Chip MacGregor

January 7, 2013

Does winning a contest help a prospective author?


Someone wrote to ask, “Do you think it helps a beginning novelist to enter a contest or win an award?”

It’s hard to say. Certainly it can’t hurt that an author wins a Faulkner Award, or a short story writer is handed an O. Henry Prize. Doubtless that causes the publisher to pay a bit more attention to the proposal, assuming the contest is widely respected. People in the industry appreciate the level of work it takes to win a prestigious award. 

But does it actually help the publisher decide whether or not to publish your novel? No. That work will have to stand on its own. Winning an award will get you noticed, and maybe help get you read by an editor, but it doesn’t make your book deal a slam dunk. I’ve had award-winners send me proposals that were well-written but not salable, so while I appreciated their talent, it didn’t translate to a book deal. Still, it’s not a bad thing for a  debut novelist to read “Winner of the ____ Prize” on the cover.

Perhaps one of the issues is the award itself — there are some great contests with prestige to them, but there are also contests that don’t mean much at all. (Several writing conferences have their own awards, and in my view that just means the winner is “the best of the relatively small group of people who attended.”) I’m not putting them down, only noting that winning “best book” at the North Dakota Writing Conference won’t translate as having much prestige to an editor in New York. Meanwhile, winning the Golden Heart at RWA doesn’t mean you’re sure to land a romance book contract, but at least it means you were read and liked by significant people in the industry. So evaluating the contest prestige is necessary. 

I know a number of writers are thrilled with the Genesis Award handed out by ACFW. I’m a huge fan of ACFW as an organization, and think they put on a wonderful conference, but I don’t think publishers take the Genesis competition seriously. It’s too new, and the competition hasn’t been strong enough to date. Perhaps that will change in the future, but right now I don’t think winning the Genesis does much to enhance an author’s career. Of course, that doesn’t mean an author should refrain from entering — the fact is, entering a contest might be exactly what a writer needs to get over the hump and finish the manuscript. It’s no doubt a great form of self-motivation. But does winning a writing contest generally help in terms of getting a deal? I don’t think so. 

So… my turn to ask a question. What writing contests do you enter? And have you found particular contests helped your career?

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  • Catherine Madera says:

    I’m sure it depends on the contest, but I entered the Guideposts writing contest in 2004 and won a spot that year. It is totally responsible for my being able to write professionally today. I was a completely raw writer and took everything my editor shared with me seriously. After writing pretty exclusively for them for about 3 years, I significantly broadened my writing platform and have since collaborated, authored fiction, done all sorts of other writing such as newspaper, press releases, etc. Currently I’m a magazine editor while continuing to pursue fiction writing and other free lance jobs. The type of writing I learned to do at Guideposts–concise, non-fiction storytelling has helped me in every other sort of writing. I am so grateful to Guideposts for investing in me. Without them I would have no writing career.

  • Regina says:

    Entering contests when you first start writing can be good for many reasons. You get feedback, encouragement, learn to submit by deadlines, learn to deal with both disappointment and success, show others you are focused, and make a
    psychological statement to yourself that you are serious about writing. So contests have value.

    Think of all the garage rehearsals, amateur nights, small bars, and contests musicians play on their way to the bigger venues. Those little venues may not seem significant and yet they’re where you learn, make your mistakes, and polish your art. That way when you do step out onto the larger stage you have a better chance of succeeding there.

    So contests are valuable, but there does come a time when you must put your work in front of buyers and I agree that most of those book buyers don’t care if you won a small writing contest in your past anymore than most music buyers care if you played guitar at Shelley’s Sip and Flirt every Friday night for three years. That doesn’t mean the time you spent at the Sip and Flirt was wasted. It was a valuable step on the journey. Same with writing contests imo.

