reviews, it’s all private. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung April 25, 2013 at 8:45 pm

“As you said, I don’t think there’s one “golden standard” of quality, but I enjoyed getting the overview of impressions from others”

I have to agree with you. 🙂 I honestly don’t mind it if other people diss my work (please excuse my language ^^), as long as they are specific about what they’re dissing. So instead of saying, “This story sucks!” I’d like them to say, “X and Y of your story really suck, because….” And I also agree that it’s really fun to hear what other people think about your work, and entering a contest is a way to guarantee you “free readers”, LOL. But after getting feedback, I have to keep reminding myself that their feedback is not the whole world’s feedback, because there are millions and millions of people who would have dramatically different reactions to my work, because there is such an astonishing diversity of people out there.

“when they mark you wrong for a grammar thing that they’re wrong about *sigh*”

:O

Oh I’d also like to add that though I believe that there’s no “gold standard” to judging how good a story is, I do believe that you can be better or worse in expressing yourself through your work. I.e. I define a “good” work as one that expresses itself very clearly and powerfully (and elegantly and beautifully, or adorably or humorously or eloquently, etc.) So the “greatest” work, in my eyes, is a story that is the best at self-expression. Thus, it’s all about the ability, power, or intensity of self-expression. I see this like a baby learning to talk. There’s nothing bad about the incoherent babbles that a baby makes (they’re cute ^^), but they are hard to understand. So as the baby, you would like to learn to talk more and more fluently and accurately as you grow up. In short, learning to write better is like how a baby learns to speak and communicate better.

However, this “power of expression” is also very subjective, so I will simply have to rely on my own judgment of “expressiveness”, as other people don’t always agree with me–I mean, I don’t always agree with other people. ^^ And I will aim to become one of those “greatest expressors ever” (whatever that means) according to my definition.

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Hi Serena,

“I do believe that you can be better or worse in expressing yourself through your work.”

Absolutely! And that’s exactly why we need readers–so we can get that feedback of whether we’re getting across the message we wanted. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kathryn Jankowski April 25, 2013 at 12:05 pm

I’m entering online contests for feedback and the chance to have my work seen and/or requested by an agent without querying.

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Hi Kathryn,

Yes, I understand that desire to avoid querying. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda April 25, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Great timing on this post 🙂

When I first started entering contests, I was all about the final judge. I still am. There’s always a chance they’ll want to see the full manuscript, which means in addition to being able to say in future query letters that I finaled in this contest or that contest, I’ve already gotten their attention!

I’ve gotten some valuable first-round judge feedback as well…and some absolutely terrible feedback. In one contest (I didn’t final) I had one judge give me absolutely no feedback and a very high score, while another judge ripped the story apart and made unhelpful, tactless, and snarky comments. I wanted to ask what had gotten her panties in a wad. It was probably the first time I was well and truly shaken by feedback. Seriously. The judge was RUDE.

I haven’t entered many contests, though. Part of it is financial-some months it’s hard to scrape up that extra $25 when you’ve got a bunch of bills to pay. Part of it is laziness-I’ll save the email my RWA chapter president forwarded with the contest info and then forget about it until it’s too late. And part of it is my own lack of quality pieces-like you, I want my work to final, and I’ve finally admitted to myself that despite my plethora of finished manuscripts (10 at last count) only 3 of them are really polished and ready for submission. I want to enter a piece that is DONE, so if I end up with that request for a full, I can send it off ASAP. No making the judge wait because all I did was tweak and polish and spit-shine the first chapter or two chapters. If it’s not done, I won’t enter it.

That said, I did recently enter a contest where I’d only started the editing phase, and scrambled to polish those first 2 chapters. It was a category I’d never entered before, but the final judge was one I wanted to get my work in front of, so I scrambled around to make it in by the deadline…only to have them extend it by two weeks due to low entries in the category. *shrug*

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Hi Amanda,

I had a judge request my work from a contest, but their request was listed as “if the rest of the story is this kind of story, I’d love to see it.” Of course it wasn’t that kind of a story, so that was a good news/bad news experience. LOL!

Like you, I’ve had some bad experiences with judges too. Some that, as you said, seem to want to be mean. Luckily, that’s been the exception. As I mentioned to Serena, I see those as practice for dealing with bad reviews–and at least they’re private in contests. 🙂

Yes, I understand the financial aspect as well. I was lucky–one contest I won granted a cash prize. So I used that money to enter more contests with judges I really wanted. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jordan McCollum April 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm

I’ve finaled a few times, but it really depends on the contest. One contest I ended up with 99%, the highest score of any entry in any category (they published an anonymous listing of all the scores), 2 points away from a perfect score—and then the final judge absolutely, completely hated it. She had to use an exclamation point to express how much she didn’t like it. I went from the top finalist to the bottom finisher.

I kind of hate contests 😉 .

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Hi Jordan,

Yeeks! Yes, that’s a great reminder of how subjective everything with writing is, and contests are no exception. I had the opposite happen to me on a different story–I squeaked into finals with a horrible score (very low number of entries) and then the final judge loved it. Craziness. LOL!

