Why Bother With Writing Contests?

What’s the point of writing contests? Can they really help a writer’s career? Or are they just a waste of time and money?

I asked myself those questions recently as I evaluated whether to enter The Preacher’s Bride into contests. There are plenty of contests for both unpublished and published authors. Writer’s Digest has several throughout the year. Romance Writers of America has numerous contests both national and chapter. Amazon even has one: Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest (deadline Feb. 6).

Most contests for published authors require the book to have a copyright of the preceding year, usually the author’s most recent release. Because the copyright on The Preacher’s Bride is 2010, my book is now eligible for 2011 contests. Most contests for unpublished authors simply require the first 15-30 pages of a manuscript. Some don’t even require that the book be completed.

Each contest usually has a fee of anywhere between $25-$40 (sometimes higher). And published authors must send in three to five copies of their books for the judges.

But what benefits are there? Why bother?

Of course, everyone entering a contest hopes for a final which can help a writer’s career in many different ways. The Preacher’s Bride finaled in the Genesis Contest for unpublished writers which helped me land my agent and subsequent book contract.

So, yes, finaling is an obvious benefit. There may not always be monetary prizes, but the recognition alone is well worth it. Finals, and especially winning, can help propel writing careers forward for both unpublished and published writers.

But not everyone will final. In fact out of those who enter, only a small percentage final. So does that mean contests end up being a waste of time and money for the majority of those who enter?

Are there other benefits contests can offer writers? Here are a few of my thoughts:

Benefits of contests for the Unpublished:

1. Inexpensive way to get objective feedback: I adamantly believe every writer needs to get outside feedback (meaning beyond family or friends) before pursuing publication. Freelance editors are a viable option, but often cost-prohibitive. Contests, on the other hand, can be (but not always) a way to get some initial objective feedback.

2. Learn how to handle negative feedback: Usually contests have a panel of judges who look at each entry. It’s highly unlikely that all the judges will find nothing wrong with a manuscript. Learning how to decipher feedback and getting criticism (some even hard) is all part of the process of growing as a writer.

3. Compare our skill level with others in our genre: Most contests have a point system and rank skill level in a variety of areas. This can be a good way to see where we fall in the “pack.” Lower to average numbers may indicate that we’re still very much in the beginning of the learning stages. Higher numbers could mean our skill level is nearing publication readiness (although not always).

Benefits of contests for the Published:
(My critique partner, Keli Gwyn, gave me these points when I asked her for advice.)

1. Gain new readers: Our judges may become fans and talk up our book to others.

2. Cost-effective marketing: A contest entry fee is a lot less than an ad but can get our name in front of a number of people and is a tax deductible business expense.

A few cautions for Unpublished when entering contests:

1. Confusion: Contest judges are subjective (just like everyone else). We need to be at a place in our writing careers where we already have confidence in our voice and skill level so that we can wade through the opinions and advice without losing ourselves.

2. Entering too soon in our writing careers: Judges need to be honest (as well as kind). When we’re too new in our writing, even tactful feedback can seem overwhelming and too critical. Such feedback has the potential to damage the fledgling confidence of newer writers who might be better off waiting until they’ve grown more before entering the contest circuit.

3. Focusing too much on the contest entry and not enough on the entire book. Anyone can spiff up the first chapter or two for a contest. It takes infinitely more work and skill to get the rest of the book just as polished. I’ve seen too many writers spend far too much time focusing on their contest entries, but they aren’t able to back up that entry with a viable, saleable book.

So what’s your opinion about contests? Are they largely a waste of money for the majority of writers who don’t final? Or do you think there are benefits even to writers who don’t final? If so, what?


  1. I don't think they're a waste of money if they're chosen wisely. All your and Keli's points above are great. There's a couple of contests I'm thinking of entering this year. I def. think you should enter Preacher's Bride in something!

  2. I agree with Jessica. Contests can have benefits. I've considered entering my MS in one, but I worry that I'm too early in my career...

  3. I'm thinking aboit the Genesis contest this year. The feedback for me would be a huge reward.

    Great points here Jody, as always!

