Confessions Of A Contest Junkie: How To Survive—And Thrive—In The Literary Contest Circuit
by Charity Tahmaseb
The Literary Contest Circuit: Why Bother?
They cost money. Some are scams. Some offer publication. Some don’t. Some provide feedback, while others' feedback is better off in the trash bin.
So why bother? Do writing contests help an aspiring writer, or do they simply help drain his or her bank account?
There are as many reasons to enter a writing contest as there are contests and writers. As a veteran of more contests than I care to count, I hope to provide you with some tips for navigating, surviving, and yes, even thriving, in the literary contest circuit.
What to Consider When Choosing a Contest
Where are you in your career?
Managing expectations is crucial to surviving the contest circuit. A beginning writer may not fair well in a large contest, such as those sponsored by Writer’s Digest. Sure, there’s a chance of making the top one hundred, but without feedback, a writer is left to wonder: Was it something I wrote?
Those ten dollars might be better spent on a smaller contest sponsored by a local writers' group, a contest that provides feedback from published authors.
Are you a writer looking strictly for feedback at this point? If so, contests that offer multiple critiques give you more for your money. Do you want to get your work in front of editors and/or agents? Looking at the final round judges can help you target contests.
Here comes the judge
What is the judging pool for the contest? Are you guaranteed a read by a published author, or is the organization pulling in any warm body they can find? Some organizations conduct judges’ training to ensure even judging across entries, but many do not. In either case, feedback can range from excellent to confusing.
Whether a contest is worth entering may depend entirely on the final round judge. Many contests publish those names well in advance, giving you time to research each judge’s writing (in the case of an author judge) or preferred genres (in the case of an agent/editor judge).
Research into preliminary and final round judges could save you money, or tip the balance in favor of entering a contest. When all else fails, most contests provide a coordinator contact. Don’t be shy about it—it’s your money, and your writing, on the line.
Who said anything about keeping score?
Many contests use a score sheet, something they may provide to prospective entrants. If one is available, obtain a copy and use it to evaluate your story. It may make an excellent revision tool, but more importantly, it will give you hints for the slant of a particular contest.
Who are you again?
Who sponsors the contest is equally important, for both the value and prestige of a contest. A small writers’ organization may not have much to offer by way of status, but the feedback and prize money may be worth the cost, and chance, of entering. Likewise, making the finals of a prestigious contest is a credit you can use on your writer’s résumé for your entire career.
Beware those contests where the sponsorship, and the contest’s purpose, isn’t clear. Is it merely a money-making venue for the sponsors? Many legitimate organizations do use contests to raise funds for various activities (conferences, special speakers, prize money and awards for the entrants), but if you can’t tie a contest to a legitimate writing organization, literary magazine, or other group, consider saving your money for the next one.
Who am I again?
Take a hard look at what it is you plan to enter in relation to the contest requirements. Your cozy mystery won’t get very far in the private eye novel contest sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and St. Martin's Press, no matter how well-written it may be.
Contests are all about chance. Research can take you only so far. Sometimes what you learn about a contest doesn’t pan out in the results, but most of the time, clear cut requirements are just that. A novel without a love interest won’t do very well in a contest sponsored by RWA (Romance Writers of America). Thinking: Maybe they won’t notice is the fastest route to disappointment. The judges will notice. If the contest includes feedback, they will point it out.
Shark-infested Waters: How to Recognize a Scam
A writer once declared to me: “I only enter free contests. The rest are scams.”
Unfortunately, some of the biggest contest scams lure their victims with free entry. While free is nice, it isn’t necessarily better. These scam contests appeal to writers’ vanity and dreams of being published. You’re a “semi-finalist,” or even a “winner,” but with the bait comes the hook: to see the piece published, you must pay, sometimes a lot.
Identifying the Sharks:
High entry fees in relation to the prizes. Paying twenty dollars for a chance at a fifty-dollar prize is not a good deal.
No fee, but the contest comes with after-the-fact offers (publication, a plaque, professionally recorded—all for a price)
Vague guidelines. Legitimate contests clearly state the rules, requirements for entering, deadlines, and what rights are involved.
Vague or questionable sponsorship.
Do an Internet search on the contest name or even the contest name +scam.
Ask other writers if they’ve heard of a particular contest or have entered it.
Search for previous winner lists and/or resulting publications from the contest.
Legitimate contests are proud of their winners and let everyone know. It’s good advertising.
A final word of caution: Even contests run by well-known organizations can have less than writer-friendly fine print. Read that fine print, then read it again. Know what rights, if any, you give up by entering a contest. By entering some contests, you forfeit the copyright to your piece. The sponsoring organization can use, print, or sell it without your consent, never mind giving you credit or payment.
Hidden Benefits of Contests
Ah, the benefits of contests: Fame. Fortune. Your name in lights.
Well, maybe a nice chunk of change and the chance of appearing in a favorite literary magazine or catching that coveted editor’s eye. But even if you don’t come out on (or near) the top, you can still benefit from a writing contest.
Proper manuscript format
Nothing ties first-time submitters into knots more than manuscript formatting. Given the emphasis on doing it right, plus contradictory advice, it’s no wonder. Contests give you the opportunity to practice formatting your work professionally. Contests with feedback can give you insight on whether your formatting meets industry standards.
Some contests are more lenient than others. I once entered one that stated all incorrectly formatted manuscripts would be disqualified. I entered just to see if I could leap that hurdle.
Is it cold in here, or is it just me?
A cold read is a valuable commodity for a writer. Notice I didn’t say “objective” read. No one reads objectively; we all bring our biases to the page. However, not even your most trusted critique partner can give you a true “cold” read.
