Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 29, 2018

Choosing the Right Writing Contest for You

Tracy Brody 

Hello again, friends. Back in June, I did my first guest blog here on An Addict’s Take on Writing Contests. As promised, I’m going to give you some tips on how to pick the best contest for you depending on where you are in your writing career.

Are you a newbie author? Filled with passion for your story and ready to have Oprah or Ellen on her show to tell the world about the best book ever? Yeah, I was that starry eyed, optimistic newbie who never heard back from Oprah. That’s a good thing because I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about writing at that time. If you are a newbie, I suggest you look for a couple of things when picking contests to enter.

  • Number of judges: Get more bang for your buck by getting feedback from more judges. Most contests have at least two first-round judges, but many have three and some even have four. You can typically find that information on the contest rules page.
  • Contest Scoresheet: Many contests provide a link to the scoresheet. Check it out. Does it address the things you want to know? The details are a lot more helpful than a contest that only gives you judges’ comments or an overall score but no comments or specifics. Scores and feedback are SUBJECTIVE (and not always right), but look for comments that are repeated as they likely will help target areas to improve. Remember though, the judges are not editors, and you aren’t paying them to be. Most are not going to mark every comma error or even point out every flaw they see.

If you’re an intermediate to advanced writer, you may be at the stage where you’ve improved your craft and want more than just feedback from a contest. Trust me, no matter how fabulous a writer you are, You. Will. Still. Get. Feedback – telling you where you can improve. ?Instead of big picture things like passive versus active, showing rather than telling, pacing, GMC and POV comments, you may learn about gerunds and prefacing and not using both dialog and action tags.

  • Length: How much can you enter? Check the rules page. Is it by word count or page count? The more you can submit, the bigger picture the judge can get.
  • Synopsis: Does the contest require a synopsis? Is it judged? It does require more work, and they can be sooo hard to write, but the feedback can help you learn to write a strong synopsis. It can also be a fantastic opportunity to get feedback on the overall story if you are still drafting it.
  • Credentials: Contest finals can help catch an agent or editor’s attention because it shows readers liked your work. However, some contests have better reputations to impress them, for instance the Golden Heart®. A few contest finals or wins, does not mean you’re definitely ready for querying, though the affirmation of being a finalist is a wonderful boost to a writer’s psyche anytime! To up your chances of finaling, you want to look at different things.
  1. Categories: Does the contest have categories? Including yours? That allows for more finalists than a contest with a limited number of top finalists.
  2. Themed Contests: These usually are for smaller segments, but it may play to your strengths if you have a great hook opener or write snappy banter or a great first kiss.
  3. First round judging methodology: If you want to make the finals, I recommend looking for contests which drop the lowest score.Why? Because contest judging is SUBJECTIVE and you have no control over who your judges are. They might not typically read your genre or be your intended audience. Even if they are, you can’t please everyone. So, dropping the outlier can improve your chances of moving to the next round.

If you are an accomplished writer racking up the credentials and consistently making the finals and winning in some contests, your goal may be to

  • Win Prizes: What do you get if you win in your category? Certificates and plaque are nice, but some contests offer cash prizes, free classes, critiques or even mentorship. Those can be invaluable in helping take your writing to the next level or forming relationships with a judge, agent, or editor.
  • Skip the slush pile: Now is the time to be selective and get your work in front of editors and agents. Look at who those final round judges (FRJ) are – they should be listed somewhere on the contest information page. Contests have at least one FRJ. Many have two, and a few even send the category winner to another next stage with a panel. That’s more chances to get your work read by industry professionals! If you’re already agented, you may want focus on contests with editors as the final round judge.

Regardless of your stage of writing, I also recommend you look for clues on how well the contest is run.The coordinators are volunteers, but not all contests are the same. Is the information on the website current, consistent, and accurate? The FRJs listed? Do you get a response if you email the coordinator? Historically, do they have a good record of recruiting and training first round judges, as well as sending entries out and announcing finalists and winners in a timely manner? That information can be hard to find, usually only by experience or word of mouth. It’s better to avoid a poorly run contest where judges are frustrated because entries are sent late and they get more entries or less time to judge or you have to wait for the announcements.

Determine what you want or need out of a contest and do a little homework. A fantastic source in addition to the contests listed on the RWA Contest page, is Stephanie Smith’s current contest chart on her webpage. She’s done a lot of the work for you!

I want to add one etiquette tip for those who enter contests. *Warning, I may sound like your mother here.* Your first-round judges are usually anonymous – though a few will sign their names if the contest allows. However, almost all contests allow you to send the coordinators thank you notes that they will forward to your judges. As I mentioned in my last post, contest judges spend a few hours giving their time to read and give you feedback to help you. WRITE A THANK YOU NOTE. It only takes a few minutes to let them know you appreciate them, even if you are disappointed with what they say or not being a finalist. It might make them more willing to continue judging and helping others. You may even make a friend, get a cheerleader, or find a mentor.

As a five-time Golden Heart finalist, I’m hoping the incoming RWA board takes the input members have given to come up with a fantastic new contest that meets the needs of even more romance writers in today’s publishing market. There’s one more year to enter the contest that has given me a huge support system of fabulous new friends and I want to encourage you to enter. If you’re planning to enter the last Golden Heart contest and want a shot at getting some feedback, in the comment section, say “I’m Entering the Golden Heart! Pick me!” and you may win a 10-page critique from me. If you aren’t entering, but are a fan of the Golden Heart, I’d love to hear that and why too.

Best wishes with your writing!



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.



44 comments on “Choosing the Right Writing Contest for You”

  1. It seems there are a lot of Romance genre contests to choose from, but I have trouble finding ones for YA. You make some spot-on points for selecting the right contest for where you are in writing and your goals, thanks. AND the bit about a thank-you note is a terrific reminder!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and post. Hope the tips are helpful and you find some YA contests that match up - maybe on Stephanie's list. Best wishes with your writing!

