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3 Ways Writers Can Make the Most of Contests

I whole-heartedly endorse writing contests. As most of you know, last year I finaled in a national contest, and the recognition helped propel my writing career forward. As a result of the final, I acquired an agent and four months later she sold my book.

I think we can all agree that writing contests offer many advantages:

• Contests are a fairly inexpensive way to get feedback.
• Contests force us to focus on our openings and make them shine.
• Contests can help us gauge where we’re at in relation to other writers in our genre.
• Sometimes contests can get our work before editors and agents who often judge the final rounds.

By all means, enter contests. When I was trying to decide whether to enter the Genesis, my mother told me, “What do you have to lose by entering this year?” I decided I had nothing to lose if I entered. In fact I had everything to gain.

But. . . I’ve also seen unpublished writers who enter contest after contest, year after year. Some of them even final in the contests. Sometimes more than one. But they don’t make much progress forward in their writing careers, or at least that I can see.

That begs the question: What good is a contest to a writer, if we don’t use it to move us forward in our writing careers?

How then, can writers make the most of writing contests?

1. Take to heart the feedback and use it to improve. Yes, the critiques are often hard to swallow. I’m a judge this year for the Genesis, and I’m giving a lot of feedback on each entry (more specifics in the next post). Overall, my goal is not to tear stories apart, but to help writers grow.

Writers shouldn’t rush to change everything based on a judge’s feedback. However, when it comes to the basics of fiction-writing, there’s really no arguing—we need to be open to the advice and let it push us to the next level.

2. Polish the first pages, but make sure the story is solid. Have an editor or critique partner read through the entry before submitting it. Make sure the first pages are as polished as can be. After all, those are the pages we’ll likely send in a query, and we want them to be able to grab the attention of an agent someday.

Don’t stop there. Make sure the rest of the novel is just as superb. In one of the entries I judged, the writer hooked me with his/her first chapter. But when I read the synopsis, I wasn’t impressed with the direction the rest of the story took. No matter how good the writing in the first chapter is, if the rest of the book doesn’t follow suit, we’ll likely have a hard time garnering interest.

3. Do everything possible to capitalize on a final. First and foremost, writers should finish their books before entering or make sure they’re well on track to finish before the final round of judging begins. I’ve seen too many finalists unable to take advantage of a prestigious final because the book wasn’t completed.

A final is a good opportunity to follow-up with agents/editors who might have the manuscript or to send out queries mentioning the final (only if the contest is a national contest that most agents/editors would recognize). After I finaled I made sure I notified Rachelle who had my full in her slush pile.

In other words, be smart, savvy, and strategic. A contest can only benefit a writer to the extent that the writer works at it.

What about you? Have you entered any contests lately? How are you trying to make the most of the contest? What other words of wisdom do you have for writers entering contests?

52 comments:

  1. I think you covered it really well. I haven't entered any contests lately, mostly because of money. Actually, I did just enter one at Novelmatters and there's an agent who's reading the finalists, so that'll be interesting.

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  2. Hey Jody. I adore contests. I enter everything relevant especially if they offer critiques. The best I have done is 6th place. I'd say that is alright :)

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  3. I got loads of helpful feedback last year and took the feedback to heart. I changed some stuff around in my story, which I pitched at the conference, which led to representation!

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  4. I entered 2 contests this year because I wanted some feedback. The story is finished, just not edited completely. Being my first story, I entered to further my writing education. I wanted feedback to help me grow as a writer and I'm hoping I learn a lot...no matter how painful it might be! :)

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  5. I'm not at the point in my writing to enter any contests (my novels still need much work and polishing, and I still have a lot to learn about the craft of writing), but once I feel more confident in my writing, I may try a few contests. It'd probably be good for me :)

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  6. Last weekend, I spoke at the conference where I'd won the novel-excerpt contest a year before. It was pretty amazing to be on the other side of the podium, sharing about all that has happened to that story in the last year.

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  7. Thanks Jody,
    I have entered two contests and did not even place but it was good to hear feedback. Now I can take that feedback and improve. Thanks for the tips. They are very helpful.

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  8. I've entered a number of national and regional short story and poetry contests over the years. I got short listed several times, and came in third once. I've pretty much stopped since getting gainfully employed.