    Regina Richards

  • Robin Miller says:

    One thing I will comment on….speaking based only upon an administrator of the Genesis contest….we’ve had several agents and editors request the full manuscripts of Genesis finalists, right from the contest. That’s one of the reasons ACFW shifted its
    requirements to the first fifteen pages of a completed
    manuscript….“It’s not uncommon for editors
    and agents to ask to see a Genesis entry that shows promise,” says ACFW
    CEO Colleen Coble. “We want to make sure our writers are prepared to
    respond.”….so, while our Genesis finalists/winners can’t guarantee anything, I do know that the requests come and a few of them have gone on to eventually be represented or published through the connection of the contest~ Robin Miller, ACFW Executive Director

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — and I really appreciate you coming onto the site to say so, Robin. We represent several Genesis winners. (I had some people write to say they thought I was taking a shot at the Genesis — not my intent at all, as I’m sure you know.) Thanks for this.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    I’ve entered a few contests over the years (a few with small fees) in different genres (poetry, short stories, etc.) I was an “Honorable Mention” (in the top 100 of however many thousand) in the 76th Writer’s Digest Short Story Competition. I mention it in my queries and cover letters figuring it looks good. Is it a contest worth mentioning, Chip? Thanks!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      If you did well, it’s certainly worth mentioning, Donna Marie. It at least tells the publisher, “Others found this work worthwhile.”

  • KD Fleming says:

    I enter contests based on if the judges are trained or published authors and if the contest offers feedback on the pages entered. Then I look at who the final round judges are to see if they are an editor or agent I’m interested approaching. A contest is a great way to save your one shot at that agent via query for that specific story if you’ve been finaling and getting consistent feedback. The TARA, The Maggies, and The Golden Pen are well respected contests.
    And if you are entering contests as a means to get your work in front of agents and editors, make sure your manuscript is complete.
    Thanks again Chip for the spot-on advice and analysis.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    I occasionally enter some of the contests held by Writer’s Digest. (My next deadline is in a few days.)

    I find participating in contests valuable for several reasons. The main two are forcing me to write outside my genre and learning by comparing my submission with the finalists and winner. As a result, I become a better writer.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good thoughts, Peter. Forcing yourself to write outside your genre is a helpful idea — but then comparing your work to the winners is even better. That’s how we improve. Thanks!

  • Amy Simpson says:

    Thanks for this, Chip. I always wondered about it and felt like a failure when I couldn’t even get past the first round. I have entered a few contests like the Genesis and Touched by Love but the feedback from the judges were always inconsistent. One would rave about something I did great and give me a top score, the next judge would tear me apart for the same thing. I’ve never gotten anything back that made it clear what I needed to work on so I just used their crits to toughen up 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A writer, when talking about the presidency of Richard Nixon, once wrote this: “The task of history is to judge quality. But the quality of judges is a history of tasks.” That’s certainly true with writing contests, Amy. There can be a wide range of quality among the judges. When I read your work, I knew right away it was good — so I’m surprised to hear it didn’t do well in contests, frankly.

    • Anne Love says:

      Thanks Amy and Chip. I also had the experience of great inconsistencies with the Genesis last year. I still think it was valuable to add to my list of “done that” exercise. But I’m not going to cry in my tea over it. The most value I got from it was setting a deadline, completion of the goal, and working through the requirements as a discipline.

  • Jeannie Campbell, LMFT says:

    contests, no. conference, yes. the year i was a top-5 finalist in the Genesis was ironically the worst year for me at the conference. but continuing to rub shoulders with industry professionals is what moved things along.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree — meeting people in the industry is a great way to make connections. Maybe better than the contest. Thanks, Jeannie.

  • Policeartist says:

    I hope I don’t make a duplicate post. Jennifer is correct. It’s important to realize that the judges are often unpublished authors. I went through a phase where i entered numerous competitions. I became so steamed at some of the feedback I stopped. Below are samples of the comments (exactly as sent to me.)

    Line from the book:

    Already Prussian-blue shadows stretched between the steep pine-covered mountains defining the valley.


