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It Isn’t Whether You Win or Lose . . .

How you “play the game” becomes very important when you’re entering a writing contest. I’ve put together this list of tips to help you get the most out of your contest experience.

* Do your research. Treat your contest preparation much like you would your submission process. Find out who the final-round judges will be. Target agent/editor judges you know are actively acquiring in the area that you’re writing in. The biggest benefit of these contests is that they can get your work under the noses of the right people.

* Only submit entries for completed projects. If you’re serious about getting published, don’t enter a work in progress. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve requested a full from a contest and then never heard from that author again. As I mentioned before, the best reason for doing these contests is to expose your work to publishing professionals, and hopefully get them excited about your writing. Unfortunately, with all of the material we receive every day, we agents can have the attention spans of six-year-olds. If we want to see your work, we want it now! Three months, nine months, two years later . . . it’s quite likely we won’t care anymore.

* Keep it all in perspective. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, everything’s subjective. You may get contradictory advice from one judge to the next. If that’s the case, it’s always best to go with your gut. I’ve noticed with most of my clients that when I send them revisions, they almost always see how my points will make the book stronger (or that I may be off-base). I think when you get a good piece of advice for your book, you often know it. If the feedback just doesn’t connect for you, then don’t feel you HAVE to incorporate it.

* Don’t let a win go to your head. While first place can be a great confidence booster, don’t read too much into it. A win doesn’t mean you’ll be published within the next six months. If you’ve spoken to a lot of contest winners, you’ll find that many of them are still looking to break into publishing. There’s a lot of reasons for this. First off, there’s a gazillion contests out there. The odds just aren’t in your favor. Second, you’re only as good as your competition. Just because an editor/agent thought you wrote better than the other finalists doesn’t necessarily mean they LOVED your work. If the judge doesn’t explicitly request to see the manuscript/proposal, don’t assume they want to see it because they gave you first place. They’ll ask for it if they want it. If they wrote some particularly glowing comments and you are just convinced that the request slipped their mind, then write the judge a letter thanking them for their kind words and add “If you’re ever interested in looking at the complete manuscript, please contact me at ______.”

* Don’t become a contest junkie. Some writers end up relying too heavily on the contest circuit and use the feedback to “workshop” the book to death. There comes a time when you just have to get out there and start submitting. It’s like surfing, but never going out on a date. It’s not going to get you anywhere.

Do you have any contest tips that have worked for you?


Category: Blog


  1. I think it’s important to enter a few contests as part of the learning process. Contests can really help you focus on the first chapter, or a synopsis or both, depending on what the contest requires. I still have a devil of a time with synopsis’ but I got a lot better at writing hooks and cover letters (in part so that I didn’t have to include a synopsis).

    Probably most important, contests help a writer focus on an opening chapter–you really have to grab your reader so it forces you to leave out backstory–you’ve got x words to make sure Something Happens. It’s a good lesson of course because an agent or editor generally only reads 5 to 10 pages.

  2. Maria:

    That’s a great point. You also reminded me of something that people should be aware of. Contests shouldn’t become the focus so that you lose sight of the book. Too many times agents and editors see work that we say, “has been workshopped to death” also a symptom of contest junkies. This is work that has a phenominal three chapters, but the rest of the manuscript isn’t up to par.

    I’m very much in support of contests. I think they have their time and place, and can be incredibly helpful. I also think it’s important to know when contests can benefit you and when you’ve simply made them your sole focus.


  3. Interesting posts – I am a contest junkie, more or less. I love writing short stories and so most of the contests I enter are that – short story, fun, very low cost entry fees (free or no more than $5 or $10 – I’m not rich) – and usually it is the content that appeals to me. Since I’m really not sure what specific genre I want to write, these contests help me write a variety of different genres. I love reading mysteries but know I would never be able to pull of a mystery like some experts or other writers – I know I’ve tried – only got about 1/3 of the way through and since the person I was killing off had already been killed off and there were clues as to how she was killed off, then I decided the story didn’t or couldn’t go any further. I’ve recently finished a middle grade novel, but not edited it yet because I’m afraid to go back and read what I’ve written for the simple reason that I know it’s not good. So to fill my time and procrastinate on editing, lol – that’s about what it amounts to do, I enter short contests. In January I participated in the 24-hour contest. I know that my chances of winning that one are very subjective – one judge who has to read through a ton of stories to find the one to be the first place winner. I’d be happy with a consolation prize honestly. This is a fun one though – because you don’t even get the topic or word length until the day of the contest (thus the 24-hour contest) and you have one day from start to finish to have a finished project sumbitted.

