April 25, 2013

Why Do You Enter Writing Contests?

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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Comments — What do you think?

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Ava Jae

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!

KR Brorman

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.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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…  — Read More »

Kathryn Jankowski

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


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…  — Read More »

Jordan McCollum

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 😉 .

Angela Quarles

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.

Laurie Evans

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!

Melinda S. Collins

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?

Buffy Armstrong

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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