Avoid the Pitfalls of Writing Contests & Turn them into Must-Have Benefits

Avoid the Pitfalls of Writing Contests & Turn them into Must-Have Benefits

Jennifer Hudson Taylor ACFW Genesis Awards in 2007
Jennifer Hudson Taylor with Agent, Terry Burns at the 2007 ACFW Conference in Dallas, TX with Jennifer’s 2 awards from the ACFW Genesis contest.

I have a confession to make. I don’t like writing contests, but I do believe in their value. The best advice I can give new writers about entering writing contests, is be very selective in the number and kind of contests you enter.

Writers around the globe are busy revising and polishing their manuscripts for another chance to see their written words sparkle bright with hope and dreams of success. They work up the courage to send it out in front of the world’s eyes to be compared and ranked against what others have written. These critques and feedback can either break a writer’s spirit or wound them to paralysis for a period of time. The other result could be it will encourage and inspire brilliant works yet to be written and cultivated. Most of us are hoping for the latter.

Before publication, I entered a number of contests, but not as many as I would have liked due to the costs and preparation time it took to enter them. I wasn’t impressed with the majority of the comments I received from most of them. A few of the judges gave very bad advice. As a new writer, I sensed it was bad advice, but I wasn’t quite sure at the time. I didn’t always know what to believe. This caused me a lot of confusion, but it forced me to learn how to trust in my instincts.

Looking back, I know that much of it was subjective and it was bad because they were critiquing my voice and style. Others gave good advice, and I put the good advice to work on my manuscripts. In one of the last contests I entered, a judge insisted on critiquing a one-page synopsis that wasn’t supposed to be critiqued. It was optional to include, and I assumed the contest rules would be adhered to, especially by the judge. I was wrong.

Jennifer Hudson Taylor receiving ACFW Genesis Award in 2007
Jennifer Hudson Taylor receiving an ACFW Genesis Award in Dallas, TX in 2007.

Since that judge did not have enough integrity to follow the rules of the contest, it made my decision much easier to ignore that judge’s feedback. There are always signs, but they can be subtle and you may have to be more perceptive than usual. If someone’s advice goes against your gut instinct and seems to be taking on a whole new personality and style than you envisioned, then your work is becoming theirs and is no longer yours.

Keep an open mind to entering contests because you need good feedback and the opportunity to grow and develop. Not every critiquer will love your work no matter how well-written. This is also true of readers. Once an author’s work is published for the whole world to read, some will like it, others will be indifferent, and a handful will hate it. This is a fact I have learned to accept and you will need to do the same.

As a published author, my goal is to find people who like my writing style and inform those individuals about my books as they become available. These are the people in whom I choose to invest my time and efforts. Marketer, Seth Godin, first refered to a group of like-minded people with the power to influence others as a marketing tribe. Anne of Green Gables would have referred to them as “kindred spirits”. I don’t have the time and energy to try and convince people who don’t like my work to change their minds, because most of them won’t. I don’t need their bad reviews influencing those who may like my work.

Focus on the people who are already with you even before they know you. Research the contests by learning about how long they have been running. Who are the judges? If they are writers, what do they write? Does their work speak to you? If so, they may see the value in your work. If the judges are agents or editors, who are the authors they represent? Would you fit into their agency or publishing house? What kind of works are they currently acquiring? A contest could get your work out of the slush pile and directly in front of them for consideration.

When choosing a writing contest to enter, here are some tips to consider to ensure you get the best value out of it:

1. Choose a writing contest that has a category for what you write. Some contests do not have categories for women’s fiction, young adult or inspirationals. Don’t waste your time and money if they don’t have a category for which you write.

2. Enter a contest that will have an agent or an editor judging the category for which you are entering. This is mentioned above, but it’s worth mentioning again: If your manuscript finals, you will be given a chance to have your manuscript read above the slush piles on their desks. This can take years off your “waiting to be discovered” period.

3. If you are entering a contest to receive feedback on your writing, only enter contests that provides written comments from judges. If the contest uses generic score sheets, you might not be getting the kind of feedback you want.

4. Only enter contests with reasonable fees. The average contest should be no more than $15-35 per manuscript. If it is a huge contest where hundreds are entering, the fee might be anywhere from $50-$150.

5. Don’t assume that trained judges or published judges are the final word on what is right. Research their comments and suggestions to determine if they are valid before you revise your whole manuscript on a few comments.

6. Don’t have any expectations. If you final and win — wonderful! If you don’t, use the good suggestions and discard and forget the bad suggestions. Some comments will be totally off and you will learn by instinct and in your spirit whether or not to ignore them.

7. Judges are volunteers and writers themselves. Therefore, they may recognize a manuscript they have critiqued for a friend in a critique group from an online or a local chapter. If you recognize a judge who has previously read any portion of your manuscript, you may not be getting the impartial consideration you want. It could be considered a conflict of interest as well.

8. Keep an open mind and prepare your heart with prayer. You may honestly need some of the critiques you receive. After reading the feedback the first time, let it sting and set it aside until your feelings cool. Come back to it at a later time.

9. After you research all the contests in which you have an interest and narrow them down to a definite list, create a calendar for the year and begin your writing schedule and budget so that you don’t lose track of time and forget them.

Have fun!


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