    In January I also entered the Fast and Frisky contest put on by Echelon Press (the theory behind this is you hae a certain amount of time – about 2 weeks – to write and submit the story, then Karen judges the stories and selects a winner the next day, and after being notified of winning, the author has 5 days to edit, then the story is published – it is a fast process and I entered and won, my story is published on Echelon Press in ebook format for the low price of $1 – yes it is contracted for 2 years and the royalties aren’t very high but it is published.

    Now as for the other type of contests, I tend to stay away from them as they scare me – there is a lot of work involved and I’m not sure how serious I am about writing – I like the short, fun things (My three wins have all been just fast and fun type of things) – I do well with short stories but this is just me –

    I can see how everyone would get different things out of the contests – so far no contest I’ve entered has offered feedback, but it’s okay with me – I don’t mind – I’m writing and that’s the more important thing to me – E 🙂

  4. While I agree that contests that help with our openings are a good idea, don’t forget to work on the rest of the book too. I gather a lot of agents/editors get really frustrated when they see really great partials – the result of polishing for contests, only to find the rest of the ms is a mess.

  5. I echo Kim’s suggestion to send a follow-up thank-you letter to the final judge with that all important, “if you ever want to read the completed manuscript…” offer added onto the end.

    I’ve served as the Contest Chair for the Book of Your Heart sponsored by the Published Authors’ Special Interest Chapter of RWA. You would be amazed at the number of times an editor sends back the final rankings and DOESN’T request a manuscript. And yet, when I send a follow-up thank-you and add the question, “Did you want to see any of these manuscripts?”, I generally get a lot of requests.


  6. Thanks, Kim and Jessica, for another interesting discussion. Got a question regarding published authors and contests. I have two Ritas and am familiar with how that contest does (and doesn’t) lend a career boost. Do you think it’s beneficial for pubbed authors to enter contests other than the Rita?

    Oh, and regarding yesterday’s conversation about keeping your perspective–and your sense of humor :-D–when you see your scores: If I recall correctly, I once scored a 2 and still won the Rita 😀 Another time, I got great scores across the board, but if it had been up to me, Lindsay Longford would have won that year. Go figure. I’m forever grateful, though, in part because those Ritas kept my career alive when both my parents had terminal cancer, and I barely wrote a word.

  7. Hi Wendy–

    To be honest, once you’re published contest wins leave less of an impression on editors. By that time, they’re much more interested in your sales track record. You could have 20 RITAs, but if your sales have been horrible, they’re not going to do you much good. It’s always about the almighty bottom line.

    I suppose there are always exceptions. If you’re thinking about moving houses, you may want to test the waters by targeting a certain editor who’s judging a contest. That way you can find out if they like your writing without breaking an option clause or burning any bridges.

    Another possible benefit is to network with other published authors. If you’re judged by a bestelling author, they may be happy to give you an endorsement on your next book.

    No matter what, if you’re represented, you should always talk to your agent about it first.

  8. I also think Kate Douglas had a good take on contests as a published author in her comment yesterday. She’s been entering not to win, but to try to build a readership. In other words, the fee might be worth finding even one new reader, possibly someone who wouldn’t otherwise have picked up your book.


  9. Okay, these are written tongue in cheek, but anyone who has ever questioned their sanity for entering contests should be able to relate. And as it is with all humor, there might also be some truth in them.

    Top Nine Ways to Know if you are Addicted to Contests.

    9) Your first chapter is fabulous. It’s also your only chapter.

    8) You spend more time entering contests than you do . . . writing.

    7) You enter every contest you hear about – even if the final judge is on the 20 Worst Agents List by Writer Beware.

    6) You consider contest surfing as your daily exercise.

    5) You schedule your family’s vacation around contest “announce” dates

    4) People at the Post Office know you by name and ask how you did in the last contest.

    3) You need Excel to keep track of your contest entries.

    2) You’ve actually burnt dinner more than twice because you lost track of time while you were reading the ContestAlert loop.

    1) You steal your kid’s lunch money to pay the entry fees.

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