August 30, 2010

What to Look for in a Writing Contest

Blue Ribbon

This past weekend was “contest entering” weekend for me—and I’m not nervous at all. (It’s okay, you don’t have to believe me.) But after several years of writing, this decision to enter a contest was a new one for me. Which of course begs the question, why did I finally decide to do it?

There are many—many—contests out there. And I’m sure there are just as many reasons for entering, or not entering, contests. I know some people swear by them and others hate them.

So before I made my decision, I had to know what I was looking to get out of it. Remember my post about knowing what will make you happy?  You can’t possibly be surprised that I went in with an organized plan, right? Me, the over-achieving perfectionist? Yeah, I thought not.

Things I Look For in a Contest

  • Receiving Feedback:  I looked for contests that encourage their judges to give feedback with their scores.  There’s a huge variety in the quality of contest judging, but if someone didn’t like my work, actual feedback is more helpful than just a low score.
    • Contests can be another source of feedback on your work, just like beta readers or critique groups.
  • Final Judge:  I looked for contests where the final judge (usually an editor or agent) was one that I’d like to work with if they requested my material after the contest.  Of course, I have to make it to the finals first, but I was engaged in a little positive thinking there.
    • If you’re not sure your first page would draw in a reader, but the second or third page really shines, maybe a contest is the way to go.  After all, the judges have to keep reading a contest entry.  They can’t send a rejection letter after just the first page.
  • Prestige:  I looked for contests that I’d heard of, or that the sponsor of the contest was a prestigious group.  Again, thinking positively here, but if I won a contest, I wanted it to mean something.
    • For unpublished writers, contest wins are something to add to that skimpy bio paragraph in a query letter .
  • Category Breakdown:  I looked for contests that had categories that fit my work well.  One of my stories is not a traditional romance under any definition of the word yet has romantic elements, so I looked for contests with a “Romantic Elements” category.
    • There are enough contests out there to concentrate only on those that are a good match to your story.  Kind of like looking for an agent.
  • Ease of Entry:  I looked for contests that had electronic submission, took payment by PayPal, and listed all relevant information on their website.
    • If their website isn’t organized enough to clearly list the rules for deadlines and eligibility, how organized is the contest itself likely to be?

Have you ever entered your writing in a contest?  Why or why not?  If you have, was it a good or bad experience for you?  What do you look for before you decide to enter a contest?

Comments — What do you think?

Click here to learn more about Lost Your Pants workshop
  Subscribe to emails for Comments/Replies on this post  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Hi Jami!
Great breakdown.

Good luck!


Great post. That’s pretty much my breakdown, too, with maybe the added thought about the fee to pages entered ratio. I’d much rather enter a contest that gave me feedback on the first 30-50 pages of my entry for $30 than one that only gave me feedback on the first 20 pages for the same fee.

I’m a verified contest whore at this point, and I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly as far as contests go. I wish you luck with the ones you entered. 🙂

Kari Thomas

Great post, Jami! I agree with you 100%. I am a RWA Contest Judge and have been judging for over 10 yrs. now. I find alot of entries that would have scored better had the contestant known your list of advice in advance. Since Contests cost, I hope that contestants will take the time to thoroughly check out each Contest before entering. I try to be as subjective and as encouraging as I can when judging because I KNOW what it’s like to have been an unpublished author at one time and hoping that you can get Feedback enough to help your writing.

Again, GREAT post!

Hugs and Happy Writing AND Happy Contest Entering!
Kari Thomas,


Hmmm. I’ll answer your question for Kari, with my own list. 🙂 I’m curious to see what she says too.

Shallow POV and telling–these kind of go hand-in-hand for me. If you are in POV deep enough you don’t tell, you show. Also, with POV, the whole everyone sounds the same thing. Make sure each character is different–and not you. (You not meaning you, Jami, but in general. :)) Floating dialogue and weird tags ( spouted, burbled, expounded, vocalized, espoused). Description. (make sure we know where we are!) Lack of conflict. You’d be amazed how many entries I see with weak or no conflict. Those are the biggies. However, when I judge, I make sure I give credit where it is due so handling one thing poorly isn’t going to sink the whole entry.

As far as entering goes, at this point I enter for the final judge, period.

Best of luck to you in your contesting career! 🙂


Kristine Brorman

Thanks for the link and advice. I’ll do my homework and find a good one for critique and feedback. That is my primary goal at this point….well that and winning. ~KRB


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


[…] we decide to enter a contest, we should understand what they’re promising. Are they promising feedback? From whom? How much feedback? What will the feedback concentrate on? […]

Click to grab Unintended Guardian for FREE!