Writers in the Storm

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June 27, 2018

An Addict’s Take on Writing Contests

Tracy Brody

Tracy Brody Contests

I was a contest addict. Or, if you’d prefer, a contest whore. Either way, I’ve had a lot of experience with writing contests. I’m not entirely reformed, but I’m going to share a little about my feelings on the pros, some cons, and why I think you should consider using contests to become a better writer and advance your career.

I’m going to start this post in a way I didn’t originally anticipate and talk about why YOU should judge in writing contests. There are several reasons I recommend writers judge their peers work.

  • First, you can learn from the score sheets and seeing what they want you to look at in the body of work. It’s always easier to see the “errors” in others’ work than our own, so judging can teach you a lot.
  • Secondly, it’s about giving back. Don’t you appreciate those who didn’t say they were too busy, had too many kids, or not enough experience and helped you? That giving back is part of what makes the romance writing community unique and special. Besides, if everyone entered but didn’t volunteer to judge, then contests would have to shut down. Spreading the workload ensures contests continue and improves the quality of the feedback.
  • Lastly, by judging in contests—especially if you judge in your genre in contests you don’t enter—you can get a glimpse of what others in your genre are writing and see how they’re doing to compare your own writing with other unpublished writers.

Next, I want to debunk the idea that contests are too expensive.

There are lots of contests out there. You can search the web, but as a romance writer, I’ve mostly entered RWA® chapter contests and the RWA Golden Heart®. The fees can be as low as $15 or up to around $35 for RWA members.

I have judged in a lot of contests and typically spend no less than four hours per entry. Contests have a minimum of two first round judges, most have three, some even have four. I’ll do the math (since most writers don’t like to) and say that if you have three judges spending only three hours each on your submission, that’s nine hours. Divide that into the average of $25 for a contest $25/9=$2.78 per hour—for three pairs of new eyes and input on your writing. Considering that I paid over $100 to take a continuing ed college class and the instructor gave me feedback consisting of about four words per assignment (“great hook!” or “interesting characters”) the feedback I’ve gotten from volunteer contest judges is worth every penny of the contest fee.

Tracy Brody Contest

If you’ve entered a contest or two (or more) or even talked to some contest veterans, you’ll hear they are a crapshoot. Writing is subjective. Sometimes the judges know less about writing than you, but you can still learn what resonates with them as readers. Others simply may not like your story or style. That’s okay. No one bats 1000 or hits 100% of their free throws.

I can attest to the frustration of contradictory feedback or the judge who says you got something wrong even though you’ve done your research (or lived the life). However, even those judges may have valuable nuggets, so don’t discard their comments without considering them after giving them a few days to settle and read them again.

The key to growing as a writer is learning AND application. Just as watching baseball doesn’t mean you’re a skilled player and listening to music doesn’t make you a singer, reading books doesn’t make you a writer. But those things can help you recognize talent and what works. We don’t know how much we don’t know or what we don’t know when we start writing. As a beginner (who thought I was pretty darned good because people would listen to my stories,) I had a lot to learn about writing: point of view, active versus passive writing, character goals, motivations and Conflict (with a capital C.)

You can hear speakers, read craft books, listen to podcasts. Still, judges can take you to the next level with a targeted comment and an example in your work about not needing dialog tags with action tags or reducing gerunds (since I was not an English major, I had to look up that word), prefacing which kills tension, amplifying dialog, or putting stimuli before response. Are you going to learn all that from a contest or two? Not likely. Most writers need to evolve and that comes in stages. However, each comment can get make you a better writer and improve your chances of getting published or building a loyal fan base and that is well worth the price of a dinner out.

Contests can still benefit those who’ve mastered craft and story structure. One of the perks of contests are prizes. Sometimes it’s only a certificate or plaque. It might be a little cash or a free class or chapter membership. Some contests offer published author critiques or mentorships. Another perk is that most contests have agents and/or editors as final round judges giving you a chance to skip their query slush pile if you final. It’s still a long shot to get a request—like finding that perfect match on EHarmony or Match.com—but it does happen and if you aim to publish traditionally, you want to open as many doors as possible.

I know that contests have helped me improve my craft and storytelling skills. The affirmation of being a finalist helped carry me through the realizations I still had a lot to learn and the query rejections. My Golden Heart final caught agent’s attention and helped me sign with a top selling agent.

What about you? Hopefully, I’ve got you considering the benefits of contests. I’ll be sharing a follow-up post on how to pick the right contests to get the most out of them based on the stage you’re at in your writing.