  4. I've written a post about my experience with entering contests, but I'm not publishing it until May...when the results for Genesis come out. I want to encourage those who didn't final, because I know how discouraging it can feel. But hey - I entered Genesis the first year, didn't final, but got an agent. Entered it the second year, didn't final, and got a book contract. Just because you don't final doesn't mean you won't go places.

    But I still think they are worth long as you know how to measure the feedback. Not all judges are created equal.Rachelle had an awesome post several months ago about how to measure feedback. Chalk full of wisdom.

  5. I don't enter too many. There aren't as many contests for writers for children that offer feedback. They just announce winners 10 months later. But I have yet to find one with feedback as part of it. That would be worth it.

  6. You know me, I can learn from anything. I do think it's worth it to enter. As an unpublished writer you can learn a lot about taking feedback and applying valuable critique to your work.

    ~ Wendy

  7. I love contests and enter, but not as many as I should.

    Great points and advice.


  8. Thank you for this post, it has some great points. When I very first started writing I tried to crank out some work for a local writing contest. It was a good experience even though I cringe now at how raw and immature my writing was. It was nice to have some feedback to work with.
    I've also known some authors who are now on the best seller list who laugh at the fact they NEVER won any contest they entered.
    I guess the moral here is take away from it what you can, but don't think if you never win you can't make it as a writer:)

  9. I entered two contests this year. Though I am still waiting on the feedback from the second one, I feel the first one was very beneficial.

    The judges provided very specific suggestions. They were honest and firm. I will admit it stung at first, but I took some time to cry then read it again and included the suggestions for my next entry.

    The best advice someone gave me about contest was "take what you can use and ignore the rest."

  10. Good morning, everyone!

    Kara and Katie brought up excellent points. Just because a writer doesn't final, doesn't mean that particular story isn't workable. The same way a rejection by an agent shouldn't define us and our work either. Of course it should be put together with all of the various feedback that we're getting.

    Dawn said: "take what you can use and ignore the rest." It's sometimes hard to know what we can use and what to ignore. I always suggest looking for consistencies among the feedback.

  11. I entered my first novel in a contest - having a deadline made me get down to it and actually write a complete novel. Also, it was free to enter. My reasoning was that, worst case scenario, at the end of it I would have a completed book which would be physical proof that I am capable of completing a manuscript. Even if nothing comes of it I'll give it another couple of months while I write my next novel and then go back to it, edit if necessary, see if I can submit it anywhere...

  12. It's good to be back here again Jody. Congratulations of your new book!

  13. This is really great-- I never realized there were contests for published authors... I always assumed they were for unpublished. I think you should enter The Preachers Bride... it's great!

  14. I'm a firm believer in the value of contests. In the early stages of my writing journey, I gained valuable feedback from the preliminary round judges, which helped me identify the areas where my writing was weak and needed work.

    As my writing improved and I began to final, my focus shifted to getting my work in front of final round judges. I entered contests with agents and editors with whom I would like to work. One of the final round judges who requested my full was my Dream Agent, who offered me representation as a direct result of the contest.

    I'll be sharing more of my thoughts about contests and the role they played in my journey from first story to first contract in a guest post at The Writers Alley tomorrow--and giving away a copy of a great book: The Preacher's Bride. =)

  15. Right now, the money thing is a turn off for me, but that's because I have student loans to pay and we're saving for a house. But now that I really think about it, it's probably worth it considering the payoffs you get from entering. I think contests are a good thing, and it'd be cool to enter one some time!

  16. Hi, Jody:

    I love your posts and often Tweet them. Just want to let you know that your Twitter share button doesn't work.

    Thanks for all the excellent writing info you offer your readers.

  17. Thanks for the eye-opening post. I had no idea that there were contests for published works. And you raise some excellent points about why contests aren't a waste of time and effort. Thanks for the very useful lesson!

