Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thirteen Things I Learned From Entering Writing Contests

This week we’re discussing conventions and contests. There’s debate about the merit of contests and gossip about unfair “judgezellas,” but for me, entering contests has been a good thing. So I’d like to share with you the…

Thirteen Things I Learned From
Entering Writing Contests

1) Sometimes the judge’s comments are more important than the score. I’ve often been lucky enough to have a judge pass along advice. For example, one judge drew arrows and wrote, “This is where the scene comes alive for me.” That feedback literally pointed out an area in my manuscript I should expand.
2) Opinions vary. A few years ago, I went through a contest-entering frenzy. Through the miracle of multiple copies and contests with similar requirements, I sent my current Work-in-Progress everywhere. In one of the first contests, my work was shredded. Red-inked comments told me in no uncertain terms to keep my day job. My score was roughly equivalent to a D- in the contest’s point values. I was crushed. Then a month later, another contest deemed an entry, bearing those same D- words, to be a finalist. I was stunned. A few weeks later another contest informed me that my manuscript had reached the finals. C’est la vie. Opinions vary!
3) Proper format is important. When I started entering contests, I really didn’t know about formatting and subsequently lost points. Kind judges and fellow writing partners helped me figure out those writing conventions.
4) Things get easier with practice. In one of my first contests, nervous as a newbie, I forgot to enclose a return envelope for my manuscript. Now, I prefer to use Paypal and enter electronically, and I’m a lot more relaxed about the whole process.
5) Enter the right category. Make sure your piece works for the category you’ve chosen. Some summers ago, I thought the terms “sweet, sensual, spicy and sexy” were a matter of opinion. I didn’t know that sex scenes had actual ratings. I entered a love scene where the characters exchanged a good-night kiss. I had described a hot hero I thought of as sexy so I entered the piece in the sexy category. Oops. Had I asked critique friends they probably would have set me straight before I entered. Instead, although the piece made it to the finals, I received an inked tongue-lashing from the editor I was hoping to impress.
6) Trust yourself over whatever feedback you receive. Write how and what you want. Please yourself first. You may be a trend-setter. Even if you’re not, you deserve to feel satisfaction from your work. Write what you feel compelled to do. If you like it, others likely will, too.
7) Pay attention to postal rates. This can be trickier than you think because it may be months before your entry is returned in your self-addressed and stamped envelope. Postal hikes seem to be the norm these days.
8) Choose your contest. Enter one you believe you can win or one you’d like to win. Look at the prizes, the number of pages required, and the editors, agents or authors who will judge the finalists. In my last romance writing, the key couple didn’t meet in Chapter One. Many a judge looking at the first 10 pages could wonder if my manuscript was a romance at all. So I entered it in contests willing to evaluate 25 to 50 pages and/or required a synopsis. More advice: Look at the prizes. If the grand prize is a trip to a convention you aren’t that enthusiastic about attending, consider a different contest.
9) Try again. Practice does make perfect. The more you write and polish your writing, the better it becomes. And who knows, your piece may shine in the next contest.
10) Ask questions and accept help. Acknowledge the advice that judges and coordinators offer. They can be an excellent source for writing tips. I still use some of the synopsis writing guidelines a kind coordinator sent me.
11) Be happy with whatever score you get. It would be wonderful to have your manuscript always make the finals, but that isn’t realistic. I read somewhere that although they’re skilled predators, hawks and eagles only succeed in catching their prey 10% of the time. So cut yourself some slack. No one succeeds all the time. And those Cinderella moments when an editor calls to say, “I must have your book,” tend to be few and far between. Learn to pat yourself on the back whatever happens. You succeeded in entering a contest. It wasn’t just a dream; you did it! Give yourself credit for being courageous in putting your work out there.
12) There’s always another contest. When you get your entry back, know that you can improve it and send it to the next contest. There will always be another contest or another agent or an opportunity for publication.
13) Winning feels great!

I’m sure you all have stories about contests you’ve entered, good and bad. Please share your experiences and any tips you’d like to pass along. Thanks.
-- Brenda Davis

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone
who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow
Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your
Thirteen in others comments. It's easy and fun! Trackbacks, pings,
comment links accepted!


  1. Great list. I've entered some contests, but my pieces tend to be long. I agree, you can get great feedback from them. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I've had really mixed results with contests. One contest - really rated highly - took my money and I never heard another thing - even though I paid extra for a critique.

    I have so many people in my life who are willing to give feedback - that I figure now I'll save my money. :)

    I'm delighted contests work for you!

  3. You've learned so much, that's great!

  4. I did not do writing competitions, but did compete in piano. I always liked it when the judges made comments too, instead of just the score. It made me see where I needed improvement.

  5. Sounds like you have had some great experiences.

  6. Great list. I can certainly identify with #8. In all my books, my H&H don't meet until later, which means it doesn't usually do well in the shorter contests. Gotta be a 3 chapter or 50 pager for me to even thing about entering.

  7. I'm in and out of contests. I do like to try to make my work better and try different fora, though. Sometimes it's enough to get something written and leave it be for a while, though. Thanks for this post.

  8. I am not a contest person. I have considered entering Photoshop contests (I know, I'm a dork)...Great list!

  9. Interesting list. Contests really can be hit or miss and a matter of luck concerning who judges your entry.

  10. I hope that I can work up the courage (and a decent story) to enter into a contest someday.

  11. That's very good advice.

  12. That's a really good list, and very helpful as well. Thanks.

  13. I had no idea what all was involved with contest entries...very nice list!

  14. I haven't entered much lately. Maybe I should. I like the ones you email the best.

  15. THis is perfect timing since I was curious and about to enter into two contests by the end of May! Great info.

  16. Good advice all around. If nothing else, the discipline it takes to send out contest entries keeps a writer focused on deadlines, formatting and the market.

  17. Cool list. And great advice. :)

  18. This is a great TT. I've never entered writing contests, so I enjoy reading what others have experienced.

  19. Sorry I'm so late visiting this week!

    This is great advice--I've heard a lot of people who are either pro- or anti-contests, but this list shows how to make them work for you.

  20. One cool thing about these tips you provided is that they can be applied to other areas besides writing. Recognizing the importance of practice, realizing that opinions vary, being true to one's self, and accepting constructive criticism were the tips that really struck a chord with me.

  21. Excellent list ~ there are some great pointers here!