    If I had one bit of advice to give, asides from writing well, it would be to target your writing fro the contest (maybe more applicable for short fiction and poetry)... provided your objective is winning.
    For example, in a contest organized by shoah survivors, I wrote a story paralleling the uncertainty a Jewish mother had of her child coming home safely, and that of a mother in neighborhood plagued by violence and crime of having her child. Not belittling either but using the parallel to help people from our time feel and empathize with what it meant to be Jewish at that point in time... It was well received (my best performance in contests), and earned me a small prize and giant stack of depressing books.

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  9. Amen to all of this Jody. I have worked on competitions in the recent past and for the first time this year I am running my own (right here: http://www.thecreativeidentity.com/the-creative-identity/competition.html ). I am always flabbergasted (no, make that shocked), when writers reply to feedback in really aggressive tones, as if whoever is judging a competition takes great personal pleasure in squeezing out comments even when a piece of beyond repair (and there are lots of those around).

    I am currently sieving through the entries and I've got writers who scatter punctuation across the page like confetti (I mean things such as ...................................... or .;: no joke) and many others who take no notice of the submission guidelines. Writing contests, no matter how small they may appear, are still a great opportunity where to make an impression and, most importantly, where to learn to present one's own work professionally. We should all capitalise on them.

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  10. I totally agree!! I think many writer's spend their time polishing those first few chapters for the writing contests, however don't polish the rest of the book nearly as well. A good sign of that is if you're finaling in contests and getting requests from agents... but then always ending in rejection.

    I've yet to final in a contest... but haven't entered THAT many. I did Genesis and TBL last year, and GH in December. I'm doing Genesis and TBL this year... so keeping my fingers and toes crossed.

    However, I've gotten GREAT feedback when I have entered contests, and pretty decent scores too even though I didn't final. I'm most interested in seeing if I've "improved" my writing/scores this year over last.

    My advice: Take the feedback to heart, but remember it's subjective. I had one judge I completely disagreed with and pretty much discarded her feedback because it was obviously not accurate (given the other feedback I was given) But then I had others who offered excellent suggestions, and my writing is much better for it.

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  11. I really appreciate the feedback I get from contests. I've done a few and that alone is worth the money:)

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  12. I have yet to find a contest for writers of children's books that offer feedback on the entries. I agree that would be worth it. I enter the SCBWI work in progress grants because it's free. Other contests can be 20 dollars with no feedback. I'm not willing to do that. It's too much a shot in the dark.

    And then a lot of contests are based on YA instead of middle grade. So it's harder for me to find national contests.

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  13. I've entered the Genesis, and am fighting like crazy to polish the rest of my manuscript before those results come out.

    Feedback from three unbiased judges was invaluable from a contest I entered last fall. The suggestions prompted me to rewrite several of my beginning scenes and my entire opening is much stronger.

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  14. I find it interesting reading the comments that everyone seems to be getting feedback on their pieces when they take part in contests. I have never gotten feedback, maybe it isn't the custom where I lived at the time (France).

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  15. I've entered a few. Hoping to continue to grow as a writer. I think you mentioned a key point, that almost always judges will be trying to help us improve and are making comments/suggestions toward that end.
    ~ Wendy

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  16. I've entered a contest and finaled, actually gainting an editor's attention I'd been trying to get for over a year. She even wanted to read a partial and synopsis of my story.

    So, I whole-heartedly endorse contest entering too. Plus, you do get lots of unbiased feedback.

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  17. Excellent post, Jody. I agree wholeheartedly. Contests are also a great way to gauge the "readiness" of your book and gain impartial feedback. I'm currently in the quarterfinals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards contest, and in this round Publisher's Weekly is reading and reviewing all manuscripts. That's as good as a grand prize to me. And if such things can be gained simply through making the quarterfinals, I'd say it's definitely worth it to enter.

    Plus, a little anxious anticipation adds an exciting flavor to daily life!

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  18. Great post. This year was the first time I entered any contests. As I mentioned in a previous comment, I placed first in one and am currently a finalist in another, so I've had some luck. My full is with the editor I need it to be now, so I'm hoping it will push me over that edge to getting a sale.

    So obviously, I am pro contest. I think even if you don't place, the feedback can be so helpful. The RWA chapters put on great contests all year long and usually provide detailed notes, so I definitely recommend them. And almost all of them have editors or agents as final judges.

