The Truth About Contests

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 12 2007

Many of my clients have had a lot of success on the writing contest circuit. There’s a ton of them out there. Some are genre specific, such as the dozens of Romance Writers of America chapter contests, while others are open to a variety of books, like the SouthWest Writers Contest.

I’ll admit it. Quite a few of my authors caught my attention with their impressive wins. But does winning a contest make publication imminent? Unfortunately, no. There’s a few reasons for that. As I mentioned before, there are A LOT of competitions out there. Not all of them have an established reputation that will catch the eye of an editor or agent. For all we know, the Dawning Horizon Writing Contest could be a glorified name for the Jenkins Family Reunion Storytelling Competition. Some contests have a low turnout, which could mean you came in first out of three applicants. I know . . . You could argue that the editor/agent doesn’t have to know that. But I think most authors enter these contests to get a fair assessment of how their writing stacks up against what else is out there. If you’re just looking for an easy win, then you might as well just go up against Aunt Judy and Cousin Rick.

Other writers enter to get some concrete editorial advice. Unfortunately, that’s not always a sure thing either. Due to their busy schedules, some judges provide very little feedback. Obviously the publishing industry is very subjective. So it’s also quite possible you could end up with widely conflicting scores on your entry. A published author might think the book sucks, but an agent would love to see the full right away. And that leads me to one of my more recent pet peeves (wait a minute while I climb up on my soapbox) . . . I’m not a fan of contests with more than one final-round judge. Personally, I’ve stopped doing them, because when I take valuable time away from my regular work, I like to see that my efforts resulted in the winner I chose. But personal feelings aside, I think it can confuse writers. Two equally intelligent, capable publishing professionals could have opposing viewpoints on the same work. In cases where a point system is used, an author could be cheated out of a win, because one judge is more generous with points than another. I see the obvious attraction of getting twice the professional advice, but I honestly feel that it’s hurting the applicants in the long run. I’ve known authors who’ve received advice that was blatantly contradictory. (Okay, I’m jumping back down now.)

All of that said, I still think contests can be very useful. You just have to be smart about entering. Tomorrow I’ll have some tips on getting the most out of your contest experiences.


19 responses to “The Truth About Contests”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    A lot of contests no longer give editorial critique. The GH used to be wonderful. Now it’s a way to play the lottery.

    Contests are a good way to get your work in front of a final judge if you win. I’d like it to be an editor or agent in the genre in which I write. Aside from that, they’re a good way to get your work out there in the beginning of your writing career. A way to experience the butterflies without the same consequences.

  2. Avatar Demon Hunter says:

    I prefer to submit to a magazine or an online zine. I’m not that crazy about contests because everyone seems to offer one.

  3. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Thanks for this information. I’ve never entered a contest before, but am considering it. My only motivations for it are to have fun and earn a little extra cash to indulge my book-buying addiction. I never really bought into the idea that I’d snag an editer or agent that way.

  4. I entered what became my first book, The Naked Duke, in four contests–the first and only contests I entered as an unpublished writer. I looked on it as an experiment–enter the same manuscript and see what different feedback I got before trying to make any changes.

    I finalled in RWA’s Golden Heart (and sold to one of the judging editors), but didn’t make the cut in any of the other contests. (Btw, The Naked Duke didn’t actually win the Golden Heart.) When I was revising the sold manuscript, I tried putting in some of the contest suggestions that I agreed with–I had to take them out again when my editor objected. So I was glad I entered, but also very glad I didn’t get caught up in the contest circuit. I’m afraid in my case I would have tried to change my manuscript to please all those anonymous judges and ended up confusing myself, muddying my writing, and diluting my voice.

  5. I definitely think that contests help the writer, and not so much the chances of publication.

    I was a winner for a recent FanLit contest from HarperCollins publishers – they are publishing the ebook from the contest. Amazing writers like Meg Cabot and Laura Ruby got to critique our work, and help us as finalists. Editors sometimes chimed in on our chapters – it was an amazing and positive learning experience. It created not only an amazing contest that challenged our abilities, it also created a small writing community.

  6. Avatar Maria says:

    I entered a fairly large contest once (first chapters). We were supposed to get two scoring sheets/critiques with two scores. I got three. When I asked the coordinator about it she explained why:

    The first Judge hated it–scored everything quite low except technicals such as grammar.

    The second Judge loved it–scored most everything quite high.

    So the coordinator gave it to a third judge who very kindly gave it a middle grade…

  7. I entered a gazillion contests in 2003 and finaled in 15 of them–but never came in first. However, I learned A LOT about my own writing, how to discern comments, some of my writing problems, etc. It was a great experience for the most part.

    Maria, take heart–I was one of those entrants who had love it/hate it responses from judges. I personally consider this good–you have a strong voice.

    Judging, like publishing, is so subjective it can make you crazy. But you can also learn a lot in the process.

    But just like with a critique group, you have to know what advice to take, what to leave, and how to protect your unique voice.