Have you entered any contest? If not, why? If you have, what was the best or worst thing about your experience. If you’ve finaled in one, how did that feel?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Tracy


Tracy Brody started her writing career with screenplays, then switched to novels. She's written a military themed romantic suspense series focusing on the Army Bad Karma Special Ops team—who's love lives are as dangerous as their missions. Her three completed manuscripts have all finaled in the Golden Heart and she won for Romantic Suspense in 2015 & 2016. She's a member of RWA, Carolina Romance Writers, the Kiss of Death, and the Golden Network.

 She is represented by Helen Breitwieser of Cornerstone Literary.

76 comments on “An Addict’s Take on Writing Contests”

  1. 100% true believer in contests. It's how I got published. I volunteer to judge every year and learn more and more about writing through judging.

    1. Thanks for giving back by judging and CONGRATULATIONS on getting published! Appreciate you stopping by the blog to read and comment.

  2. I've been a finalist twice in a regional contest. This year I agreed to judge. What an eye opening experience. As you pointed out, you learn what the contest is looking for, but more importantly, it helped me figure out some things I needed to correct. As for different judges being on opposite ends of the spectrum, I realized that they aren't any different than readers who purchase our books. They all have opinions, valid in their minds, and should be accepted as such. Great post.

    1. Congrats on your finals, Larry! Glad you learned from judging. Sounds like you have the right perspective when it comes to realizing no one book is everyone's cup of tea or favorite kind of chocolate. Their opinions are valid, but they may not be our intended audience and that is OK! Thanks for stopping by and commenting and best wishes with your writing!

  3. I'm with you. I'm getting ready to self-publish my Golden Heart winner from 2015 and I plan to put it in every published book contest available. I figure it will be a great way to get it in front of new eyes.

    1. I didn't even bring that up, but you are so right on entering to get credentials and fans once you're published too. I'm looking forward to your books coming out and will be cheering for you in the Golden Heart and for success in publishing. Thanks for stopping by and commenting here today!

  4. Great post, Tracy! I'm also a believer in contests. They can also help track your progression as a writer. I went from not finaling, to finaling and on to winning contests before signing with my agent and selling to a traditional publisher.

    And you're right about seeing mistakes in someone else's work that can be difficult to see in our own. I know judging contests have helped me understand why certain things don't work. I've read entries coming away thinking "so that's why they say don't do that".

  5. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Tracy. I have entered contests in the past. I won the New Apple awards for two of my books, but finances have precluded me from entering any for a while. I've linked to this for my upcoming Friday Week in Review post. All the best! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Harmony. I'm flattered you'd link and glad you found in helpful. Wishing you much success with your writing and any contests. Thanks for stopping in and commenting.

  6. Nice post with lots of valid points. I know people seem to thank me for judging and I enjoy reading their work. It helps me,too,

    1. Diane, If you get thank you notes from the entries you judge that is a great indication you're doing something right. I try to write thank you's to all my judges (except the GH since they don't give you that option but THANK YOU to all those who've judged my GH entries!!) It's always good when you get entries you enjoy reading. Sounds like you're a fabulous judge. Thanks for stopping in and commenting today.

  7. Great post, Tracy! I could not agree more that contests are a total crapshoot. Reminding yourself this fact prior to entering can help when you receive contradictory feedback from two judges in the same contest - this has happened to me multiple times. Also remember to celebrate the victories which can range from a glowing comment to a contest final.

    1. Amen, Monique! While you have to be a strong writer to final, you might land with the wrong judge for your work and not final and it can be so hard to not take it personally. I have my big girl glass of wine for going through comments when I don't final - heck, even when I do final. And YES! on celebrating the victories rather than let the other things bring you down.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and stopping by.

  8. LOL, Carrie. I'm right there with you. My first Golden Heart scores were in the bottom 50%, but that taught me I wasn't ready and chapter contest judges told me what I needed to work on. It takes time and practice and I wish I could apologize to judges who had to read my earlier submissions. Congrats on getting a wonderful agent and published! Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  9. From one contest-ho to another, I think those who hate contests are either looking for undiluted praise for their babies, and/or they're not strong enough to withstand rejections, reviews, etc. In other words, contests did one more thing for me - it toughened my skin. And in this industry, that's essential.

    But I will point out that not all contests are equal. Those without feedback aren't for the beginner. These are for people who already know they have a good story, and they're good writers, but want to know how their current WIP stacks up against others in the genre.

    Yes, low scores and hard feedback is tough to take. But aren't the hardest lessons the most beneficial in the long run?

    Thanks for the great post.

