Should You Enter A Writing Contest?


Me. Somewhere in Death Valley, CA

Sometimes being a writer can feel like trying to navigate your way through a vast, dry and endless place. That’s why writers so often seek advice or opinions from others. If you’ve been anywhere near the writer’s advice circuit, you’ve undoubtedly heard, “Writers need to get their work out there.”

Along with this obvious wisdom, sage writers like to throw out a list of ways you can get your work out there. Join a critique group, submit to different magazines, blog, join Wattpad, and enter writing contests to name a few. When I first started writing, I eagerly jumped into the fray, slamming ragged fingernails against the submit button and eagerly marking the date for first round judging. I quickly discovered I wasn’t contest ready. Not that my work wasn’t contest ready—it wasn’t but that’s a separate issue—but I didn’t know how to evaluate feedback, how to assess the benefits of entering, or how not to take things personally. Below are a few questions I should’ve asked myself before hitting submit.

Are You Easily Offended?
Okay, be honest now. When you ask a friend how you look in your shiny new duds and he/she pauses to consider, do you scowl, gasp in horror, burst into tears, brandish a fist, or run from the room? If so, you might want to step away from the submit button on that contest form. If you’re going to enter a contest and then go on a rant about how the judges are stupid, no one appreciates your genius, and you’ve worked so hard on this thing already–and all of that actually might be true–you’re not ready, yet.
You can toughen your skin and learn through more gentle means first—a writer’s critique group, online courses that are supportive—Savvy Authors has some great ones, join a Facebook group, join a writers’ organization like Romance Writers of America. There’s nothing wrong with sticking a toe in the water first, especially if that’s your temperament. Some people really like the fire. The onslaught of criticisms makes them rise to the challenge, but if you’re not that person, wait. You’ll get there. You’ll also know when you’re there if you can tell shit from Shinola.
Tall tale or shiny truth?
If you’ve been around this blog before, you might recall a post I did titled Why so Many Good Writers Can’t Write. In the article, I spoke about the crisis that can come from opening your writer-self up to too much criticism and opinions. Basically, when we first start writing we don’t know how to tell good advice from bad. Or even when valuable criticism doesn’t actually come with a valuable solution. It happens. That’s why you, as a writer, need to learn to develop discernment.
Discernment is necessary in order to sift through the wealth of information and advice you are bound to get when you share your work with others.” 
You can learn more about discernment HERE, a post inspired by a friend having a writing crisis. After I wrote that post, I was amazed by the number of close writing friends who thought that I was speaking about them. It struck home with many people! The truth is that when you first start writing, you are desperate for advice, desperate to learn the correct way to do things, and that can make you too eager. So before you enter a writing contest, mill around in the writing world, read well-regarded writing books, attend workshops either online or in person, READ your market–for God’s sake read to have a basic understanding of genre before you open yourself up to criticism that could ultimately do more harm than good. Once you’ve done this, if you still want to move forward, make sure you can afford to lose.
Can You Afford to Lose?
What do you mean I didn’t win!

Just because you’re in a position to discern good or bad advice doesn’t mean that losing a contest won’t sting. It will. Rejection stings. And that is part of the business. So make sure to ask yourself, honestly, if the loss of this contest will hit you too hard. Will you be so devastated by a loss that you can’t function for weeks? If that’s the case, if that loss is going to keep you from completing your WIP, if it’s going to make you go back and fix things when you should be going forward then it’s not worth it. Yet. Wait until you get to the end of that novel before you start submitting your first 25 pages. See where your own creative process takes you before you add other opinions.

Of course, in many cases you’re putting out more than just your delicate ego. $$$

Should you enter a contest that charges a fee? A lot of people say no. And, ultimately, the answer will be determined by your own deep pockets, but a fee based contest can be worth the price of admission. No doubt there are some bad contest out there, so do some research. Good, reputable groups often charge fees in order to raise money for the chapter. If the contest is well regarded and there are good prizes or at least the payoff of having your work critiqued, it could be worth the expense. Consider the fact that many online writing workshops, like the very excellent ones run by Margie Lawson, Savvy Authors, and Dean Wesley Smith charge for their classes and feedback. A writing contest can be it’s own learning experience, though on a much smaller and less reliable scale. (There’s that shit from Shinola again) If you’re okay with that and have twenty-five bucks to plop down, go for it.
If you’re secure with your answers to the questions raised so far then the last thing to consider is the payoff.
What’s the Payoff?

What’s in this climb for me?

Okay, here’s where I fess up to having run writing contests and participated in judging these contests. When I did this, I gave the best advice I could for my knowledge at the time. Yep, that means that I didn’t always give the best advice. But, fortunately for those who entered, I wasn’t the only judge and a critique from me wasn’t the prize. We had experienced judges for our finalists, cash prizes, and gave our winners and finalists free publicity. Those are important benefits. Before you enter a contest consider the payoff. Are the judges well-known? Are the final judges an agent or editor that represents/publishes your genre?  Do the other prizes matter to you? What kind of name recognition will you get from it? And does the contest have an association with a good writing group—RWA, MWA, SCBWI, or the like? If the answers are yes, and you’re not easily offended, can afford to lose, and know how to tell shit from Shinola then go for it! If the contest offers feedback and connections, you really have little to lose. I’ve gotten some really amazing feedback from contests and recently became a finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart . Woot! In addition, I placed first and second in the Pages From The Heart Contest. Woot, Woot! In both cases, the contests related to a well-respected writing organization, had great prizes, established judges, publicity, and I received some fantastic advice from the chapter volunteers.

I also obtained my agent, the wonderful Michelle Grajkowski, who judged the Pages From the Heart Contest. And the wonderful Michelle helped get my three book contract with Sourcebooks. Totally worth that 25 bucks.

6 thoughts on “Should You Enter A Writing Contest?

  1. Contests are a good way to see how your work measures up, and getting an Honorable Mention or Finalist award can be a real boost. You're spot on about fees. Most small presses run on tight budgets, and the judges usually don't get paid!

    Linda Sienkiewicz

  2. And then, of course, when you WIN first or second place, or first AND second place, and an agent, say, someone like Michelle Grajkowski of 3 Seas Literary Agency, requests a partial manuscript, it's a real big boost!!!

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