November 14, 2013

The Pros and Cons of Writing Contests

Check box form for excellent to poor ranking with text: Are Writing Contests Worth It?

The other week, my friend Janice Hardy emailed me for insight into a question one of her blog readers had about writing contests. She wanted to turn the question into a blog post on the pros and cons of writing contests and thought I might have something to say about the topic.

She was right. I did have a lot to say. (Er, in fact, she might be sorry she asked because I responded with an essay. *smile*)

I’ve entered writing contests on and off over the past three years. In that time, my goals, hopes, and expectations have changed, but my opinion has mostly stayed the same:

Writing contests can be helpful, but…

It depends. It depends on your genre, it depends on the contest itself, and most importantly, it depends on your goals.

Thinking of Entering a Writing Contest?

#1: What’s Your Genre?

I’ve experienced contesting through the lens of being a romance author. The Romance Writers of America is one of the biggest writing organizations around. RWA is well organized, and they have local chapters all over the U.S. In addition to benefiting from prestigious worldwide RWA contests, romance authors also can choose from chapter-sponsored contests.

In other words, romance authors have—if anything—too many contests to choose from, all sponsored by legitimate organizations. Other genres might not have as many contests to choose from. Or the contests might be glorified scams.

Because of those genre differences, some people might balk at contests in general, unaware of the situation outside their experience. For example, some non-romance writers think any contest that charges an entry fee must be a scam.

However, among RWA chapters, contests are considered a valid chapter fundraiser and all their contests have a $20-30 entry fee. RWA National has strict rules about the non-profit nature of the contests, and there’s nothing scammy about them. They fulfill their promises of offering feedback and industry-known final judges.

Outside of RWA, contests could be run by a fly-by-night organization who won’t follow through with their promised judging or prizes. Some contain small print rules about the right to include your story in an unpaid anthology. Some are nothing more than a vanity appeal.

So while legitimate contests exist outside the romance genre (or through the RWA organization in particular), authors in other genres would need to do more homework before deciding whether to enter. They should know what they’re going to receive in return for their entry fee.

#2: What about the Contest Itself?

Before 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? How are finalists and winners determined? How many finalists will there be? What do finalists and winners receive?

In general, RWA chapter contests offer feedback from two to three judges. These preliminary judges might be published, but they might not. They’re typically chapter members or other RWA members who have volunteered to judge X number of entries.

Obviously, this means the quality of feedback can vary widely. I’ve received helpful feedback and you-don’t-have-a-clue-what-you’re-talking-about feedback. I’ve received feedback that helped me see issues in my writing and feedback that was patently wrong on semicolon usage.

Some contests push their judges to leave comments in the manuscript and some don’t. Some contests ask their final judges to include feedback too. Many RWA chapter contests will post their score sheet in advance. This helps us know what the contest scores will be based on.

How much is writing quality weighed against the romance, premise, or plot? Does character development only count for 10 points while the opening page counts for 20 points? What about the synopsis—is it judged? How many points? (I once missed finaling in a contest because I didn’t realize how much the synopsis score weighed into the overall score, and that tanked my entry.)

As a judge, I know it’s sometimes difficult to give an entry the score I think it “deserves” because of a wonky scoring system. There are contests I refuse to judge for anymore because I don’t think their scoring system fairly reflects the quality of the entries. Some non-RWA romance-focused contests I know are strictly a popularity contest, as the entrants get their friends to vote for them. So as a potential entrant, pay attention to the scoring system.

Also pay attention to what they expect for the entry itself. Most RWA chapter contests call for the first 4000-7500 words. Depending on our story, we might or might not have a good hook near the end of that word count.

Contests outside of RWA chapters seem to ask for the full manuscript more often. Those make me nervous, and I’d read the fine print very closely. Are they claiming any rights? Will winners and/or finalists be “published” in an anthology that no one will ever see or buy? Will you be locked into a contract with a certain publisher if you win?

Personally, I prefer looking at writing contests as being a step in the right direction, and I wouldn’t expect a contest to be an end by itself. But that brings us to the last topic, our goals.

#3: What Are Your Goals?

Whether or not we deem our contesting experience “satisfying” will greatly depend on our goals. Maybe we’re looking for feedback or want to know what it takes to reach the finalist level. Maybe we’re looking for validation that we’re “close” to publication-ready. Maybe we want to do an end run around the query process.

Our goals might determine the pros and cons of entering contests more than anything else. My essay reply to Janice Hardy on the original question covered the many different goals for entering contests: receiving feedback, prestige/validation, and wanting an opportunity to get in front of the final judge.