Sometimes the anonymous nature of contests can lead people to behave worse. I’ve received some scores that I suspect were spite or disdain. (Every writing/characters/plot/etc. category scored the same number of points, even though the maximum score for each of those was different–like the contest version of selecting “A” for every multiple choice question.)

So there are definite pros and cons for entering contests, and I understand your attitude. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Angela Quarles April 25, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Great breakdown, and I think your focus on priorities and how to assess it is very true! I think in the beginning I was just entering any contest, but then I got more focused. I think another value-add for entering contests, besides the feedback, getting in front of final judge, or credential, is that it really does teach you how subjective this whole business is. If you enter enough contests, it’ll finally dawn on you–at least it took that long for me, LOL. So it really helped me hone my instincts and also when I finally started querying and started garnering rejections, it put things in perspective–>I just needed my query to get in front of agents who’d like it as much as contest judges were, and the ones rejecting were like the ones who hadn’t liked it at all in contests.

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 8:40 pm

Hi Angela,

Exactly! Yes, contests force us to see that subjective nature. That’s another bonus of the 3 first-round judges contests–the lowest score is dropped, so you get to see the subjectiveness of those who don’t like your story, but it doesn’t hurt your score. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Laurie Evans April 25, 2013 at 7:47 pm

I’ve been pretty chicken about contests, but I entered one last fall. Received a LOT of feedback; I’d heard it was a good contest for feedback. Didn’t final, but scored better than I thought I would.

I’ve looked into different contests; but many of them ask for whole manuscripts, and mine just isn’t ready yet. The contest I entered asked for ten pages. It was good, but also very limiting. I’ll probably try the same contest again. And maybe 1 or 2 more that ask for a limited number of pages or words.

Another thing that holds me back are the fees. Those can really add up!

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Jami Gold April 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm

Hi Laurie,

Good for you in finally entering a contest! 🙂

The contests I’ve entered have all been short–first 10/20/25 pages, first 2000 words, etc. I’ve heard stories that some people will write just that amount and will finish the story only if it contests well. A small-scale test marketing group maybe? That seems a bit crazy to me, as they’d never be able to submit a requested manuscript. Plus, that seems slightly like cheating–it’d be easy to come up with a contest-pretty beginning if I didn’t have to worry about the rest of the story making sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda S. Collins April 26, 2013 at 9:16 am

Hi Jami,

Congratulations on all the contest finals! That’s awesome! 😀

I’ve only entered into one contest so far, and unfortunately, that one did not provide me with any feedback whatsoever. Only the finalists received the goods. *pouts* But I’m looking forward to entering into one next month. There were two main reasons why I picked this one: I’d really like to get my work in front of the final judge (editor). And my Immersion Master Class sister entered last year, finaled while we were in CO, and placed 3rd. She enjoyed the experience from start to finish, loved the feedback she got, so now that I know there *will* be feedback this timea round, I’m going for it.

I have a ways to go though, I’ll admit. I want the feedback from ‘strangers’ more than anything. I know where I am in my writing, and sometimes we feel that until we can say we finaled in a contest, we may not be as strong and ready for publication as we’d like to think. Hope that made sense. LOL! Writer brains are funny like that, aren’t they?

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Jami Gold April 26, 2013 at 9:25 am

Hi Melinda,

Interesting! I haven’t heard of any contests where only the finalists receive feedback. But as I said, I haven’t been looking for contest feedback lately either, so I generally skim over that part of the rules. 🙂

I know what you mean about how writers’ brains work. Even though I’ve finaled a bunch of times and have been getting consistently great scores, all it takes is one “non-final” or outlier of scores to send us back to self-doubt land. 🙂 That’s why we all need to wave pompons for each other though! *waves pompons* LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong April 26, 2013 at 11:28 am

It’s funny that you should write a post on this. I have list of contests I want to enter on my desk home. Two of those I want to complete this weekend. I’m looking for feedback and to hopefully final. And I’m also interested in who the final judges are, i.e. who do I really want to get my work in front of.

Right now my biggest consideration is my time. For each contest, I have to carefully analyze the rules. I have to polish the first 20 or 25 or whatever pages. Again. I have to look at my synopsis. Again. And then I have to format each file to the contest specifications. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is a time suck. I have decide if my time is better served entering these contests or working on the current draft of my novel. For example, I am trying to finish a draft by May 1st to give to a lovely woman who offered to beta read for me. Honestly, I think my time is best served finishing to freaking draft.

I wish each chapter published their full contest results. I don’t mean they should name names, but rather give a general idea of how many people entered in each category and the range of scores. It would help those of us who don’t final figure out where their manuscript is compared with the winning ones.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Hi Buffy,

I hear you about the time commitment. I feel the same way about queries too. 🙂

BTW, that “lovely woman” would beta read for you if you get it to her later than May 1st too, you know. 😉 But I understand the need to set yourself a deadline stick to it too.

I think I’ve had only one contest send out the anonymous score listing for all entries in a category. (That’s how I knew I missed finaling by one point, in fact.) I agree that it would be nice if more did that. Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong April 29, 2013 at 10:14 am

I appreciate that, but I’m still working hard to meet my self-imposed deadline!

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Jami Gold April 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I understand, Buffy. 🙂

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