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get a glimpse of what others in your genre are writing and see how they’re doing to compare your own writing with other unpublished writers.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.
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?
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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.