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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