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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How to Choose A Writing Contest

Hi. I’m Gail Zerrade, aka The Countess of Controversy. My writing partners gave me that title because I tend to wander into topics that stir up loud debates. If you want to rile up romance writers, ask them about their experiences with writing contests.

Recently, I was discussing 2010 writing goals with some of my critique partners, and several of them mentioned that they would like to enter more writing contests, but didn’t know which ones to enter. As something of a contest addict, I’ve entered a wide variety of contests. Stephie Smith has a wonderful chart listing all the major RWA chapter contests here. With so many choices, here’s how I decide which ones to enter.

  1. Decide what you want to get out of the contest. Your choices will be different depending on whether you hope to final, are just looking for unbiased feedback on a new idea, or need to have that all-important query letter/synopsis critiqued.
  2. Cost: Writing contests are one place where you don’t always get what you pay for. Some of the most expensive contests offer the least amount of feedback. So check how many first round judges will be commenting on your entry. Then look at the final judges. Some contests, like the Lone Star Writing Contest, will have both an agent and an editor look at the finalists. If cost is a problem, look for free contests on writers’ websites. An example of this type of contest is the Chase the Dream Contest by Leigh Michaels and Rachelle Chase. Or consider entering a contest that only looks at those crucial first pages. I‘ve had good luck with The Dixie Kane Memorial Contest and The Great Beginnings Contest.
  3. Look at the Score sheet: Most long-standing RWA chapter contests will post their score sheets on their website. Go through it line by line and make sure it’s a good match for your manuscript. Some contests have different score sheets for each category and that can work to your advantage. You don’t want to send your coming of age story to a contest that only judges sexual tension.
  4. Categories: Make sure there’s a category that suits your work. A romantic suspense will probably do better in its own category than lumped in with all the other contemporaries. It’s all about judge’s expectations. If the judge is looking forward to a secret baby story, and you show up with a serial killer in the prologue, you’re probably not going to do well.
  5. Judges: Perhaps the most important element in choosing a contest is the judges. Check out the first round judges. Who are they? Are they trained? The Great Expectations Contest is one example of a contest that goes to great lengths to train their judges. The final judge is equally important. Is it an editor who acquires what you write? Or an agent you would like to work with? You may not expect to final, but chances are, if you’ve come this far, you’re better than you think you are. Plan to win and enter accordingly.

Contests change from one year to another. If you enter enough of them, you will eventually have horror stories to tell: The one that lost your entry, the judge who gave all zero’s on a scale of one to ten, or the judge who swore she would personally make sure you were never published in the United States or Canada. But there are also those favorites you come back to year after year, looking for good feedback and hoping to catch the eye of a top notch final judge.

I would love to hear your contest stories. Which ones are your favorites? How do you decide which ones to enter?


  1. Great post, Gail! And excellent advice! I haven't entered all that many contests myself, but I think the one that gave me the best feedback was the Royal Ascot Contest. It's Regency-specific and I got really constructive criticism from the first-round judges. I didn't final, but the advice and critiques I got helped me to revamp my ms and get it published...and isn't that what we're all really looking for in the end?? :)

  2. Terrific post, Gail. Thanks for mentioning the Great Expectations contest. Most of our judges go above and beyond to help all levels of writers. In fact, some of your horror stories actually inspired our training. :-)

    When you're ready, a contest can put you in front of the right judges. The Daphne du Maurier did that for me...and I sold.


  3. I've just entered my first contest ever. I do intend to enter more than just this one though, so thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences about contests.

  4. Hi, Gail. Thanks for the plug for The Lone Star. I'm fast at work lining up the 2010 contest. The deadline is June 6th to enter, so check our website often for more information.

    I've found the Linda Howard and Heart of Denver contests to be good, as well as the Heart of Louisiana's. A good contest should give you feedback on your entry and explanations for the scores.

  5. Oh, Gail...I absolutely hate contests. lol But, recently I've found some that are free, so naturally I'm going to like those better. lol It comes down to this...if the judges are just readers (not editor or agents) it's really just opinions. What advice do we take, etc.

    ~Phyllis~ Baroness of Brazen

  6. Great advice Gail especially for someone venturing into the scary world of contests like me. I'm definitely going to heed your advice.

  7. Gail, a.k.a. Countess of Controversy, this is her Royal Highness of Hershey, a chocolate addict and one of your fans.

    Insightful and valuable post! Inspired by your experiences, I've entered two contests, and was really delighted to get the feedback, even though I didn't place.

    Intriguing to me, too, that there was a 20 point spread between the judges. One ranked my work much higher.

    So, what might that indicate? Well, the one who gave me an almost perfect score could have been sipping wine and sharing a hot tub with Brad Pitt, whereas the other just argued with her husband about taking out the recyclables and had binged on a pan of warm brownies. But I digress.

    It's opinion, we all know that.

    Some people will really love a writer's narrative voice, others will say, "Huh?!" As long as I am not excommunicated or receive a lifetime ban from a contest... I'll keep on trying.

    Feeble joking aside, the feedback is usually very helpful. This is a hotly competitive business, and ANY edge we humble writers can get... terrific. Placing in a contest, and getting one's work in front of a major editor or agent is a giant leap forward.

    Thanks much for this post. It helps us pinpoint which contests to target, and how to evaluate which ones suit our needs best.

    You'll encourage newbies like me to keep at it.

    By the way, I'm intrigued with the Linda Howard contest. Any links out there?

  8. Gail,
    Excellent points about contests. I agree about my local chapter's Lone Star. (Thanks for the plug, btw) It's a great contest.

    I'd also add my other local chapter--West Houston RWA's Emily contest. You get great feedback with the Emily.


  9. Wow, Gail! I didn't realize how many factors there are to consider. I usually just look to see who the final judges are, but this is great information. I received good feedback from The Golden Claddaugh, as well as encouragement. I would be very interested in becoming a trained judge, so if you know of any opportunities, please pass them along to me.

  10. I've entered a few contests, but wasn't impressed with the feedback I got. One was just a score sheet with no input. Very disappointing. Being somewhat new on the scene, I wonder how much good contests really do. A collegue once stated she quit entering contests when she found out that the best friend of the contest coordinator won the contest. Made me wonder how truly unbiased contests were. I still enter, though. Hope springs eternal. Very interesting and informative post.

  11. Gail,
    Great post. I have probably entered ten contest in all, and I have been lucky enough to final in most of them and win three of them. Saying this though, I have started to wonder if contest can hurt you. I looked back at the beginning of one of my old stories the other day, and I did not feel as though the voice sounded like mine. I think I had changed it so much to fit this comment or that from contest that I had lost MY voice. This is bad and dangerous for a writer because you need your own unique voice. I will probably still enter a few contest here and there, but I know I am going to be a good deal more hesitant to change things that I feel make my voice what it is.

  12. I'm not keen on contests. Quite frankly, I think a lot of feedback discourages and I don't need the negativity. I entered one once but by the time I got feedback, I'd rewritten those pages quite a bit and the comments weren't relevant anymore. You give great advice for making the best choices though. Great post.