Apr 22

Cautions on Contests

I’m just going to say it…I believe writing contests are a waste of my time.

It’s a controversial subject, I know, and it’s important to note I wasn’t always like this.  There was a time when I was in support of them, and believed they were a support for me.  But after receiving my share of both good and bad contest critiques, I’ve become a little jaded and developed a list of cautions to look over whenever I’m considering entering a contest.  I’m hoping this list will spur some sort of conversation, as I’m always interested in hearing other writers’ experiences.

So, without further delay….

Caution #1:  The contest host can be just as important as the contest category.

Back when Romantic Elements was still a part of RWA, I entered the Women’s Fiction category in my share of chapter contests.  What I didn’t realize was that even though I was entering a women’s fiction category, I was still being judged by romance writers.  Which honestly I didn’t see as a problem, being that I have the best critique partners in the world and they ALL write romance.  They understand the differences between romance and women’s fictions, so everyone should.  I mean…surely if the contest is offering a women’s fiction category, then I will be judged on the elements important in women’s fiction.  Right?  RIGHT?


This became abundantly clear as I read through one judge’s comments on a contest I entered a few years back.  She marked me down because my heroine wasn’t the “strong” type.  She was offended when under subgenre I wrote “Upmarket,” because she thought I was “putting down” the romance genre.  And she chastised me because my heroine was involved with someone else at the beginning of my manuscript.  See the problem here?  I was being judged on a set of rules that didn’t really apply to my genre.

Now, to be fair I must say that the second judge I had on that particular contest was totally clued in.  I think I just had a bad egg.  But I’m paying for good feedback, and I wouldn’t pay for a dozen eggs if I knew one was rotten.

Caution #2:  Learn to decipher feedback from opinion.  

You don’t know who’s judging your manuscript.  It could be a super critical, egotistical, jerk out to make someone feel as bad as they feel.  It could be a super nice, yet fairly distracted, mom of four reading while cooking dinner, answering homework questions, and planning a birthday party.  Or it could be a completely devoted writer/reader who understands your category perfectly and goes beyond the call of duty to be fair.  While we all hope it’s the judge behind door #3, the truth is you just don’t know.  Being the natural cynic that I am, I tend to assume the worst.

I was once ripped part by a judge because one of my characters gave a dog to his girlfriend as a gift, despite the fact that she wasn’t prepared to handle a puppy.  Nothing bad happened to the puppy, my heroine just wasn’t expecting it.  But the judge was so furious about it that she/he totally missed the symbolism of the gesture.  For all I know, this judge could’ve been the president of PITA.  Point is…this is opinion, not feedback.

Keep this in mind before you completely reconstruct your character’s demeanor or “let the dogs out” all together (hehe).  Give it some thought.  Maybe ask your critique partners for their take on it if you’re unsure of the comment being feedback or a difference in opinion.  Then decide how to handle it.


Caution #3:  There are quicker ways to get your manuscript in front of an agent. 

Most agents ask for the first so many pages as part of your query letter, so if the only reason you’re entering is because your dream agent is judging – save the cash!  It’s quicker, cheaper, and far less painful to send them a query.  And remember, your manuscript has to get through the preliminary rounds BEFORE the agent even sees it.


Caution #4:  A first place finish doesn’t mean you’ll sell.  A last place finish doesn’t mean you won’t. 

I’ve seen this many times.  There are writers who clean up in the contest circuit but can’t seem to land an agent, and there are writers who sign with an agent the day after receiving a horrible response to a contest submission.  There are probably many factors, but the one I consistently hear about is “marketability.”

You’re manuscript may be the most well written piece of literature ever composed, but if an agent can’t sell it, it won’t matter.  On the contrary you could have some flaws in your writing, but a concept that an agent can’t walk away from.  So don’t use contest results as a gage for whether or not the manuscript is going to make it.


Caution #5:  Always remember, it’s entirely subjective!

I once received comments from a judge who stated my characters were shallow and the story didn’t pull her in.  That VERY same day, I received a request for a full from an agent who stated my partial completely pulled her in and she LOVED my characters.

Talk about good timing!

Don’t misunderstand…I’m not saying the judge didn’t know what he/she was talking about.  I’m just saying my particular manuscript wasn’t their cup of tea.  And that’s completely okay because it doesn’t need to be.  Being an agent’s cup of tea is WAY more important to me, and should be to you as well!


So there you have it, my two cents on contests.  Of course, this is just my jaded opinion and doesn’t represent fact.  What sort of experiences have you had?  Please share!  I’m truly hoping someone can inspire me to see otherwise!

Jenna P.


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  1. Sidney T. Blake


    Very good article and timely. I budgeted to enter a few contests because I was also sending out queries. Wouldn’t it be nice to do halfway well in a decent contest and add this to my query letter? That’s my thinking. Especially for someone who has zero to say in her bio in regards to her writing. I can’t write short stories worth diddly-squat. They turn into novels. And I don’t need more ideas. I’ve got more books in my head than time to write them all.

    I’ve not had your experience because many of the contests I’ve entered still aren’t finished judging. However, making finalist in one sure did brighten my spirits while on the querying path. But your wise words are a good way to help remind me to keep it all in perspective. Nothing is absolute in writing or judging.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jenna P

      Excellent point, Sidney. Esteem boosts are definitely a good reason to enter contests, as well as good resume material!

