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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing Contests: What Good Are They?

I recently read a discussion about whether a writer should enter contests. The conclusion was a vehement No.

The reasons:

1 - Winning a contest doesn't influence the decisions of agents or editors to whom you submit your work;

2 - The folks who organize and administer writing contests are only out to sell you something and/or collect the entry fee;

3 - Who's judging these things? Chances are, they don't write as well as you do;

4 - Better to spend your time polishing your work and submitting to a paying publisher than chasing after a useless award certificate.

Agreed, entering contests is no ticket to a publishing contract – not even (except perhaps in rare cases) if you win. And yes, some contests are designed to lure in customers for the sponsor’s critique services, training seminars, or other business offerings. But not all of them. You need to be discerning.

Judges? Well. Having been on both sides of that fence, I could tell you some stories. But I won't.

The sad fact is, writing contests are subjective. Unlike an athlete whose race is timed, score is tallied or distance is measured, a writer isn’t judged by a non-negotiable standard. In the literary world, the only difference between barely competent and truly exceptional is the opinion of the reader. So, yeah – you could be a better writer than the judges and still get a poor score.

So why bother?

If you choose not to, I couldn’t fault you. But there are some valid reasons to play this game:

1 - A win looks nice on a resume, provided the person you're contacting is familiar with the contest and knows it to be reputable. That is, taking first place in Uncle Ralph's Best Children's Story at the family reunion probably doesn't need to be mentioned; but a Second Place finish in a Writer's Digest contest demonstrates that you've got the basics under control and you might even know what you're doing. The person you're querying will read on.

2 - Many of these events charge a (usually nominal) fee, but they can also provide helpful feedback. Take the ACFW Genesis contest, for instance, where for $35, you get three detailed critiques. Not a bad deal.

3 - Judges. Okay, so they're human. So are you. Get over it.

Seriously, though – at least, in my experience – the judges know their stuff and are fair-minded. You might not think they "get" your story – and maybe they don't, particularly if they have a different philosophical viewpoint. But chances are, they see your story more clearly than you do. You're too close to it. The judges aren't engaged in a personal vendetta, they're just giving their honest opinion. For whatever that's worth.

4 - Preparing your entry for a contest gives you practice submitting and helps you hone your pitch. The more you do this, the better you'll get at it. When you're ready to go pro, you'll know how to be professional.

5 - If you've never shown your writing to anyone but your grandma, receiving critical feedback from strangers could be good experience for you. Once you've been released from treatment for your depression, you might be better able to roll with the punches that will come your way in the wonderful world of publishing. If you think contests are a jungle, wait till you see the real thing.

The bottom line: There's seldom a pot of gold at the end of the contest rainbow, but it

is possible to benefit from the process. If you make your choices wisely, the experience can be a good one.

Yvonne Anderson is the person to blame for our Novel Journey contest program. In January she disqualified herself from ever entering any contest for unpublished novelists herself, by signing a three-book contract with Risen Books for her space fantasy series, Gateway to Gannah.

Besides being a monthly contributor to Novel Journey, she blogs at


  1. No, a contest doesn't mean you get closer to publication, but having done the Genesis last year, I reaped these benefits:
    1. After being announced as a finalist, the editor requested the manuscript. It forced me to submit my ms for the first time (I was on an endless cycle of revising it). I got a very pleasant rejection (my book didn't fit with their line) but I jumped a HUGE mental hurdle.
    2. Winning my category in Genesis revived me from a nearly year-long burnout and encouraged me to keep pounding away at my stories.
    3. It kicked me into 2011 more productive than I've ever been with my writing (ie. I've already written more in January 2011 then I wrote in all of 2010).

    Now I suppose if you don't fare well in a contest, it could be depressing, but if you have even modest results, contests give you a boost of strength to keep moving forward. The Genesis contest last year was the only one I've ever entered so I don't have other contests to compare it to, but I'm very thankful for the experience.

  2. I'm a firm believer in the value of contests. I've received helpful feedback from my preliminary round judges. I've had the pleasure of being a Golden Heart finalist two different years, which builds name recognition. And I received a request for a full from a final round judge who offered me representation and sold my 2010 GH finalist story this past December.

  3. Yvonne, congrats on the contest! And thanks for the post.

    Congrats to BK and Keli, too, for your accomplishments. The novel journey is exactly that -- a journey -- and each milestone we get to is an achievement to be celebrated.


  4. I agree, there can be some value to entering contests. However, I found this other writer's perspective interesting, I thought I'd share it.

  5. I take the middle ground on contest. I've entered many contests over the past ten years and had a mixed bag of results. I'm of the firm belief that judges are much harsher on an entry than any editor I've ever run up against and I believe I know why.
    Judges are critiquers, folks who are focused on the nuts and bolts of writing--so you're not going to get a pass on grammar issues or misspelled words. And while that's great at training a writer to present the cleanest manuscript possible, editors are looking at story. Is the plot a twist on a tired and true storyline? Does it fall into their line?

    Personally, I think if you make it through the first and second round judges to the finals, you've accomplished something HUGE! And if you don't, you've been given a series of great critiques that is going to propel your writing forward.

    Patty Smith Hall
    Hearts in Flight, LIH, July, 2011

  6. I think they're beneficial for lots of reasons mentioned and I would take a closer look if someone won a contest I was familar with and reputable. I believe it does give you a leg up.

    Ps, love the new picture, Y. Winner!


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