    But I absolutely agree with your advice that you should have a finished, polished book before you enter because you don't want to blow the chance at a request if one of the editors/agents is interested.

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  19. Great advice! Thanks for sharing it. Have a wonderful day:)

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  20. I entered Genesis. Then I noticed after I did about 50 proof reads and finally sent it off that I went from Chapter One to Chapter FOUR (shoulda been Two) on my entry. *slaps forehead and leaves handprint*. My hopes for finaling are slowly draining because if I were a judge that would make me the contester wasn't good at paying attention to detail. Which I'm not. Ugh.
    May I add - when you're being SAVVY at entering a contest - GET A PROOFREADER?!?!?! :) :) :)

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  21. I've only entered one contest and was a finalist. I guess I should consider this venue more seriously. Great advice, Jody. Thanks.Karen

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  22. Great post. The only contest I ever entered on a large scale was the North Writers where I submitted the first 5000 words. I didn't get the best feedback but I had far from finished the book.

    CJ xx

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  23. You have offered helpful insight here. Thank you Jody.

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  24. Know your story and trust your gut. Sometimes the judge who ripped your work apart has less experience than you do. Unfortunately, most of the time, there's no way of knowing this, so you just have to go with your gut. If whatever the judge says makes sense to you or it's something you've heard before, then make the changes. Otherwise, hold off and see if those comments come up again from someone else.

    Great post.

    Lynnette Labelle
    http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

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  25. Jody, you make some great and very helpful point--especially for unpublished writers.

    I've never entered manuscript pages in a contest before until the Genesis contest (this year) and I really wish I had taken the opportunity to do so. I really think it would have helped me grow more as a writer.

    That's great you're a judge for the contest this year. I am really looking forward to the feedback and how it can help my writing journey.

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  26. I haven't entered one yet, but I'm putting a goal of 2011 for a contest. What are some of the contests out there that you can suggest?

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  27. I haven't entered a contest lately but have received some good feedback in the past. I totally agree that it's good to be ready to capitalize on a contest. I won a contest sponsored by the Alaska Writers Guild and even though it's not a national contest it was another writing credit, and another indication telling me that my book was ready to query.

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  28. I have. I've entered both the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award contest and Genesis. I managed to place in quaterfinals for the ABNA, which is a culling from 10K participants down to 500. Next week there's another elimination round. The Genesis is new to me and I'm equally excited. I think it's a great thing for unpubbed writers. There's a lot of waiting in our world and this fills up the gaps nicely. =)

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  29. Jody, I agree with you that contests are a great way to get noticed, even if a contestant is just longlisted and not in the top three postions, it is still extremely prestigious.
    I have often seen in India that many of the winners get taken by publishers seriously and bag book deals after they have won a contest or two.
    Rachna's Scriptorium
    But then, many disappear, as though they were just a flash in the pan. That is sad, I feel bad that they were unable to utilize that exposure to the maximum.

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  30. Great post, Jody! I entered only two contests -- Surrey Int'l Writers' Conference Contests -- and finaled in both, but they weren't for novels and neither offered feedback. Knowing I had finaled provided encouragement but nothing else. The benefit was limited to polishing mss and learning the discipline of the process.

    I believe there are also contests that are not so reputable... ones that are mostly money-makers for the officials and are less than useful to the contestants. I think it's important to choose wisely both the contests to enter and the advice to take.

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  31. I've never entered a contest but it's crossed my mind. Now I know to really think it through before entering and make sure I get the most out of it. Thanks for these tips!

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  32. I keep waiting for you to run out of ideas. And you keep coming up with such good helpful stuff!

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  33. I've always been kind of scared of writing contests, but because of all your encouragement, I'm going to finally get up the nerve to enter one or two this year. Thanks!

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  34. I haven't submitted to any contests because I'm always worried they're sketchy. I don't know how to discern whether they're reputable or not. I'd love to see you dedicate a post to finding worthwhile contests - your posts are always so thorough & helpful.

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  35. Contests must be a popular topic, since some of my favorite blogs are all discussing the same thing.

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  36. This will be my first year to enter a contest. I've only been writing now for about 16 months.

    Entered Genesis this year, and am entering the Arkansas Writers Conference too.

    The blank Scoresheet for Genesis, believe it or not, was an instructional document for me. It was after I submitted that I read it, and I could see a lot of things I should improve in my submission.