  2. Sydney

    I’d say my contest experiences have ranged from the good, the bad, and the WTF. To save my sanity, I see the contest as a means to see how a few random strangers receive my work. After all, that’s exactly who our most important readers will be (sorry, Mom). Maybe some of their comments will resonate, maybe not. But I do think the “stranger factor” has value that’s hard to get from our regular channels. Our critique partners know us, and get us, so they’re more likely to also get our work than some person off the street. It’s good for the cold read.

    That being said, I so agree with you about the agent thing. Just query, ffs! If the query and pages draw them in, it’s the same result. If not, getting there via contest won’t change the outcome, it’ll just make it more disappointing….at least it was for me!

    1. Jenna P

      The stranger factor is also another reason to enter contests. And you’re right…some of the feedback is spot on and some of it is just….no. But if the contest judge is someone who doesn’t read my genre, does it really matter what they think? I mean, yes, all of us want to believe that our book will be the one that changes their mind. But it never does.

      So, the stranger factor yes…while keeping in mind that those strangers are still 100% human (we hope).

  3. Heather McGovern

    I’ve had a mixed bag experience with contests. I’ll admit I haven’t entered many. 4 total (I think). I’ve had excellent feedback, but also numbers that ran the gammut from 10/10 to 5/10 for the same entry. Like all judging, it’s completely subjective. Overall, I’d score my experience (see what I did there?:)) as positive. However, I know many people who could tell you nightmare tales. I think it depends on your genre, each individual contest and where you are in your writing. I would never tell someone not to enter, because I have a friend who met her agent via a contest, BUT I would say enter with a thick skin and remember a contest result is exactly that: one contest result.

    1. Jenna P

      Good advice, McGovy. I think everyone should come up with their own opinions on the subject. And there are many benefits to contests for some people. I just haven’t been one of those people. BUT….it is definitely a possible avenue to consider!

  4. Jeanette Grey

    Such good advice, JP. I think #2 especially (Learn to decipher feedback from opinion.) is valuable with every kind of feedback you receive, be it from contests or critique partners or anyone else.

    Part of why I feel so comfortable with the amazing critique partners I have is that I know their opinions, so I have an easier time sussing out opinion vs. feedback. Because even with people we know and trust, their personal preferences will color how they read our books. It takes some perspective to remember when it’s stuff that really affects story structure, and when it’s stuff they just personally don’t care for.

    Great post :)

    1. Jenna Patrick

      Yes! Great point on the critique partners. I know that when Syd reads my stuff she’ll want an 80′s rock band mentioned somewhere. But hey….that’s just not me! LOL

      1. Sydney

        Hey! Cheap shot! Entirely true, but cheap shot :)

  5. Lori Waters

    I’ve had my feelings stomped on by a judge before, but after going back to it later…as much as I hate to admit…she did have one or two good suggestions. If I decide to enter a contest in the future, I’ll make sure they drop the lowest score. Great post Jenna P.

    1. Jenna Patrick

      Now THAT is a great idea! Or at the very least have a third judge if the scores are so far apart!

  6. Frances Fowlkes

    I’ve had great experiences with contests, but I’ve also had those nightmarish, want-to-cry-and-never-write-again ones too. I think the important thing to ask yourself is WHY you want to enter one in the first place. For me, it was all about the ‘finalist high’ and the publicity I received from my wins. It quickly became apparent, however, that contests were not the reliable or consistent source of ‘atta girl’ affirmation that I wanted, especially when I received a not so nice contest result that came in after I had made my first sale. When a judge told me “you’ll never sell this unless some serious changes are made” I knew the joke was on them. I think if your goal is to get feedback from fresh eyes, I recommend contests. But I agree with your cautions–writing is subjective–and you might not like the results you paid for!

    1. Jenna Patrick

      All great points! I believe many writers enter contests for those same reasons. And the publicity never hurts! It’s the sucker punch to the ego that hurts when you get a bad egg!

  7. Sandy Bruney

    I’ve entered a few. Same experience you had won’t waste my money again.

    1. Jenna Patrick

      Money AND time. It takes an effort to get all the formatting changed to contests standards. I think I’d rather spend it making my manuscript better. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  8. Ashantay Peters

    I’ve entered contests and gotten torn apart. Sure, my entries weren’t great, but being told not to quit my day job and forget about writing because I had no talent was not appropriate. Another point to consider – if the past winners are also members of the chapter sponsoring the contest, you may want to look for another contest. Thanks for the provoking post.

    1. Jenna Patrick

      Another great point! Again, we want to think the best of people but we’re human. It’s in our nature to want our friends to do well, so beware.

      For what it’s worth…I think you’re awesome!

  9. Elizabeth Michels

    I’m very much anti-contest, so I’m just sitting here yelling, “Preach it, Jenna P!” Feedback comes free from critique partners. Exposure comes free from query letters and online pitch contests. And, validation will come soon enough with the publication of your fabulous manuscript. There’s no need to pay money for these things. …But, maybe I’m just cheap like that. LOL Where’s my contest coupon? Jenna P, do you have a contest coupon?

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