Tuesday, May 31, 2011


There are a lot of RWA chapters that will despise me for saying this, but the truth is not all contests are created equal. Many are well-organized, offer excellent training, have talented published judges donating time to read, and will provide feedback you will be grateful for. Many are also downright horrible, with no solid deadlines—aside from when they need your money and entry, rarely have requests for the full from final judges, and have high entry fees giving little back in return.

Deciding to enter or picking which contest at $25-30 per entry per contest can be daunting.

Diving in blindly is not always best. I learned this the hard way in the very first contest I entered in December 2009. Yes, I was completely unprepared for the scathing remarks I received from one judge. And yes, I was somewhat vindicated by glowing comments from two others.

Out of 105 points, one published judge gave me a 104, another published judge gave me a perfect 105. An unpublished judge knocked me out of the finals with a mind-blowing 70. In the event of a 25 point or higher gap between the lowest scores, a fourth discrepancy judge was supposed to read the entry. The coordinator failed to notice my 34 point gap and neglected to assign a fourth judge. The Finalist list was announced and posted on the website before I had even received my scores. Trust me when I say no contest coordinator wants egg on their face by publicly admitting they screwed up, forcing them to send out a new Finalist list. It makes the contest look bad, it makes the coordinator look bad, and it’s just bad all around.

I was given an apology and eventually, a fourth judge, but I knew what to expect. A score that was higher than a 70, but low enough to keep me out of the finals. And that’s precisely what I received. I handled it with dignity and thanked the coordinator for her assistance. I swallowed my bitterness as part of the learning process and moved on.

Lesson: Coordinators are human and mistakes will happen. Handling a disappointing outcome with grace and dignity will ALWAYS serve you better than anger or disrespect.

After riding the contest circuit for a few months, I received a set of score sheets where the coordinator had crossed out the total score and written a new score in a different color. The first round judges had miscalculated the total score. I still didn’t make the finals by two points, arrgh, but it was nice to know someone was paying attention. Out of stinging curiosity, I checked score sheets from previous contests and discovered miscalculations are common, while astute coordinators with the time to double check are rare.

Lesson: Judges are also human and not all can add or have the sense to use a calculator. When you receive your score sheets, make sure the total at the bottom or top is correct. You’ll be surprised how often they’re wrong.

In one contest that shall also remain unnamed, I never even received feedback for one of my entries. After paying $25 and anxiously waiting months, I didn’t get a single score sheet for one entry. This contest increased its entry fee this year, if you can believe it. Rest assured, I will not recommend it.

Lesson: All contests are fundraisers for chapters and writing groups. Ask around to make sure you are spending your money wisely.

As you read the rules for a contest, you might notice this statement: Double-spaced, no more than 25 lines per page. Some contests literally mean you can have 25 lines on a page, which technically is not double-spaced. Others mean, double-spaced only, which is no more than 24 lines. Another lesson learned the hard way.

Upon receiving an email from a coordinator stating my pages were not double-spaced. I promptly pointed out the rules allowed up to 25 lines, highlighting the text from their website, and asked, “How can you format a double-spaced page to get 25 lines?” I never received an answer, but did change the entry. I kindly asked if they could fix the rules on their website to reflect 24 lines as it would make it easier on future contestants. A year later, they never bothered to change the rules on their website. This tells me the coordinators aren’t concerned with accuracy or making life simpler for entrants.

Lesson: Read the rules carefully and make enquiries well in advance of the deadline. If it is a well-organized contest, you will receive a response in less than a week, in most cases sooner.

Some judges will be hard, while still offering constructive feedback. Some are middle of the road, giving mediocre feedback with no comments. These judges often leave me scratching my head, wondering why a 3? One line of feedback would’ve made the difference between a useful score sheet and a waste of paper. Other judges will be nasty and cruel, hiding specks of worthy criticism in a dung heap of insults.

Lesson: Sift the chaff from the wheat in the judges’ remarks. No matter how ugly an anonymous judge may be with their remarks, don’t take it personally. Your book is a product you want to sell, not your baby, even if you love it. Prepare yourself for the contest gauntlet by coming to terms with this and try to find a glimmer of constructive criticism in every score sheet, even the ones covered in manure.

When I first started entering contests, my only objective was feedback. As I realized my writing wasn’t crap and judges actually enjoyed my work (they like me, they really like me), I decided to enter based on the final judge. Always make sure it is an agent or editor. Contests receive double points from me if both an agent and editor read your work in the finals, triple points if they throw in a bookseller.

