Chip MacGregor

May 16, 2012

What do you need to know about writing contests?


Danielle wrote to say, “I know there are contests going on at this summer’s conferences. What contest advice can you give us?”

I’ve made my living in publishing for about thirty years now, which means that sometimes I get asked to be a contest judge for a writers’ conference or contest. I don’t generally enjoy it — not because I don’t like participating, but because far too many newer writers have a bit too much confidence in their own work. While I love teaching younger writers to help them improve, I hate having to explain why I ranked one author a “ten” and another author a “two.” In my view, it should be obvious.

Things like voice and theme and clarity and focus stand out in some writers’ works. Their use of words and clarity in point-of-view are crisp and interesting. The characterization is strong, the story holds my interest, and the overall style makes the piece something I want to read. But that’s what a contest judge does — make evaluations of writing, in order to determine which pieces are strong and which are not. I’d encourage you to view a contest as a learning opportunity, rather than simply a competition that is won or lost.

So, in case you’re one of those people who may get discouraged over not winning every trophy in sight, let me offer some thoughts…

1. If you only want to hear good things said about you, buy a round of drinks.

2. If you only want to hear good things said about your writing, show it to your mom.

3. If hearing something critical about your work will crush you, consider a career change. (Okay…maybe that sounds too harsh. But to be a writer is to be a learner — all of us are seeking to improve, and that means all of us have to hear another criticize our work. There’s no getting around it — criticism is an essential part of the writing process. Accept that now.)

4. Judging writing is a criticism business. Judgment is endemic to contests. Get rid of the nice voice in your head telling you that anyone being critical is not being nice. A contest judge who says he or she doesn’t like your work isn’t saying they don’t like YOU — learn to separate yourself from your work, in order to hear and accept good advice.

5. No two judges are alike. Allow for style differences. One might be too sweet, another too acerbic. While I can’t see myself ever writing demeaning comments on a manuscript, I’m also not going to be pouring out undue praise for what generally amounts to beginning writing. Most every judge I’ve spoken with at conferences took their task seriously and offered their honest opinion.

6. If by entering a writing contest you’re hoping for a major critique of your work, you may be disappointed. Generally speaking, if you need a major editorial critique, you need to consider hiring an editor or critique service to provide it. As a judge, I’m given a stack of entries and asked to read and evaluate them against each other in order to find the best of the bunch. It’s a competition. I pick the best and note my reasons for doing so. I try to offer things to help a writer, but my primary task is not to serve as your editor. My primary task is to find the best writing in the contest.

7. And a last thought: Sometimes I’ll see something really awful. If your scene is bad, your dialogue amateurish, or your emotional moment is a clunker, you need to know that. Pointing out flaws will generally help you improve more than praising your fine points. Iron sharpening iron, and all that.

Contests are great learning experiences if you allow them to be. Don’t focus on “winning” — focus on “learning.” Hope this helps.

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  • Lena says:

    Love the sarcasm in the post, and yes criticism is what helps us grow, if taken in the right sense. 

  • Melissa Jagears says:

    I’m surprised you’d be judging anything but the finals, and if you’re having to give out 2s then… Yikes. 🙂 But I think contests are pretty good for finding out if you can take the “heat” of criticism before it’s public criticism because your #3 is dead on; you can be a NYT bestseller and someone’s going to call it trash!

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