Go check out Janice’s post on the issue because in addition to my answer, she adds her thoughts and includes insights from an agent and a publisher too. But I also wanted to touch more on that last “get in front of the final judge” topic because I haven’t talked about that much here before.

Here’s what I forwarded to Janice on that aspect:

Opportunity with Final Judge:

Is the final judge an agent or editor you’d love to get your work in front of (and avoid that query/submission process)? Eh, maybe contests will be good for this. Obviously, our work first has to be good enough to final, and that’s often more subjective/flaky than we’d think.

But honestly, in my experience, most final judges don’t request more work. My novel has placed in 9 out of 12 contests this year, and I’ve won several of those, yet I’ve received only one request (that I never heard back from). I struggle with my query, so I really hoped this would be the magic answer, but it didn’t work out that way.

How could we win a contest and yet not receive a request? Many reasons. They might like the story more than the others but not love it. They might love it but already have too-similar of a client. They might not like the story but it’s stronger than the other finalists. Etc., etc.”

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while have heard about my query issues. I’ve mentioned that I entered a bunch of contests this year expressly for the purpose of avoiding the query process. What I haven’t done is share an update on that project.

Well, there you go. 12 contests entered. 9 finals or wins. One request.

Some writers might look at those numbers and see a failure. And if I entered contests with getting a request as my only goal, I might feel that way too. But while I was hoping for a request, that wasn’t my only goal. So I see 3 wins and 6 other finals as a good thing. I just didn’t get everything I wanted. *shrug*

That’s not to say contesting for a query end run won’t ever work. I know it’s worked for some. It just didn’t work for me. Bummer.

And that brings up the last “danger” of contesting. Does entering contests “burn out” potential agents or editors? Should we not query agents who see our contest entry and yet didn’t request? Should we warn our agent, “Hey, these editors saw my opening in Abc contest and didn’t request more, so I’m not sure if they’ll be interested in seeing a submission”?

I don’t know. I haven’t seen any author, agent, or editor address this issue before. I’ve also heard that some contests discourage their final judges from requesting more, but I don’t know which ones would do such a thing or why. So I don’t know how non-requests fit into the bigger picture.

I don’t regret my contesting phase. I did receive some of what I was looking for. As I mentioned on Janice’s blog, I learned more about:

  • taking criticism
  • gaining a deep understanding of how subjective the business is
  • following submission guidelines
  • how to make a first page that grabs readers, etc.

I’m certainly not sharing my experience to talk anyone out of entering contests. Rather, I hope my perspective (both here and at Janice’s post) will help people go into their decision of whether or not to enter contests when they’re fully aware of their goals—and the resultant pros and cons. *smile*

If you’ve entered writing contests, what was your goal? Did you get anything out of the experience? Did you get everything you wanted out of the experience? Do you consider your experience good or bad in the big picture? What’s your take on the non-request issue for agents and editors? Do you have any other insights or advice to share?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Will you be locked into a contract with a certain publisher if you win?

This is a major one to watch for, in my opinion—because it’s the one I often see missed. I’ll have writers I know ask me about “Oh! Have you heard about context X? I want to submit.”

And it’s almost always been one of those lock-in contests.

Personally, I tend to enter flash fiction contests or things like informal forum contests where we’re given a list of things/features that must or must not be in them. They’re nice practice, a break. I don’t expect to win. They also help me build my portfolio of writing. 🙂

Lisanne Cooper
Lisanne Cooper

Good article. I have gone through the contest phase myself. I used to enter the Writers Digest Competitions-even received an Honorable Mention early on-but the chance of even placing are astronomical.

I still enter contests on occasion, but I look for those affiliated with writing conferences I may attend or contests that provide feedback on your entry. WOW (Women on Writing) runs quarterly contests where for a slight additional extra fee you can get great feedback.

Like you, I look at contests now as a way to beef up my portfolio. They also provide much-needed deadlines, which we all need!