    1. Laura, so agree you have to have thick skin to be a writer. The best feedback made me cry - but it also helped me learn and improve and I'll take a lower score and feedback over a perfect score any day. My follow-up post on contest deals exactly with what you touched on - contests not being equal and how to pick the best for you. Hope you'll stop by then. Appreciate you reading and commenting here today!

    2. Laura, I've found that some of the best advice I've received cut the worst because I knew deep down they were right and I had a lot of work ahead of me.

  10. Tracy, you're absolutely right about giving back by judging. I have gained so much from contests including the very basic coming out from under the covers and letting others read my writing. Judges have been thoughtful, generous, and encouraging. It's time I thank them by joining them! So if you've got a rec on a contest to judge (historical romance preferred!) let me know!

  11. I agree, Tracy. And it's such a great way to get feedback on your work. If you keep getting the same reaction from people, good or bad, you know something is working...or not.

    1. Exactly - even if it's something you don't want to hear (I've been there.) And I know I've had comments that told me I wasn't painting characters the way I thought I was. Good to catch those things. Thanks for stopping in, Arlene!

    1. Kelly, it's harder to find contest for you published authors where it's not a completed manuscript. Might be a market for that type of contest. Appreciate you stopping in and commenting.

  12. Tracy, great post! I’ve been conservative in the number of contests I’ve entered, but you’re right about the value in them. You’ve made me want to enter more!

    1. Brenda, I'm fairly selective about which I enter (that's my next guest post) and I admit I like the affirmation that you can get from them. Kinda like writer's crack. 😉 Thanks for stopping in.

  13. Great post! I have learned so much from contests and really miss being able to get so much feedback on those early pages and on my synopsis. Thanks for sharing, Tracy.

    1. McCall, thanks for stopping by. Agree that feedback can be invaluable - especially since I've started my story in the wrong place too many times. When judging I like having a synopsis to see where the story is going. And though I hate writing a synopsis, it can be so helpful to get that feedback when a contest requires a synopsis, even if it's not judged.

  14. I've probably learned more from judging than entering contests, but they are both valuable experiences! It also gives you a great sense of what readers see and don't see from what you wrote on the page. So many times, I was like, "Really? That's what you got from it? Huh, I need to edit then."

    A contest final also helped me land my dream agent, so there's that testimony too! You did a great job of covering so much here. Thanks for the wisdom!

    1. Aw, thanks for the compliment, Julie. I'm always a little shocked when I hear from writers who enter contests but they've never judged. It's great for learning and giving back. Both are important. 😉 Glad you've learned and know you've given back. Happy that contests helped you land your dream agent too!

  15. Great post, Tracy! Contests are how I signed my agent. Totally worth the effort and time!

    1. Woo-hoo! Love hearing those success stories. Congrats on the agent, many contest finals and wins, Sarah! Thanks for stopping by and sharing.

  16. Before I was published, I'd either won or finaled (long ago--can't remember!) in a contest where the prize included a badge-holding lanyard with the contest name on it. An agent was chatting, she saw the lanyard and asked to see the manuscript. (Didn't want it, though.).

    I've always tried to pay back by judging, although after volunteering to judge a major mystery contest and having to deal with 300 published book entries, judging a major romance contest for published writers (only 6 books), and a mystery chapter's contest for unpublished writers last year (6 entries of 30 pages), I'm taking a break.

    I haven't read all the comments, but if you're entering OR judging, my advice is to read the score sheet and see what feedback you'll get or be expected to give.

    1. Glad that lanyard got your some interest and recognition. I do recommend moderation in judging. I judged a lot in '15 when my local RWA chapter introduced a Star Award and you got points for judging. I did win the $50 gift card but spend a lot of time judging in at least 6 contests. I look at the score sheets for entering and judging. Passed on judging one recently because I didn't like the score sheet last year. Didn't hit the right notes for giving the writer the feedback I thought they needed.

      Thanks for commenting today and for giving back to other writers so generously, Terry.

  17. I'm also a contest tart! I started to final in contests once I became a judge. I have probably judged more contests than I have entered at this point. That experience provided me with compassion for both sides of the judge/contestant coin. It's vital to understand what you want from contests as well. Is it feedback, or a chance to get in front of industry professionals? Understand what your needs are before entering any contest, and accept the fact that judging is subjective and that your entry may not have resonated with your judges for that particular contest. However, that doesn't mean the next contests you enter won't give you a different result. Never give up!

    1. Very interesting that you started to final once you began judging. Glad you are one of the compassionate judges. You might need to write a post on that. 😉 My next guest blog post is a follow-up on choosing the right contest based on your needs/level as a writer. Stay tuned - same Bat Channel for that.