    1. Thanks for popping in and posting Chris. FYI, I did get my agent from a cold query but know the contest credentials caught her and other's interest in getting requests from them. Wishing you the BEST with reaching your goals!

    1. Thanks, Diane! I realized I didn't include anything targeted for published writers - maybe since I'm not there yet - but hope you got some takeaways.

  2. Thanks, Tracy! Great tips. And remember folks, SUBJECTIVE, is our contest word of the day, but that being said, sometimes you can pick out little gems and amazing nuggets from the feedback that can take your writing to the next level...and add to your 'needs editing' pile.

    1. EXACTLY, Cheryl! Sometimes that nugget of gold feedback is worth way more than the entry fee. And some nuggets are fools gold, so check your gut before ignoring or before changing up things. And SUBJECTIVE is more like the contest word of EVERY day. 😉

  3. Great advice, Tracy! The path to publishing is hard! I've been chasing the dream for a long time. When I final or win a contest it is validation that I'm improving. It is also a moment to celebrate, it helps balance out the disappointments. 🙂

    1. I so agree. That validation is powerful to keep us going. It's a long journey for most of us. Enjoy it along the way and keep going. We will get there! Hugs.

  4. Thanks for this article, Tracy. I wish I’d seen it years ago, when I first started entering contests!

  5. Great article! Spot on advice. I learned so much from entering contests, and as a judge I really appreciate the thank yous.

    1. Elizabeth, thanks! I almost always write thank yous because I appreciate the volunteers giving their time and expertise. And that some of those judges may remember my name and buy my books is a perk. Was super fun when a judge in the Sheila signed her name and we later became Golden Heart sisters. She cheered super loud when that manuscript won because she'd read it and loved it.

    1. Maggie, thanks for posting and I hope this helps you pick a contest to enter. It takes some courage to put your work out there for critique, and I hope you get some helpful feedback. Best wishes with your writing!

  6. Excellent summary, Tracy. I know contests have helped me along. And in a parallel track, I have learned an immense amount from judging contests.

    1. Thanks, Kay!! Yes, you learn from judging. Easier to see "flaws" in other's work than our own. Kind of the no baby is ugly to it's mama scenario. 😉 And you can learn to be a kinder judge over time and getting feedback.

  7. Great post, Tracy. Thanks for sharing your insight and advice. I've learned so much from contests. Although I don't plan to enter the Golden Heart next year, I'm proud and honored to have been a finalist the past two years. A truly wonderful experience!

    1. Great to hear from you, Laura. You can learn a lot from contests - especially if the judges take the time and give feedback in a constructive way and the writer owns and wears her big girl panties when she reviews the feedback. 😉

      1. That's so true, Tracy. Got to go in with the right attitude. I've learned something new with each contest. So grateful to all the judges.

  8. Hello, Tracy. I enjoyed your article and learned a few things along the way. I've been lery of entering contests in general, but understanding what to look for in a contest helps minimize the fear. I might give it a try. I'll look for your first post--which will be just as interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Hi my Kiss of Death sister! Thanks for the advice on contests. I've found them great for feedback. I'm entering the Golden Heart this year. Polishing up two entries to choose between them. Or maybe I'll toss in both.

    1. Hi, Luna! Glad you've gotten good feedback. Second to the Golden Heart sisterhood, that's been the biggest perk of entering contests for me.

      Good luck in the Golden Heart! I say enter both. You might final with both and I've had several friends who said they've entered multiple manuscripts and it was the one they didn't expect to final that did. Can't say it enough, but contests and judging is SUBJECTIVE.

  10. I missed the deadline for a few. I have 37k written, so far. I'd like to enter the Golden Heart, and I think I still meet the criteria--I am published in short story, and I think my total work count is low enough for RWA rules. I received some good feedback on a recent contest entry, and I addressed everything in the scoring for the first 10k on the WIP already mentioned.


    1. Denise, so glad to hear you got good feedback and that you used it to learn and improve your manuscript! That's a win. The rules say "The Golden Heart contest is open to RWA members who have not accepted a publishing offer for, or Self-Published, a work of original fictional narrative prose of 20,000 words or more by January 11, 2019." Hope you can finish that manuscript and enter if your short short is under 20k. Good luck!

  11. Hi Tracy! I remember when you entered the OCC/RWA Orange Rose Contest a few years ago and won in your category, I believe. And wow, all those GH finals! Congrats! I've entered many contests over the years but have found lately that a few no longer have comprehensive scoresheets like the ORC still does. I've received valuable feedback from nearly every contest, though, in some manner or other. I agree that no matter where you are in your writing, newbie or advanced, you can benefit from contests.

  12. Hi, Barb. Yes, I did win in my category in the OCC/RWA Orange Rose and have a lovely glass plaque on my shelf to prove it. 😉 I think that was the first contest in which I got a request from the final round judge too so I have fond feelings for it.

    I admit I was disappointed that the Maggie gives no scoresheet feedback and to hear you're seeing that with other contests. I do look at the scoresheet to see if it lines up with what I'm looking for before I enter a contest. I was frustrated with one contest where I judged and it didn't include plotting issues. Didn't judge in it again.

    Thanks for stopping in and I'm flattered you remembered me from the OCC. Let's be friends. 😀

    1. I helped coordinate that contest so I love to follow names I recognize and see how much success they have. I accepted your Facebook request!

  13. Wrapping up and want to thank those who read the article and who commented. Luna, if you'll pick one of those manuscripts to send me 10 pages (in standard double spaced, 12 pt TNR) I'll do the promised critique. Denise, I'll also do a 10 page critique for you. Congratulations and best of luck to you both!

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