February 17, 2011

The Truth about Writing Contests

Chess Faceoff

Opinionated statement alert: Every writer should volunteer to judge a writing contest.   And not simply for altruistic reasons.  No, we should do it because we can learn from reading others’ work, as it’s much easier to see mistakes in prose other than our own.

My friend Anassa Rhenisch had a great blog post about this concept ages ago (and you’ll see from my comment there that I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while).   Reading “bad” writing helps us figure out why passive voice is boring, or what makes a plot hole a plot hole, or any other of a hundred bad habits we can have.  And when we discover how to fix problems in others’ stories, we better understand how to fix them in ours.

Back when I first started planning this post, I was going to compare judging writing contests to American Idol.  However, since then, my friend Kristen Lamb used that analogy in her fabulous post about self-publishing.  Self-publishing.  Contest entries.  Those are similar concepts, with authors presumably sending out their best work, so you can see where I was going with the comparison.

Every year, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) sponsors a contest for unpublished authors, the Golden Heart Awards, and  I volunteered to be a judge this time around.  I’d previously judged a contest sponsored by an RWA chapter and figured this one would be similar.  Um, no.

The RWA chapter contest I judged last fall had a scoresheet broken down by different categories like voice, point-of-view, characterization, etc.  Judges assigned a number to each topic and then added up the points to determine the final score.

The Golden Heart contest has none of that.  No scoresheet, no breakdowns, no guidelines at all other than a vague “how much did you enjoy it?”  At first, I hated it.  How was I supposed to come up with a score?

Then you know what happened?  I read the entries this past weekend, probably very similarly to how agents/editors read submissions.  Suddenly, everything I’ve read about how they just know made complete sense.

I could mark down the not-so-great entries for POV issues, bad prologues, grammar problems, telling instead of showing, unnecessary scenes, etc. all day long.  These are the types of submissions that don’t make it past the first page with agents and editors.  Maybe not even the first paragraph.  Honestly, whether I gave them a score of 5.2 or 5.4 didn’t matter very much.  They weren’t going anywhere near the Finalists, so the amount of rejection was irrelevant.

But then I read a great, no, a fantastic entry.  The voice was spot on from the very first paragraph, and my thoughts immediately settled in to read an engaging tale, while also hoping the rest of the pages would live up to the potential.

And yes, the voice and story were wonderful, but that wouldn’t erase sins against every writing rule.  Luckily, the fact there weren’t any issues with this story meant that nothing took away from my enjoyment.

The synopsis was tedious, but that didn’t matter.  The first few paragraphs of the synopsis covered the same events as the entry’s pages, so I knew it was the fault of the synopsis and not the story.

If I were an agent, I’d have requested the full by about the time I got to the third page.  Seriously.  I gave the entry a perfect score.

And I’d love to end on that positive note, but my point requires me to talk about the last entry I read.  Good voice, flawless grammar, interesting premise.  But I just didn’t “enjoy” it as much.

If I were an agent, I’d send an encouraging note, probably with a request that they send future projects my way.  But I wouldn’t be able to tell them how to fix this story with a “revise and resubmit” letter—because the author didn’t do anything wrong.  There’s not necessarily anything to fix.  It just wasn’t a story I loved.

Now I understand when agents and editors talk about how they have to fall in love with a book.  And sometimes the author can do everything right, and still have it not be enough.  The worst thing is that we’ll probably never know if we’re this close unless the rejection includes a personal note.

It might not be fair, but that’s the way it is.  Not everyone will love our book.

I gave that last entry a very high score, but not a perfect score.  I hope it will be high enough to give that author a shot at the Finals, where agents/editors can chime in with their opinions.  Just because I didn’t love it doesn’t mean they won’t.  Haven’t we heard that line from agents and editors before?  Guess what?  It’s true.

Have you judged writing contests before?  Do you prefer a scoresheet with guidelines, or do you prefer to score by gut feel?  What other lessons can we learn by critiquing other writers’ work?  Have you ever had an agent or editor tell you that they just didn’t love your work?  (Does this post make you feel better about it?)

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Comments — What do you think?

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Like you, Jami, I’ve judged several contests where the scoresheet was really detailed, and I just judged my first bunch of Golden Heart entries. Totally different experience, but much more enjoyable in some ways because I got to just read and ask myself whether I enjoyed the story. I wish I’d signed up to do more entries because I had a wonderful time.

When I judge other contests, I think about how aspects of the story could be improved and try to pass the on to the author. With the Golden Heart, I let myself be swept away (or not).

I really can’t wait for finalists to be announced. Whether I am one or not, March 25 is so full of excitement and expectation. Now that I’ve judged, I’ll be looking out for whether any of the entries I read made it and feeling happy or disappointed for those authors instead of focusing solely on myself.

Best of luck to everyone!