Most contests have “blind” entries. Only the title (and sometimes category, such as “cozy mystery” or “romantic suspense”) is present on the entry. Contests are a place where no one knows your name, and that can work to your benefit.
Judges come in cold to your story. No personalities involved. No prior knowledge. All they get is your prose. Will it stand up? How do other writers and publishing professionals view your writing?
While this reality check can be painful, it can also bring rewards. Afraid you’ve been getting nothing but pats on the back for your efforts? Here’s a chance to find out. Have an oddball story that no one seems to like? A contest can shed light on what’s wrong, or simply let you know you’ve taken a chance—and it paid off.
Hone Your Feedback Meter
Now that you have the judges’ rankings and comments, you may feel a bit rankled and ready to commit yourself to another profession. Win, lose, or draw, some good can come from the experience.
One very real lesson is: no matter how well-written a piece, someone will not like it, and you may score in contests accordingly. So one judge loved your first chapter while the other hated it, same contest, same entry? Instead of despairing, you may want to congratulate yourself. Chances are, you’ve developed a strong voice. Strong flavors attract and repel. The same can be said for strong writing.
A Recipe for Dealing with Contest Feedback
I know some writers who won’t peek at a returned contest packet for weeks. For me, the suspense would wreak more havoc than anything the judges might have to say. The following steps help me survive the post-contest critiques:
Find a quiet place. This is not the time you want the kids, dogs, spouse, etc. interrupting you.
Note any pertinent information in coordinator’s cover letter (if present).
Read through each critique.
Put it away (for now).
A low contest score plus critique feels like a rejection, a personal, detailed rejection. Work through any emotions before taking a second look at the feedback.
Read through the comments carefully the second time. If the contest provided more than one set of comments, compare similarities and note differences. Do you detect any overall themes about your work?
Not all judges are created equal. The downside to a cold read is not knowing particulars about the person who read your story. When a judge tells you to brush up on your “grammer” can you take him seriously? Does it negate the other comments on your manuscript? Or were they simply trying to judge and watch their toddler at the same time?
Here’s where you learn to judge the judges. It takes time, but receiving input from outside your critique group can help give you a clearer view of your writing.
The Downside to Contests
Even if you hit a winning streak, contests have a downside. They cost money. Some might nickel and dime you while others are the equivalent to dinner at a nice restaurant. The cost may be prohibitive for some writers.
The Perfect Partial Syndrome
Contests become addictive for some writers, especially after a few wins. There’s nothing like positive reinforcement in a business where rejections reign. Those writers work hard, polishing the first three chapters and synopsis to enter again and again, while the rest of the manuscript languishes on their hard drive. Or worse, the rest of the manuscript doesn’t exist.
Repeated rounds on the contest circuit in pursuit of an editor judge is one thing, but resting on your laurels and not writing new material is another. And more than one writer, having caught an editor’s attention, didn’t have the rest of the manuscript to send.
Does Size Matter?
The Little Fellas
The perception exists that small contests aren’t worth the time or money because they don’t cut much (or any) ice with agents and editors. Small contests can provide a testing ground for beginning writers, offering them feedback and a chance at placing. They can also offer a much-needed ego boost. In one of the first contests I won, it wasn’t the prize money or certificate that thrilled me, but words of encouragement and praise the contest coordinator scribbled on my copy of the winners’ list.
Small contests can also lead to publication in small but respected literary journals, and a chance at greater rewards. One of my short story wins was not only published, but nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Small steps (and contests) can help build a writing résumé.
So do you even bother with the big guys? The Writer’s Digest contests, the Glimmer Train ones, the RWA Golden Heart or one of St. Martin’s mystery novel contests?
The conventional advice holds true: if you don’t enter, you can’t win. Some other things to consider:
Are you ready? You may not win or even place, but is your work the best it can be? Putting forth your best effort bolsters your pride and helps your craft.
Managing expectations—again. These are true “send and forget” contests, easy on the ego. Didn’t make the final round? Guess what? Neither did hundreds (or thousands) of other writers.
Rite of passage: For certain genres, some contests hold a special place, such as RWA’s Golden Heart Award. Few writers make the finals, even fewer win, but everyone loves to compare scores, the good, the bad, and the confusing.
The Nitty-Gritty: Contest Etiquette
Many excellent stories miss the final round because writers failed to follow the formatting rules, or entered their manuscript in the wrong category. Save yourself—and the contest coordinator—the grief by following the requirements.
One method to ensure you don’t overlook something important is to take the printed requirements and highlight the essential information. If after reading the rules, you’re still confused, contact the contest coordinator for clarification.
Thank you, sir. May I have another?
So you spent the money, sent your entry, and received your not-as-hoped-for scores. Now, according to the contest coordinator, you can pen thank-you notes to the judges. Are they serious?
Yes, they are.
This is not the time to vent about how you’ve been judged. While some contests pay judges an honorarium, many draw from a pool of volunteers, other writers who take time from their own writing to judge. You can thank them for their time and effort if nothing else.
But sometimes, something a judge says really clicks. Or they loved your entry and wrote words of encouragement. While judges are often wary of revealing their names, a thank-you may open the door to a friendship, or even a mentorship with a published author. A thank-you note sent to a final round editor/agent judge may result in a request. If nothing else, it establishes you as a professional.
So, is vetting your writing on the contest circuit worth it? It can be, with research, targeting, and some soul searching. It can also prepare you for the time when readers and reviewers voice opinions about your writing: the good, the bad, and the confusing.
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Originally published at T-Zero Expandine