Contests: Good or Bad

Last week, during the Romance Writers of America’s® National Conference the RITA and Golden Heart contest rules were once again modified. From what I understand the rules have basically gone back to what they were a few years ago. Even as the conference proceeded, several members posted messages about the contest, which in turn sparked comments from other members of RWA®, some belonging the Mid-Michigan RWA  chapter (which I also belong to), and those comments got me thinking about contests: entering and judging.


There are varying opinions regarding contests: whether it’s worth it to enter; how negative scores and comments can discourage/depress/devastate a writer; how it’s unfair for anyone to judge a manuscript or book in a category the judging person doesn’t write in or read; how opinions are subjective and ultimately unfair; and so on.

Is it worth it to enter a contest? I think so as long as the cost to enter isn’t too high and the contest either offers feedback or being a finalist or winner will give merit to your work. That doesn’t mean I always agree with the award. I’ve read Pulitzer Prize books that made me wonder what the judges were on when they read the book, seen movies that took home Oscars that left me blah, and skipped TV shows that won Emmys because I found them stupid. Nevertheless, I have been a finalist for the RITA a couple times, and I’m proud to say that. And I would love to win an EDGAR.

What about those negative scores and comments? I certainly don’t like getting them, and I don’t even like giving them. I prefer contests where comments can be made as well as numeric scores. If I get two great scores and one not-so-great, I’ll always focus on the Not-so-great. Most of the time I can justify that the judge simply “didn’t get it.” Still it hurts and puts me in a funk for several days. But I do think contests prepare you for the real life of publishing: the rejections from agents and editors and the negative reviews from reviewers and readers. I think unpublished writers should enter a few contests. Too often a new writer’s only critiques come from friends and family. It helps to get that outside opinion and, if possible, some helpful suggestions on how to improve the writing/story. And for unpublished or unagented writers, being a finalist or winning a contest can often lead to acquiring an agent or getting a contract.

Who am I to judge another writer’s work? Well, I’m also a reader, and I don’t just read books similar to what I write. I’m not that different from agents, editors, and reviewers. Some stories are going to grab me, some writing is going to make me envious of its beauty, and I’m going give that story or book a high score. I will say I do have certain categories I prefer not to judge, either because I don’t feel I know enough about the requirements of the genre or might be turned off by the subject.  But even on the few occasions when I’ve been asked to judge work totally out of my comfort realm, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that my scores weren’t that different from the other judges. Good writing, no matter what the genre, rises to the top.

Judging is subjective. Yes, it is. Which is why writers need to remember a negative score on a contest entry, a rejection from an agent or editor, or a bad review from a reviewer or reader is simply that one person’s opinion. The next editor may love the story. That bad review might be countered by a great review. Gain what you can from a contest, be pleased if you final or win, and go on to write another story, one even better than the last.

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13 Responses to Contests: Good or Bad

  1. An interesting blog. I don’t enter contests anymore, but think they’re a good way for new writers to start out. Just read the fine print carefully and know what you’re signing away!

  2. Diane Burton says:

    Good post, Maris. I agree about some of the movies, TV shows, & books that have won awards and left me blah. Unpublished writers need to enter contests that give feedback (beyond just a numerical score). I learned so much from contests early on in my career. I remember some of the worst comments (typical, right?), but one judge said something to the effect that she’d just attended a program on “voice” and she didn’t understand it until she read my entry. That was so nice. When I judge, I try to always end my comments with something positive. I sure don’t want to stomp on someone’s dream. I know writers have to toughen up. While I try to be helpful, I don’t want to be the judge who is always negative.

    With regard to the “new” rules for the RITA and Golden Heart. If we don’t like them, we shouldn’t enter. They are prestigious awards. Belated congratulations on being a finalist.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for the “belated congratulations,” Diane. Those two were long ago, but I certainly appreciated the honor (but not the queasy feeling in my stomach as I awaited the announcement of the winner).

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    It’s a challenge. I have judged for the last two years for EPIC. I’ve also entered the contest and received no feedback. I have been fortunate that I can choose what categories I want to judge and always give feedback. I don’t understand why I didn’t receive it.

    I think that this topic is one that people have strong opinions on. I don’t think that any one person is right or wrong. It’s just someone’s opinions.

  4. Vanessa Kier says:

    I agree that the most important benefit to an unpublished writer from entering a contest is the feedback. Now that I’m published, I try to find contests that will get my books in front of people who might not normally have a chance to view them, such as librarians and booksellers.

    I think every author ought to try judging a contest at least once. Pick one that has good training for judges and a clearly defined scoresheet. Figuring out what does/doesn’t work for someone else’s work can help you improve your own writing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Excellent comments, Vanessa. I should have mentioned how much I’ve LEARNED from judging contests. I also feel it’s a way to introduce my books to some new readers. I know I have found some writers who have become my favorites after I read their work in a contest.

  5. I think a writer needs to know themselves before making the decision to enter into contests (or even publishing their work). Once your work is made available to the public you’re bound to open the door to negative reviews. Sometimes I think contests are kinder because at least there, most of the time, the feedback you get is constructive. Either way, if you’re going to spend time in an industry that allows the world at large to have an opinion, you need to be prepared to handle it.

    A belated congrats from me, as well, on your finalist entries. 🙂

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Kitt. New writers often aren’t prepared for negative comments, and even though they will need to learn how to take the negative as well as the positive, they shouldn’t join a critique group or enter a contest until they are certain they can handle those negatives.

      Thank you for the congrats. It is exciting when one receives the call saying your entry is a finalist in a contest. It’s more fun to win (I’ve had a couple of those), but a second, third or honorable mention still make me happy. And a five star review leaves me floating on a cloud. Those almost make up for those one star reviews. Almost.

  6. Lucy Kubash says:

    I just sent in entries for a contest that I’ve judged for a few years now, and as always I wonder, did I make useful suggestions? Did I judge too high? Too low? I hope what I said will be taken in the spirit that it was offered. I am never harsh, because who wants to squash another writer’s dream? I also learn from judging. My own entry in a recent contest brought me an honorable mention, so that was good!

    • Maris Soule says:

      So true, Lucy. I’m mentoring a writer right now, and I have the same concerns. We’re doing this on-line, so I can’t see her facial expressions or hear her comments. I hope the suggestions I’m making are taken as meant and the writer doesn’t feel discouraged by the dozens of comments I’ve made. I want to help make her story better, but I’m still just one opinion. She’s the one who will have to make the final decisions.

  7. Your post on contests is well stated. The only thing I would add is that your work should be completed before entering contests. Polishing twenty pages and a synopsis is not the same as writing an entire novel. I agree that judging a contest is as valuable an experience as entering.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good point, Catherine. Many contests automatically include in their instructions that the writer should have a completed ms, but not all do. With contests where the finalists are judged by an agent or editor, it’s especially important that the ms not only be completed, but in the best shape the writer can make it. That way, if the agent or editor does ask to see the ms, the writer is ready. It’s always best to send the ms while the agent or editor still remembers what she/he read.