Laura Pauling

There aren’t a lot of opportunities to judge writing contests in the MG and YA arena, unless you are published. But, I can relate. It’s how I choose which books to buy. With some books, there is nothing wrong with them, I just don’t connect with the style or story. I can tell in the first page if it’s good writing or not though. That’s why first pages are so important!

Andrew Mocete

Critiquing is essential to become better at writing, but I couldn’t do it for a contest. If I didn’t fall in love with an otherwise well-written story, how could I give it a lower mark? It’s not the author’s fault I didn’t connect with their work. I guess that’s why I don’t follow contests or award shows much.

I get why an agent would think this way because they have to sell the book and they’re not going to be able to sell something they’re not 100% behind.

Nice topic Jami. Lots to think about.


I think I prefer a score sheet (I’ve judged contests with and without them) GH, as you mentioned, was tough at first, but eventually I fell in love with the process – just wish I could have commented on a couple of the entries. Mine were mostly good. 🙂

With judging? I think it puts you in the agent/editor chair for a while – it’s a great way to see through why something doesn’t work or too, why something does. I really get the ‘falling in-love’ idea.

Like you – I highly endorse judging contests. Ever writer should do this.

Great post, Jami!

Piper Bayard

Yes, I’ve been told that, and yes, this does make me feel better about it. Great post, Jami. I’ve often wondered what when on behind the scenes on these contests, and while I’ve valued some of the edits I’ve received, I did realize that they can’t help but be subjective. But, then, isn’t the subjective what it’s all about? All the best.


Hi Jami,

Good post… you & I talked about this on Twitter last week. I definitely prefer using the scoresheet to judge entries. The Golden Heart with its 1-9 blanket scoring system is tough.
“For purposes of judging, a score of 5.0 shall be specified as ‘average’ for an unpublished manuscript.”
It’s entirely subjective–my idea of average might be your idea of outstanding. At least with scoresheets & commenting, we, as judges, have the opportunity to explain the number we assigned to an entry. I think that’s more valuable for the writer who put their heart (and money) into submitting their work.


Great post, and thanks for the shout-out! I haven’t judged a writing contest—my “bad writing” experience comes from reading amateur fiction and from freelance editing—but it sounds like a great way to get insight into an agent’s mind. I also think critiquing a full-length work accentuates the whole “we don’t have time to accept bad writing” stance, because it drills in how much time it takes to clean up a manuscript. (It’s also good practice for our own revisions.)

Lynn Rush

Wow. No score sheets? I might have been perplexed at first as well. But, sometimes, when judging contests, I’m not in love with the score sheets. I’d love a few general questions about the book to which I can write my answer instead of choosing a number.


When you do a lot of reading, I think it’s easy to tell when stories need more work on the craft of writing. But I like what you said about seeing a difference between perfect story and the story that was well written but didn’t grab you. As a writer, that’s what’s difficult for me to judge — and to create, especially because it’s sometimes subjective.

Danielle Rose

I know exactly what you mean about judging others’ work helping with your own writing. This is partly why I LOVE reading and critiquing fellow writers. I do judge a yearly poetry contest – last year one of the judges passed out a list of ratings… which was helpful for remembering what we liked most about each poem… but honestly, despite the ratings, what swayed me the most was my feeling about the piece – and of course if it maintained all of those things that encompass good writing, then that was part of it. On the other hand, working together with two other judges AT THE SAME TIME helped me see the beauty in poems that may have been well written, but didn’t perhaps strike me… and in addition, I know I was able to do the same for the other authors too.


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[…] in Writing Stuff Believe it or not, I sometimes actually follow my own advice.  *smile*  Recently, I helped score a few contest entries, just like I recommend in my post about why all writers should volunteer to judge contests. […]


All good points. I also judged in the GH and gave two of my entries high scores, but they didn’t wind up in the finals. This is all very subjective. I’ve judged my local chapter’s contest so this is not news to me.

However, I’m done with contests and have decided to just continue to submit directly to editors. While I’ve never finaled in a romance contest, I have had more than one full MS request from editors and a partial from an agent.

My last contest entry came back from one judge who wrote that “three paragraphs without dialogue is telling” and called a compound sentence a “run on sentence”. She might be new to judging and/or new to writing and still learning. Still, it’s disappointing to get feedback that I can’t use.

The only way I’ll enter a contest again is if the judges are editors and/or agents. And that’s called subbing!


Hi Jami,

I have a question. I submitted the same piece to the RWA Utah Great Beginnings contest and got an aggregate score of 90%. The same piece submitted to RWA Wisconsin Fab Five got an aggregate of 40%.

Exactly the same 5 pages of Chapter 1. How can 2 judges in the first contest love it and provide all positive comments, while the other 2 judges in the other one hated the plot, dialog and setting.

I am completely stumped!


[…] ago, I wrote a post about why writers should volunteer to judge a writing contest. In that post, I […]


[…] a judge, I know it’s sometimes difficult to give an entry the score I think it “deserves” because …. There are contests I refuse to judge for anymore because I don’t think their scoring system […]

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