      Yes - the word I use for judging is subjective and try to tell folks not to take it personally so they don't give up - just get better. Thanks for sharing and coming by today and good luck with your writing, contests, and career, Chris!

  18. Excellent post, Tracy. I've had good and bad contest experiences but all were valuable. As an unpublished author, the feedback was helpful in preparing me for publication, including the review experience. A contest win or final also gave me confidence in my writing at times when I really needed it.

    1. Jen, thanks for stopping by the blog and sharing. I so agree that feedback and making the finals in contests can give you that boost you need when things are tough and good prep for the reviews that aren't always "I loved this book." when we publish.

  19. Fantastic post, Tracy! Never really thought about the financial benefits of reader/experienced author feedback before this. And you're right, we gain a lot from judging contests too. It's all a part of being a member of the writing community.

    1. Exactly, Mia. I've been shocked and a little saddened to hear from multiple time contest finalists they never judge, but hopefully they are giving in other ways. Glad I helped you see a new benefit you hadn't thought about too. Thanks for commenting!

  20. I'm currently in one and waiting to find out if I'm a finalist.

    I was first published after entering one landed me a place in an anthology which won a few small awards ,plus a tiny cash award.

    Bonus: It forces me to write better. I do read the feedback.


    1. Denise, Congrats on the anthology and awards. That feedback can be helpful – for me, especially if I let it sit and read it again later.

      1. Sadly, the deadline for notification has just passed, and I haven't heard anything, so I guess I didn't final. I'm still supposed to receive feedback at some point. No matter what, I will finish this story and pitch it. My goal is by the end of the summer.

        I've had a setback with a death in the family this week, but it will get done.

  21. Great post, Tracy. I’ve learned so much both from entering and judging contests. I always feel bad for chapters struggling to get judges - maybe if people realised how much they can get from judging, more would volunteer.

    1. Elizabeth, I agree that there are perks to judging and some contests offer some incentives to judges too. A little incentive can go a long way in recruiting judges and more peoples means avoiding burn out or overloading the volunteers.

  22. Love it, Tracy. This reminds me of a saying: Life's too short not to learn from other people's mistakes 🙂 I'll be cheering for you in the Golden Heart! Good luck xx

    1. Thanks for the cheers, Brynn. Wish you were going to be in Denver! I'll be cheering for you in the RITA!!! I'm always happy to pass along the helpful advice other judges have given me - not the mean, wacky advice. 😉

  23. Denise, Congrats on the anthology and awards. That feedback can be helpful - for me, especially if I let it sit and read it again later.

  24. Yes! I've been so grateful for the feedback I've received through the RWA contests. And I have also learned a lot from being a judge. You're right in saying it's easier to see the mistakes in writing that isn't your own and being a judge has helped me be more conscious of my own writing pitfalls.

    1. Alexia, Thanks for stopping by. While I questioned including the part about "why to judge" I've been pleased to hear from several of you that you did learn from judging and it helped improve your writing. Sometimes, when I'm judging and see something, I make a note to check for that in my own manuscript. 😉

  25. Hi Tracy,Thank you for sharing your insights. I've learned a lot about writing through contests, as both an entrant and a judge. Plus I've connected with dozens of amazing authors (like you!) along the way. ? If anyone out there is wondering if they should take the plunge - go ahead and try it!

    1. Aw, thanks, Elizabeth. The Golden Heart is unique in the community it develops among the finalists and that has been a HUGE blessing and perk and why I love the GH (despite not getting feedback.) Thanks for stopping in and commenting and encouraging others to enter some contests.

  26. I only entered a couple of contests when I first got serious about writing and sort of got put off. Now I don't know how to get back into it, where to find them, and how to find the time between writing a novel and looking after the family. But I know I should do them. At the very least it shows publishers that you're active as a writer.

    Great post.

    1. Thanks. The feedback where you're a newbie can be off-putting and harsh (at least some of mine was.) Fortunately, I never had really mean don't-give-up-your-day-job comments. Getting more positive feedback after taking on-line classes was great encouragement as was the first time I did final in a a contest. Here's link to some upcoming RWA chapter contests: https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=517#contests Several great ones there - course I might be saying that because I won in them. 😀 Best wishes and success with writing & family!