    –uhm, the exact color is Prussian blue. It is a bluish-green. An artist would think in exact colors. Ergo, the fact that she thinks of “Prussian blue” is a clue that she’s thinking differently and insight into the fact that she might be an artist.

    Comment from judge: (the character is) not quite logical (messy skull stored in a paper bag).

    –Sorry, judge. That’s how skulls are stored. Or in a paper box. Not in plastic.

    Comment from judge: The beginning is more action than actual character study.

    –Yeah. You are judging the thriller category. It’s called a thriller for a reason…..

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The fact that you saved bad judge comments is telling, Policeartist! :o) And, so you know, I’m wearing a Prussian-blue sweater as I type this. (Um… really.)

    • Policeartist says:

      I like to serve as a bad example to others….

  • Tim Osner says:

    The Faulkner/Wisdom Competition and I think it probably generated some initial attention regarding my queries. I really don’t know.

  • Great post, and I would agree with you, based on what I’ve seen and experienced. A few years ago, I entered a fair number of contests–the Operation First Novel, the Golden Pen, the Dixie Kane (Most probably haven’t heard of that one.), and the … I think there was one more. I did notice when I went to the CWG conference, my placing in the Operation First Novel really helped me get an open door with editors. But I agree, after that door opened, it was up to the story alone as to what kind of response I’d get. (And I’m still waiting for that response, but have been told I should hear soon. 😉 )

    I’ve always preferred to enter contests with larger entries as, not to sound rude, but it seems many can pull off a good first chapter, but it takes a bit more thought and tweaking to maintain a strong story throughout followed by a satisfactory ending.

    However, one thing I noticed was one novel that seemed to do the best in contests also seemed to appeal to a smaller number of editors, whereas, the following year I entered another novel that semi-finaled but didn’t make it into the top five, and I’ve received a better response from editors on that one. (Again, still waiting to hear the final word.)

    One thing I have noticed, albeit I may be wrong, it seems contests often focus more on uniqueness whereas published works, although also unique in some way, are often those that are more marketable. In other words, a writer can write a strong novel that does well in a contest but for whatever reason isn’t believed to appeal to the reading masses.

    I’ve also become aware, many contests are judged by unpublished writers. Not to put unpublished writers down as I myself am one, but, I think it helps to remember those judging the contests are often volunteers and probably very similar to those in our critique groups, meaning, with varying levels of skill and understanding and with unique perspectives on what makes a story strong. However, even then, it is beneficial to receive feedback. Of course, when entering contests judged by published authors, the entrant is offered a great opportunity to learn from those who have likely spent years, if not decades, perfecting their craft.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Interesting take, Jennifer. You may be right — maybe too many contests value unique takes over solid writing. And the ones that win are not always the most-publishable project. But I’m glad you brought up your latter point — that too many contests are judged by unpublished writers. It’s one of the reasons I stopped doing most contests. A couple times I felt the other judges had no basis for evaluating the participants, and I hated the fact that they chose a stupid project over a good one. A couple people have made the point of saying an author should look at the judges… I think that’s very valid. Really appreciate your words.

    • Anne Love says:

      Two of my three of my Genesis judges never marked the form to say if they were published or not. I put much more stock in the comments from the one who did mark that they were multi-pubbed and discounted the unmarked scores.

  • Ashley Bazer says:

    Thank you for this post. It puts things into perspective. In July, my manuscript won the WestBow Press/Munce Group writing contest, earning publication. It’s been awesome to hold my novel in my hand – and to be taken seriously as an author by those around me – but it sure is a struggle to market the book. I’m learning a lot! The exposure doesn’t hurt, but it hasn’t landed an agent or publishing contract, as I had hoped. Still, I am encouraged by the book’s reviews and sales, and I’m looking forward to getting my next book out there! 🙂

  • sally apokedak says:

    I’ve won several contests (ACFW included) and I’m still not published. I got a runner-up grant from SCBWI and SCBWI grants are the most prestigious award and unpublished writer can get in the children’s publishing world.. Recipients are almost always published within two years. Me? Four years and counting, Still not published.