  8. Avatar Liz Wolfe says:

    I think I only entered two contests. The first one had the most specific instructions about putting colored paper between the synopsis and the pages, even what kind of binder clip to use. I learned a lot though from the critiques. The second contest was the St. Martin’s/PI contest where the prize was publication. I finaled in that one, thanks to your client, Livia Washburn, who judged my entry. Months after the contest I received a letter from an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s telling me that I had been one of only a few finalists and should be proud because there were a lot of entries. I still have that letter.
    Liz Wolfe

  9. I agree, anon. I gave up on the GH when I got totally conflicting scores two years in a row. Now I’m no longer eligible anyway, but I think the RITA scores vary just as widely from what I’ve heard.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    For any of the agents at BookEnds or blog visitors:

    What is your opinion of an agented but unpubbed writer who enters a contest, such as The Daphne? (Of course I wouldn’t enter the ms my agent is shopping–just a new WIP.) I was thinking that it would be a good way to get some feedback on my new project, and perhaps add an award to my writing resume.

    A small part of me is also thinking that if my agent can’t sell my current ms and decides to sever ties with me, being a finalist (if I happen to make it to that level) would look nice on a query letter.

    Is this a weird idea?

  11. Avatar Demon Hunter says:

    Anon #2,
    I would talk it over with my agent and ask if it wise to enter a brand new manuscript into a contest. I would show the manuscript to my agent and not worry about entering it into a contest. That’s just me.

  12. I agree with demon hunter. I stopped entering contests as soon as I had an agent. What’s the goal of a contest? Getting your work in front of an agent or editor. Once it’s there, there’s no point to the contest. But that said, I’ve heard of some agents who advise their clients to continue entering. Mine didn’t.

  13. I think contests are a valuable lesson in how subjective the business is, even right up to professional level. It surprises me when people expect some kind of standardized score from judges–does everyone who buys books like exactly the same thing? Isn’t this preparation for the real world of publishing?

    It took a while for me to realize that in my scores I had a collection of opinions, not a grade like you get at school. I was wary of taking advice from judges that didn’t ring true to me, and that is even true of published judges. It’s a lot to assimilate when you get three differing opinions, but then, when you’re published you’re going to have reviewers, fans, editors and agents giving their opinions, so again, I think it’s good experience to be able to filter all this advice and see if any of it works for you.

    In a way, contests are a lottery (like having a book out there on the shelves is a lottery), and you can win a slew of them and still not get published. But many people sell as a result of finaling. For romance writers, at least, it’s a way of getting your work in front of an editor and that has to be a good thing.

  14. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:


    I agree with Demon Hunter and Allison. Speak to your agent first. I’ve had unpublished clients who continued to participate in contests, but it had to be done in such a way that it didn’t interfere with overall career strategy. Even if you’re entering a project that your agent isn’t currently submitting, it could still have ramifications and hurt her plans to get you sold.

  15. Avatar Tess says:

    Thanks for the insight! I’m toying with entering a contest again. Not sure if I want to or not. Always good to hear agent/editor opinions on contests. At least this one has one final judge per category.

  16. I’m a firm believer that contests aren’t for everyone. You need a tough skin. You need to be able to distinguish valid comments from garbage disguised as valid comments.

    Contests aren’t called crap shoots for no reason. Because while you may get some amazing feedback, sooner or later you are bound to get some crappy advice. Someone loves this; someone hates the same thing. Someone thinks this is ready to publish; someone else thinks you’re not qualified to write out your own grocery list. And they word it with such a vengeance that you’re certain they may hire a hit man to come after your backside if you ever put pen to paper again. Yes, contests can break your heart. Especially when you realize that you just paid someone $25 dollars to beat you to a pulp.

    But then there’s the good feedback. The positive notes that keeps you writing and the oh-so-valuable cold-read critiques. And yes, I speak from experience. I’ve entered a lot of contests, been slammed and gutted. I think I’ve had hit men hired to take me out. But I’ve also finaled…a lot. And where did that get me? It got me sold – and with more than one book.

    Basically, I think contests are a tool that can help writers accomplish their dream. But like most tools, you need to know how to use contests to obtain the best results. I think Kim is going to offer some good advice.

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Many thanks to Demon Hunter, Allison and Kim for your thoughtful responses about entering contests as an agented writer.

  18. I think contests are a valuable lesson in how subjective the business is, even right up to professional level. It surprises me when people expect some kind of standardized score from judges–does everyone who buys books like exactly the same thing? Isn’t this preparation for the real world of publishing?

    The issue for me was that, as a writer just starting out, entering my very first and second manuscripts in the GH, I was hoping for a better idea of where I was. You don’t get comments, only scores, and scores so varied didn’t give me the info I wanted (and paid $50 for, which isn’t cheap.)

    It was indeed helpful to see for myself how varied tastes could be. But I didn’t need to pay a week’s food bill to know tastes vary. Essentially, when I realized the GH wasn’t a good barometer, and that finalling didn’t guarantee anything either, I decided I’d rather do my submitting directly to publishers. At least that was a lot cheaper! 🙂

  19. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I haven’t entered contests for years, but this year I entered a whole stack of them. Do I expect to win? No…in fact I’ll be surprised if I even final, as my stories are so edgy and “over the top,” sexually, that I’ll probably offend as many judges as I entertain! However, I did it for a much more specific reason–my stories are good and my readership continues to grow as more and more romance readers discover the series. I look at the contests as a great way to get my books in front of a lot of new readers who might otherwise not pick up a story labeled “erotic romance.” Hopefully, a few of the judges will like them well enough to continue reading the series. Maybe they’ll even talk about them online, and just maybe, I’ll end up with a new fan who sticks with me. It’s promotion, pure and simple, and a lot cheaper than an ad in RT! It’s also a lot of fun, just wondering what the judges think of my books.