      1. Gabrielle, I plan to include the Stephie Smith link in the follow up post (coming end of August) on picking the right contests. By then, we may know more about the future of the Golden Heart too. :/ Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  27. Hi Tracy! Thank you for posting about this topic. For me, contests have provided a much needed boost just when I was beginning to doubt my abilities. They’ve given me valuable feedback that has helped as I moved forward and revised. But most of all, they have provided a community of people with whom I can share successes and disappointments. Of course, some contests are better than others in terms of camaraderie, but every contest has its perks. I was once advised by an MFA mentor that contests were a waste of money and time. I disagree. Contests open doors that are incredibly hard to crack open. So my advice, enter, judge, and enjoy each success while learning from each pass. Each outcome is worth the cost.
    Alicia Anthony

    1. Alicia, like the way you think - like me. 😉 Not everyone can afford the cost or time to get an MFA and the online classes and contests can help. And sometimes the MFA professors lack respect for romance genre and don't get the value of the romance community. Agree some contests are better than others. A lot depends on the coordinators (which change) and your luck of assignment on the judges. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  28. I have entered several contests and am honored to say I'm a finalist in 4. I belong to an organization that rates contests as one of the services they offer to self-published authors:
    https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/. I recommend researching contests before entering because of the cost. When I learned I was eligible to judge in a contest, I signed up immediately and am learning a lot from the experience. I'm wondering how one learns about being a judge. I read a request from WFWA and signed up, but have never seen a call for judges elsewhere. Maybe I just haven't been looking.

    1. Thanks for stopping in and for sharing about Alliance Independent Authors, Lori. Sounds like a great resource for indie authors. Congratulations on your FOUR finals! Good luck. Most of the contests I've entered and judged in have been through Romance Writers of America and their chapters. I've found them through the loops there. You can access a list at https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=517#contests. Many do not require you to be a member of RWA to enter or judge.

  29. Three years ago I decided to enter every contest that was right for my then-current work. I judged for most of the contests, but not in the category I'd entered. I'd entered contests that provided lots of feedback sporadically before, but that year, I either made the finals or won almost all of the ones I entered. And I was "courted" by a publisher, an editor and an agent. Funny, but after all that I decided I wanted control of my books, and I decided to go Indie. Best. Decision. Ever—for me. Well worth the contest fees. Thanks for an informative post, Tracy!

    1. Thanks for sharing Fae - not only about contests having value for you but for your decision to go indie being right for you. You'd proved you have the skills to do it right. I've switched up to judge in some contests I didn't enter so I could judge in romantic suspense some because I feel I can give best feedback there than in genres I don't read much in.

  30. Great post, Tracy! You've hit on the best reasons why to judge and enter! Entering I've gained great feedback (both positive and negative) that helped me with revisions. Judging has proven equally as useful a tool when it comes to learning about craft.

    As a contest pro, you're even giving back now by sharing your insight! Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks, Pris. Glad you've taken both kinds of feedback and made it useful and you're rocking it with 2 RITA finals this year. Fortunately, you don't have to be a contest pro to judge and give helpful feedback, but I know I'm probably kinder in phrasing now. 😉

  31. Excellent post. I think I love judging even more than entering. It turns us into not just critical thinkers but concritical thinkers if we do it right. Plus, as you mentioned, giving back and paying it forward are always worthwhile.

    1. G. L., I wouldn't be a multiple time contest winner if others didn't give of their time and experience. Wouldn't be right to just take and not give back. Love that you love judging even more than entering. You're surely been a help to many writers whatever their stage in writing. Thanks for that and stopping by.

    1. Tina, so agree. Sometimes that feedback can save you from going down the wrong path - or further down since I know I started in wrong spot more than once. Great reason to enter a new project and see how others see it.

  32. Great blog, Tracy! I didn't think I'd earned the right as an unpublished newbie to judge for my chapter's contest, but my chapter mates encouraged me to roll up my sleeves anyway. I learned SO MUCH by judging that first time, and I've been involved in and entering contests ever since. They're yet another way our community of writers is the most generous and supportive ever.

    1. I think it's pretty common for newbies to feel they aren't qualified to judge, but they really do have valuable insight as well as help them learn. Glad your chapter mates encouraged you and you gave it a try. Thanks for giving back and thanks for stopping by the blog, Grace.

  33. Contests are well, an interesting dilemma. I've entered a bunch and without feedback, other than the customary "thanks but no thanks," they can be rough!

    But mostly, I can't afford it! At $20.00 a pop more often than not, I just can't.
    Being fresh out of grad school, it's just not possible. So I only enter when I think I've got a good chance now.

    But, it makes me wonder. The popular publications probably get thousands of contest submissions. And aren't the contest fees really just their way of keeping the magazine/site alive? If you run the numbers, most of the submitters aren't going to get in so the odds aren't great. And with no feedback, who's really benefitting??

    I weigh my submission choices carefully. But, I still do submit when I think I actually have a shot!

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