    But I don’t regret entering those contests for one minute. The feedback has been great (to say nothing of the cash from the grant), and the opportunity to get my work before agents and editors has been great,

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That might be hard to write, Sally, but I appreciate this. Proves my point: winning a contest is great, but doesn’t automatically mean “sell your book.” Thanks. Congrats on all the winning– here’s hoping it’ll pay off for you.

  • Rick Barry says:

    I’ve entered only two contests. The first one was sponsored by a Christian magazine, and I entered just for fun. I didn’t win, but they wrote me and said they would like to buy my article anyway. That was the first time I realized I could actually make up stuff and have people pay me for permission to print it. Been doing it part time ever since!

  • Matthew Sheehy says:

    As an aspiring author, I love entering contests for the feedback. I won a Genesis in 2012, but I was more excited about being a finalist than winning because reaching the finals put my story in front of an editor and two agents, and one of them asked to see the whole story. Trying to become published is much like going to college, except that you don’t know how many credits you need to earn this degree. Contest feedback is like the qualifying exams that reflect my progress as a write. I don’t focus on conflicting advice from judges and think that the one with lesser praise is ignorant; I focus on what flaws the judges agree upon, and improve that aspect of my writing.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good to hear, Matthew. And yes – entering contests can be a great way to get feedback on your writing. Taking those lessons and learning from them is the best result.

  • Tanya Dennis says:

    Direct answers to your questions: I’ve only ever entered two contests and they both helped. Did they help my career? Well, they helped me, which I believe indirectly helps my career.

    The first was over six years ago with It’s not a big contest, by any means. The prize is a digital ribbon. 🙂 Prior to that, I had been arguing with God about whether or not I should write. He said yes; I said no. I entered the contest to shut Him up. When I won first place and and an editor immediately expressed interest in publishing my piece, I finally surrendered and got to work. So, that contest helped me spiritually and professionally. It motivated me to take my gifts and writing seriously.

    The second contest was Re:Write last year. It was the first run for this contest (and the first Re:Write Conference), but the prize was big (a $15K deal with Tyndale) and the panel impressive (Ken Blanchard, Mary DeMuth, Mark Batterson, et. al.). My proposal didn’t win, but it did garner some attention. More importantly, this contest pushed me to cross a significant finish line. While it didn’t earn me a contract or an agent, it better equipped me for that next step. I’d say that helps my career.

    I don’t know if I plan to enter more contests, but I’m glad I did these.

  • Mae Nunn says:

    IMHO contests for unpublished writers should be for unvarnished feedback, but be prepared to get your feelings
    hurt. It’s good practice for your first revision letter from an editor. For a published author contests are a waste of money for the the ROI.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Absolutely right about unpublished authors needing strong truth, Mae. Excellent practice. Thanks.

  • Guest says:

    I’m new to the writing journey. I have entered one contest (I won’t specify). I think feedback is always so welcome. My feedback was on absolute opposite sides of the spectrum one judge very much disliking my writing and another loving my work and voice. Which is probably a reflection of reality, as everyone is drawn to different voices.

    Do you find that quite common? Does the results of contests really have to do with the judges personal preferences? I know they have scoring systems, but do personal interpretation of those systems play a role in results?

    • Melissa says:

      Guest, I often get 2 judges who love me and a judge who killed my chance to final with a low score. Same for my crit partners’ contest entries, so I’d say, yes, that’s pretty common.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, that’s true. Very common.

  • Melissa says:

    Sorry for the long-winded comment! I’d like to hear your opinion on contests for published writers at some point on your blog. I get the Christy or RITA or the coveted genre specific awards, but wonder about the small contests that I see even big name authors enter. I’ve had writers tell me it’s exposure and forcing some avid readers to read your books, but I’m just not convinced those little contests are worth the money and cost of shipping several books. Do you think they have any benefits?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      The alleged benefit is “building readership” and “exposure.” The real benefit seems to be “makes author feel important.” I’m not putting that down, of course, but I don’t think it matters much or makes a big difference with sales, Melissa. Good comment.

