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Writing Contest Conundrum: Are Competitions Worth the Effort?

This is how it goes in your head:

You enter a writing contest, win it, and ride that wave of success to glorious bestsellerdom.

Or maybe it’s more like this: You don’t win the contest, but you get a priceless, insightful critique from a seasoned judge. You revise your novel, enter another writing contest, win it, and ride that wave of success to glorious bestsellerdom.


Column by Ann Bradley, author of A WICKED WAY TO WIN AN EARL
(Nov. 2015, Berkley). Before she became a writer, Anna worked with a
rare books library featuring works by British women writers from the 1600s
through the Regency period. Anna writes steamy historical romance (think
garters, fops and riding crops) and squeezes in a career as a writing and
literature professor on the side. She lives with her husband and two children
in Portland, OR, where people are delightfully weird and love to read.
Follow her on Twitter

Oh, rookie. If only it were that easy. The truth is, there are some writing contest horror stories out there. What if you don’t get one of those priceless, insightful critiques? What if your judge eviscerates your entry with all the finesse of a rabid dog attacking a bloody carcass? Believe me, you’ll feel it when you’ve been a victim of the “slash and trash” method of judging. It leaves bite marks.

So, do you put your neck into that foaming mouth, and hope for the best?

That depends. Why did you enter the contest? What do you expect to gain from the experience? Are you focused on the win, or on the judge’s feedback? Are you a serial entrant, or do you only enter contests to gain access to specific industry professionals? If you know why you’re there, you’re more likely to get what you need and avoid the bite marks.

(Entering your work in free online contests is a smart way to find an agent.)

My First Time

I’d love to say my first contest entry blew everyone away and I won the contest, but it didn’t, and I didn’t. I didn’t even make it to the final round, but I did get an invaluable critique from one of my judges. I was a rookie. I needed to be schooled, and my judge gave me just what I needed.

The revisions I made based on that one judge’s suggestions triggered an avalanche in the rest of the book, and I ended up rewriting the entire thing. Because of one great critique, and almost without realizing it, I’d completed a second draft.

Winning the Contest Means You’re Perfect

By the time I entered my second contest I’d finished my book. I was better prepared this time, and I won the contest. There’s no doubt about it—a win is gratifying. We writers do have our egos, after all.

My entry was perfect, of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t have won, right?

Wrong, rookie. One sharp-eyed judge went “track changes” crazy on my entry. Head hopping, passive voice, weak verbs? Yes, yes, and yes. I studied her critique, and lo and behold I found head hopping, passive voice and weak verbs throughout the entire manuscript, not just the contest entry. Funny how that happens.

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My book had issues, but thanks to another great critique I was able to address them before I sent the manuscript off to prospective agents.

My point is this: if you get a great critique, work it, and work it hard. Work it like you’re cage dancing in thigh-high white go-go boots.

Winning Isn’t Everything—It’s the Only Thing

It may interest you to know the editor who crowned me queen of the contest didn’t ask to see the rest of my book. But I was satisfied because I got my work in front of her, which was the reason I entered that contest in the first place.

Contests are a great way to access otherwise inaccessible people in the business. But alas, a contest win will not necessarily leave an editor panting for more. Editors and agents have numerous reasons for turning down work, most of which are a mystery to writers.

If your only goal is to win, you may be missing out on the most valuable part of the experience. I hate to say it, but your mama was right. It’s not about whether you win or lose. It’s about how good the judges’ critique is.

The Afterglow

I’m not going to lie to you. It feels amazing to receive glowing praise from industry professionals. Don’t hesitate to bask in that glow. Roll around in that warm fuzzy. You worked hard for it, and you likely won’t get the chance to sun yourself in your own spotlight for long. Rejection looms on every writer’s horizon—it’s part of the deal. But if a few bite marks help us grow a thicker skin, well, let’s just say a thick skin is an advantage in this industry.

(Hate writing queries? Find agents through contests, referrals, critiques and conferences.)

The Verdict

When it comes to writing contests, enter at your own risk. You may lose a finger or two. Before you decide against it, though, ask yourself if the benefits of a great critique outweigh the drawbacks of a bad one.

After all, what’s a few fingers?


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