Knowing your objective will help you determine which contests to choose. If you have your sights locked in on a small press or electronic publisher, then target those as final judges.

I wanted an agent first, so I targeted both agents and select publishers I wanted. You should not want just any agent or any editor. Do your research on Publisher’s Marketplace to find an agent or editor you hope is right for you.

By drumming up interest from an editor from a large NY publishing house, you will also receive interest from some agents. If an editor requests the full and enjoys it, this will also give you leverage in the agent hunt. Be careful when sending out your work to an editor. You only have one chance to make a good first impression.

Perhaps making the finals or winning is your only concern in order to beef up the credentials section of your query letter. Then target contests and categories with a smaller number of entries or those running low on entries. Play the numbers game. Many paranormal entries have suspense elements and the romantic suspense category is often a good choice as paranormal tends to receive lots of entries. I discovered this when I entered the WisRWA Fab Five and the paranormal category was full. The coordinator asked me if I wanted a refund or would like to try a different category. I chose romantic suspense and took second place.

Lesson: Contests are expensive. The cost of entering multiple contests adds up quickly. Don’t waste money or time entering contests that won’t meet your objectives. Know what you want before you click the yellow paypal button.

In part two, I’ll tell you my resource for finding contests, give a list of the ones I highly recommend, and share my best lesson learned. Some contests I’ve finaled in didn’t make the cut on my favorite list and others I’ve never finaled in did. Be sure to join me to find out why!


  1. Very awesome post, Isis! I've been wanting to enter some contests. Very timely.:)

  2. Isis, very sound advice. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

  3. Glad I could help. I'll be sure to let you know when I post the list :).

  4. I became disillusioned with contests a long time ago, both as an entrant and a judge. It seemed like anyone could judge your entry unworthy. I, at least took the time to use track changes to make suggestions and show repetitive words etc. so if the entry didn't final it would at least offer constructive feedback, but I love your article and would definitely like to see which contests really are worthwhile. I'll be passing on the link to this blog. :)

  5. Great blog!I'm burnt out on contests, mostly because there seemed to be no real criteria for many of them. I really hated getting the odd low score with almost NO comments (good contests ask judges to comment on lower scores). I also don't like when I final and get no feedback from the final judge. I know it's hard to convince agents and editors to comment- but even just a "here's what worked, here's what didn't" would be helpful.

    Anywho- I'm really looking forward to the rest of this blog! maybe I'll change my mind and enter something this year ;).

  6. Great tips. I've entered one contest and finaled. I've judged one contest. I would like to enter another, so I'm looking forward to your list.

    I've also judged, both for contests and awards. It's far from easy.

  7. Mysticmother ~ You are an example of a wonderful judge. Taking the time to provide substantial helpful comments is so admirable. Thanks for passing on the link :).

    Marie ~ contests have merit and you should definitely enter more. Hope my list helps figure out which ones might work for you.

    Carol ~ Like you, I've also judged contests. It's very hard and to be honest, I don't enjoy it. However, I read entries in the morning with fresh eyes and an open mind and I provide track changes like Mysticmother. I figure if I'm going to take the time to judge a contest, I should do the best job possible to help an entrant. That includes turning entries back in on time. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Isis, this is a great post. In fact, I just got some scores back today and even though I scored low, the advice and feedback were so valuable! As a new writer who joined RWA in Nov, I appreciate when every comment area is filled in. One judge even said I am a very good writer but my plot is unclear! I realise that's the MAJOR weakness and have to start the story further into the action. Introduce the hero asap, otherwise, who cares? Doh! The GH just left me bruised and wandering in selfdoubt until my skin grew back, thicker. This last contest gave me some guidance. The difference is amazing!

    Can't wait for part two. Kara

  9. Great blog! I'm on the 'Entering Contests to Build Cred' boat. Can't wait to read the second part. =)

  10. This is great information! I'm hoping to enter a contest this year so your lessons are invaluable. Anxiously awaiting Part 2!

  11. Hello Isis!

    I followed your link from the RU site. Fabulous post! I've shared many of your experiences on the contest circuit, and have my own list of contests I wouldn't recommend.

    Reading is very subjective and we have to remember that a crappy score is just one person's opinion. Some of the most useful judge's comments came from contests that I didn't final in.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  12. I've been entrant, judge, and coordinator. Entering is such an expensive crap shoot, that I no longer bother. As coordinator, I had a "nice" judge that give high marks to every entry, regardless of skill level. This necessitated the extra work of discrepancy judging which always confirmed the opinion of the other two judges. And likely confused and angered the entrant.