  • Melissa Tagg says:

    To me, one of the better reasons to enter a contest is definitely for the feedback. The My Book Therapy Frasier Contest is a newer one, but the feedback is amazingly good. (I’m a little biased, though, as part of the MBT team–ha!) I’ve had nice experiences with other contests, too…particularly the Genesis. It’s a nice, inexpensive way to get feedback from, in most cases, professionals.

    Of course, then there’s the challenge of juggling feedback if judges disagree. And…a judge gave me a horrible score on my entry last year–I mean did not like a SINGLE thing about it–and a couple months later, that manuscript sold. Sooo…like anything, contest feedback has to be taken with a grain of salt, I guess. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I really appreciate that, Melissa — a good point, and one I overlooked. The problem with some contests is the judges never talk, so you can have one judge say “more dialogue!” while the other is complaining, “too much dialogue.” Good feedback from good judges is certainly a worthwhile reason for entering. Thanks.

  • Melissa says:

    I’m a huge fan of contests as an unpublished writer, but not to say “I’m the winner of such and such.”

    First, it depends on the contest, yeah a “podunk midwestern chapter of writers r us–first place” means nothing at all. I had one writer at this kind of conference encourage the little contests so you could call yourself an “award winning writer”–even as a green newbie I had a hard time not rolling my eyes.

    But instead of trying to determine prestige or looking for a cool prize, I’d solely look for who is judging the contest. If the contest judge is an agent or editor of your genre and are respected and who you’d like to work with, then they evidently think that contest is worth their time–therefore it’s worth my time.

    So initially, those anonymous first round judges are great feedback. People can say things anonymously to your face that your friends and critters might not–if you’re lucky enough to get tough judges that actually comment. And you get judges that totally don’t get your writing too, but I think that’s good to experience.

    When you get to the point of consistently finaling, it’s a forced slush pile read. Your poor query blurb can’t stop you, your wonderful pages get read despite your crummy one-liner, your lack of published works, etc.

    A friend of mine had a first round judge send her contest entry to her agent before she even knew who the entrant was–and at the return of judging sheets, my friend contacted the judge, and ended up signing with the agent before she knew if she’d won. (Genesis contest) She also had an editor request for the full of the same book from a second place win. (RWA state chapter contest)

    I won a contest and the final judging editor waffled for a short time on requesting the full, but kept thinking about the story and then asked, but before I sent it in, I queried agents and got 3 interested, signed with one, and then the editor bought my series. (RWA state chapter contest)

    Another friend of mine won the Genesis category, but the finaling judge/agent asked her for it before the contest results came, and she signed before she knew she’d won. (Genesis)

    So, no one I know had gotten a deal because they had the “I won a contest” badge, but rather from getting in front of the editor/agent that is interested in the genre and forcing them to read it by being good enough to final.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate your thoughts, Melissa. And glad you shared your story about using the contest as a springboard to both an agent and a publisher! Congrats!

  • Chip, It’s noteworthy that ACFW now requires a completed manuscript for entry into the Genesis contest. Prior to that, there were a number of Genesis winners who never completed their manuscript, much less submitted it for publication.

    I agree, a contest win doesn’t guarantee publication. It doesn’t even guarantee another contract if the last book was a winner or finalist in a significant contest. But it’s a nice thing to hang on your resume.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for that clarification, Richard. And you’re right — I”m not in any way putting down writing contests. It usually feels great to win. I’m just noting that I don’t know if they really create enthusiasm with editors. Appreciate this.

  • Tonya says:

    I’ve only entered one contest. I didn’t expect to win, I wanted the feedback more than anything. I’ve been hoping that contest would be objective and a better barometer of if I’m improving and maybe one day help to know when I’m ready to try submitting.

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