How to Enter a Writing Contest the Right Way
Here’s the thing with writing contests—they’re kind of like gas station pizza: either an incredibly satisfying experience…or HORRIFYING. And sometimes, you just don’t know which it’s gonna be until it’s all over and you’re smiling in cheesy happiness or tossing your cookies…which in this case would be more like tossing your pepperoni.
[Rambling. Revert course]
So writing contests.
Though I’m no contest guru, I do think we can take our contest experience to a much happier place when we enter the right way…as opposed to the way that may drive you and quite possibly your loved ones up to the brink of batty.
(Some signs that you may be entering the latter way: You’ve got a countdown app on your phone noting the days and hours until the date finalists are to be announced. You’re sure if you DO final, it means you will be published in the next couple months. You’re sure if you DON’T final, God is telling you to stop writing. In short, you slip into obsessed territory. Please don’t go there.)
So here are my suggestions for entering a contest the right way:
1) Enter the contests that give GOOD feedback.
Do you homework about the contest you’re considering. Who are the judges? Talk to past entrants. Do the judges do more than stick a number on a page? Good. Do they offer feedback beyond, “Hated your character’s first name.”? Good. These are the contests you want to enter.
2) And then enter FOR the feedback.
This is the thing with contests: It’s your chance to get professional feedback…for super cheap! Seriously, $40 or $50 to have a published author, agent or editor look at your work is a steal. If you can view this contest as a transaction in which you’re getting a great deal with a solid return on your investment (dude, Dave Ramsey would be so proud!), then finaling or not finaling loses a lot of its weight. Either way, you’re getting what you paid for: feedback.
3) Just don’t assume the feedback is, like, God-breathed.
True and initially depressing but ultimately happy story: I once had a judge give me 31/100 on a contest entry. Thirty. One. And she said a lot of, um, unpleasant things about my story. Less than two months later, that same book sold.
In SO many cases, the feedback you get in contests is going to sharpen your writing and improve your story. But once in awhile, it’s not. Sometimes, gasp, the judge might get it wrong.
Remember this is a subjective process—as is all of publishing, really. Contests help you develop thick skin. But they also help you learn to separate the helpful from the unhelpful, the voices you need to listen to versus the voices it might be best to ignore. So if you get some questionable feedback, go to another writer, maybe somebody else who is a little further along the road, someone who can look at both your writing and your contest feedback objectively, and ask for advice.
4) Pay attention to the guidelines
I know, so profound, right? But I’ve been a part of judging a few contests now and several times have come across entries that simply ignored the guidelines. Don’t assume what’s good for one contest is good for another. In short, be smart.
5) Keep writing
Really. After you hit submit and send your entry off into contest-land, just get back to work. Write the next scene or start revising or brainstorm a new book. Because honestly, any wannabe writer can pull off a scene or a chapter or fifteen pages and send it in to a contest. But the writers who are going to make it are the ones who dig in and do the work of finishing and polishing and doing it all over again.
Finally, I can’t help mentioning one of my favorite writing contests. Every year My Book Therapy, a craft and coaching community for novelists, sponsors the Frasier Contest. (Full disclosure: I’m a MBT core team member.) The Frasier is a bit different than other contests in that it’s a straight storycrafting contest—no categories, no genre divisions, just storytelling. Judges are looking for things like a great hook, storyworld, a compelling inciting incident, stakes that matter, strong voice. This year’s final entries will be judged by MacGregor Literary’s own Amanda Luedeke, as well as Zondervan acquisitions editor Becky Philpott and award-winning author Susan May Warren. You can get all the details here.
– Melissa Tagg is the author of Made to Last and the upcoming May release Here to Stay.
Great post, Melissa. I’ve entered a number of contests, and for the most part, I’ve gleaned super feedback. I’m learning, though, not to base my writing skills on the numbers judges give for my entries. I’ve loved the Frasier contest. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!
I was one of the judges for last year’s Fraser Contest; great fun! 😀
I was a one of the judges for last year’s Fraser Contest; great fun!