  18. Hi Lynette! Thanks for the heads-up on my Twitter button! Not sure what's going on, but hope to get it fixed soon!

  19. When i was just starting out, I had nothing to put on my query letter bio. Absolutely nothing. Unless little articles published in our local bee newspaper when I was in high school counted. S I entered a flash fiction contest online. And I placed top 10! Then I entered a few others and placed in those too. My stories were published on the website and I had something to put in my bio. That was so worth the entrance fees!!

    I haven't thought of entering my published work in a contest! I'll have to give it some thought! Thanks!

  20. I have entered six contests. Four for short story and two for novels. I won two of the short story contest and both were added to anthologies and one of the novel contests.

  21. I've entered a few contests and believe they were worth it. I got objective feedback. Also, since I carefully chose the contests, I didn't feel they were a waste of money.

  22. I think the value of contests depends on what you want to get out of it. I enter based on whom I'm trying to impress as a final ending judge. Still, entering doesn't guarantee me that I'll get to the final judge but it's my best shot at the moment.

    I did make a few finals last year. However, one of the most compelling comments I got in a contest last year was in one where I didn't final. A judge wrote on my manuscript that she had "read my entry in another contest a year prior and wondered why I'd removed such-and-such part."

    In my thank-you letter, I told her why. (The section had been moved to later in the book.) It made me feel good, though, to know that I'd written something so memorable.

  23. I honestly had not thought of entering my published books into contests. What was I thinking? Now to hunt down some contest. Thanks!

  24. I've entered a few contests in the past. I liked getting feedback on my writing from people who didn't know me at all.

  25. I've finalled in four contests now, but they weren't ones that offered feedback. I wish they had, but to final at all suggested to me that my writing is on the right track. Even when we don't final or win, just going through the discipline of preparing a ms for submission is a valuable exercise -- polishing, preparing emotionally for sending our babies off to be scrutinized, following guidelines -- these are all good preparation for our pursuit of publication.

  26. Hi Jody -

    I agree that contests are a valuable tool in the writer's kit.

    Last year, I entered the Genesis. The feedback showed me where I needed improvement and at the same time encouraged me.

    Susan :)

  27. Generous sharing and kind advise on this topic. I don't know how you find the time but I am glad you do.


  28. Thanks for sharing and your advice! I follow your blogs and must say you offer a lot of substance. I have definitely learned a lot.

  29. Carol, You brought up another really great benefit! And that is growing in professionalism. The process of entering contests is definitely practice on how to polish our work and get it ready for the world to see! We'll have to do that with our books someday, so any practice we can get will help.

  30. Hi, Jody,

    I think contest are very helpful. I had just completed my first book and entered into ABNA 2010. I was such a fledgling but I had a desire to get my novel read. Surprisingly I made it through the pitch round.

    At the time I was excited, but I didn't think much of it. I learned differently after I was dropped in the next round. The support I received from other writers was incredible.

    I received my reviews. I was crushed. I wasn't ready for them. Although not horrible, I took offense. In time I learned. After a year of edits, I am still learning and honing my craft.

    I enter contest as often as I can and I have became a finalist in two. I am thrilled that after two years of writing I am getting some recognition. It's a start.

    Contests are the best way to learn. There are many contests that are less expensive and free, if you do your research. I say stick with the contests.


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  34. I've been wondering the same thing lately. After spending countless hours trying to make the first 15 pages of my novel ready for Genesis, I realized that the first 15 pages of another WIP were more "contest friendly."

    It had seemed silly to edit my novel to better fit the contest, which is why I was questioning whether or not the process would be valuable. Now that I see how my WIP is a better entry without as many edits, I think I'll try my hand with it, even though it's not complete.

  35. Great post about comments, and insightful comments about the post:) I think contests are exciting and one way for self-motivation-deprived writers to shoot for a goal/deadline.

    I agree that sometimes the costs can seem prohibitive, so my advice is to set it up in your budget AND look for no-fee contests. I procrastinate by looking for contests, so now I share them in my newsletter (fee and no-fee contests, and calls for submissions as well). I can't write to them all, lol!


  36. All great points. Never considered the marketing/tax deductible aspect. Hmmm...I'll have to wait until next year, but I'll keep this in mind.

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