Taurean Watkins

It’s so SAD that it’s so hard to find non-romance contests that aren’t scams. I pray that changes in the next 30 years. After all, there PLENTY of fine writers outside romance, and know I’m not dissing romance in general, Jami, I read it, I just don’t write it, but my books sometimes have a love story, and you can have a gripping love story that doesn’t have the more strict connotations readers expect in traditional romance (ESPECIALLY in the wake of the Roth Incident, which she may or may not have known or intended some aspects to from an authorial standpoint…) but not all non-traditional love stories end in death, rape and suicide, JUST SAYING… That said, I don’t enter many contests (At least ones pertaining to writers) in part because I feel they don’t always give enough of an incentive if you don’t win, especially if it’s charging an entry fee. I enter contests by either publishers that are known to be credible and honor promises won from the winners themselves. I tend to enter any legit contests to get query letter critiqued because you, they drive me nuts, and seriously, I’m more paranoid about my query letters than any bad review I could EVER get, hear me? QUERY LETTERS scare me MORE than ANY bad review I could get. I prefer contests that give feedback on what you submit, even if you don’t win, and winners get either publishing contract or consideration from literary agent or a…  — Read More »

Stephanie Scott

My experience is also with the RWA contest circuit. Last year was my phase, I entered 3, won first place in 1 for my category, and also did not get an official request from the final judge. Though, I am absolutely sure that the feedback that those contests offered helped me shape my MS and built me into a better writer. I have judged my RWA chapter’s contest for 2 years now and I put a lot of effort into the feedback I give because I knew how much it meant to me to get that feedback myself. For the YA community in particular, there are a lot of blog contests that put your work in front of agents and editors. The submissions are typically one page to maybe a chapter if you’re lucky, so you are a really being judged by the story concept and a very small sample of writing. From 4 blog contests last year I received 17 agent requests for my manuscript. Half of those were full requests, and eventually that led to two agent offers. The Miss Snark Bakers Dozen going on now, that is open to adult entries, YA, MG, and they have a pretty good list of agents. I think what’s key to note is that I did well in presenting my idea and I had a real hook in my first page. What I found from the agent feedback on the larger requests (50p to full MS) is my overall character development…  — Read More »

Stacey Zink

Really great article. Thanks for posting it. I have worried about submitting the same manuscript for too many contests and thus the agents/publishers will lose interest. Last year I only entered two contests. I finaled in one, but didn’t win. I am now working on my second manuscript, so that helps since I will have more than one to submit. 🙂 I appreciate all your advice, Jami. You have a great blog!

Janet Walden-West
Janet Walden-West

I entered my first two contests over the summer and just got results back. I had no idea what to expect, so the fact that two out of three judges said Nice Things was a great ego boost. The third who gave a lower score also provided a ton of helpful feedback.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Reading this post makes me wish that you could pay a small fee to two or three experienced judges to get feedback. XD. In my ideal world, we would have a “Feedback Event” where you only need to pay $20 to get feedback from two or three or more experienced judges on plot, characterization, writing, etc. And the judges would be happy to answer specific questions that you have. Also, the judges would come from different backgrounds, e.g. one most experienced in sci fi/ fantasy, one in literary classics, one in action/ adventure, one in romance, etc. That way, we would see how different people coming from different writing backgrounds think about your story, and hopefully that would give you a broader and more diverse view of how your book is doing. Oh and my ideal “feedback event” would have people read your entire novel, or even entire series. XD. One reason why I almost never submit to literary journals is because I think people can’t see the best parts of my story if they don’t read the whole thing! But if it’s only $20 ish, then I would only expect an email length amount of feedback, i.e. not that in depth yet not too little either. But still, this might be asking too much for such a small fee. XDD. Oh well, that’s just my ideal world, lol. I’ll keep dreaming and hoping that this will become a reality one day.

Laurie Evans

I entered my first contest last year. It was for a local RWA chapter. They asked for a one page summary (*not* a query letter, they asked for story setup) and a 10 page scene. It cost $25.

I got some really good, constructive feedback. I’d heard the contest was good for feedback. Everything they said was very helpful. They put comments in the margins and several comments on the score sheet. The scores and comments indicated the same spots where I did things well; they wrote similar comments on what I could improve. Overall, I thought my score was decent for a newbie writer.

They both made similar comments that I could have used more space for the scene. It was *hard* to fit my scene into 10 pages.

Ten pages can be very limiting, but my full book isn’t ready to share yet. It was a good experience, I’ll enter this contest again.

Joanna Aislinn

Hey Jami,
Always a pleasure to read your posts! Family stuff made me go missing this summer, so I’m feeling grateful to be able to post articles and comments.

A final judge told me to “Go forth and publish.” So I sent off my query and wound up getting my debut novel a contract.

Next contest? Not so good. But, being one who takes up the gavel twice annually, I get the subjective part too. Unfortunately, it’s inherent, to a degree, to the task, but judging is also how I “pay forward” the help that gave me the tools, know-how and confidence to take the very rewarding steps I did.

As always, great post. Be well!


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