    Hoping I get some good feedback (constructive crit) from both contests - they each have a different novel.

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  37. You made so many good points. There don't seem to be as many contests for PB's and chapter books, and I'm not as aggressive as I should/could be about digging them up. Your post makes me want to take better advantage, especially since I DO have a finished manuscript. thanks. :-)

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  38. Very good info, Jody. As always. Where do you find the time to write these lovely posts? They should be a book in themselves. Call it, "Help! I'm a writer! What now?"

    I entered a humor contest but didn't make even honorable mention. Alas, there was no feedback, so I don't know what I did wrong. I'd love to have some tips to help me improve.

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  39. I'm just beginning to explore entering contests (as a memoirist, creative nonfiction writer). As always, your words are very helpful.

    I know that any work I do submit for publication gets read by two or three of my most trusted readers before it leaves my hands.

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  40. What an awesome post!!!! I think this is a great learning experience for me and I am so glad I stopped by, I always love lurking over at your blog!!!

    I haven't finished my novel, correction I haven't revised which is why I haven't done a contest, however I am really considering it!!

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  41. I've not entered any contests...and now I think I really should. As for feedback. I "love" it when I get feedback like, "I don't like the ending." Hmm, and what exactly is it about the ending you don't like? lol.

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  42. You give solid advice. Unpublished writers keep being told to have a polished, completed manuscript. But often, we think it's shinier than it is. I guess that why beta readers and critique groups are invaluable to help us locate the flaws that we don't see.

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  43. Jody, I find the concept of contests interesting, especially regarding books. I've entered many contests for my newspaper and magazine articles, but this is a whole other matter entirely, and you're really the person who got me taking note of contests. Having seen how it propelled you forward, I definitely see the advantages. I don't know that there are equivalent contests in the genres in which I write, but it's worth checking into.

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  44. CMOM asked: What are some of the contests out there that you can suggest?

    My Answer: That's a great questions and will partly depend on what genre you're writing. Since I write historical romance, I looked for contests mainly through RWA (Romance Writers of America) and then also ACFW. Writer's Digest also sponsors contests.

    I've had several other people ask about contests and where to find them and it might be worth a future post! Thank you!

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  45. Thanks for the informative post, Jody! I entered my first big writing contest this year (the one through Amazon) and I think it's been a great experience so far. I only wish I had spent more time polishing the manuscript before I sent it in (it was fresh from NaNoWriMo and I got too excited about the contest) but I will keep this advice in mind for the future. Great story, how encouraging!

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  46. Contests have served me well. I entered a number of contests two years ago and learned heaps from the preliminary judges' comments. I spent time studying craft and learning to incorporate the suggestions I'd received. I rewrote one of my manuscripts last year and entered it in several contests to see if my writing had improved. The entry fared far better than I'd dared to dream and led to an offer of representation from my Dream Agent who was one of my final round judges.

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  47. I stopped in to brag that I won some contests lately, but mine were winning books--not writing contests, so darn. :(

    I don't enter many contests because I figure I don't stand a chance, but maybe I need to try a few.

    Great post!

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  48. Well, Karen, that's perfectly true - if you don't enter, you don't stand a chance! :-)

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  49. I agree! As writers grow, our criteria for entering a contest should change. Initially, we should look for contests that offer detailed feedback sheets. When our craft improves, we should enter contests where the final judge is an agent or editor we'd love to have.

    And I couldn't agree with you more on having the book finished!

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  50. These are great points. I entered one and came close to being a finalist. The feedback was right on, and in fact, I had made some of the changes they suggested before they suggested them :)

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  51. My entry into the only contest I've ever attempted was a finalist, but a 511-word flash fiction wasn't really going to propel my writing anywhere in that regard. It was the basis for a regular short story and now my novel, "Dying Light", which is coming out in July, so I can't complain. But since I have been writing the novel and doing all the other things associated with getting it out there, I haven't really had a chance to do any other writing. I'll get back to it, I suppose. Plus I have a host of other short stories I should take a shot at sometime. I'll look around and see. I think I have a few that should get to the finals, if I do say so myself.

    The question then is how does one transform this near win into a personal win?

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  52. I'm looking forward to your future post on contests available to writers Jody! :) Thanks for answering my question.

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