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Contests 101: 5 Author Takeaways


Contests bring out the best and the worst in all of us—the entrants, the judges, the agents or editors. 

As a published author and professional editor, I’ve been on the receiving and giving side of both ends of the contest spectrum. And though I often didn’t like the judges’ score, I did appreciate their gracious feedback and insightful questions.

Their feedback and score did not define me or my writing skills.

I’m still alive and well to tell about it. Like now.

This blog focuses on the author’s response to contest judges’ feedback. (Next month, I will share the judges’ side.)

As a writer with about twenty years behind me (well, twenty exploratory, learning, and professional years combined, but still counts!), and having submitted to college contests three years in a row with nothing but disappointment (and I was a writing major), and having submitted to professional contests three years in a row with nothing but confusion and tears to show for (didn’t my writing degree prove anything??), I’ll share my personal journey with you.

Five Facts about Submitting to Contests

  1. Submitting is hard.
  2. Submitting is vulnerable.
  3. Submitting is empowering.
  4. Submitting is scary.
  5. Submitting is unpredictable.

I’d like to think that these are five of many possible facts about submitting to contests.

  • Hard, because we will never know if our manuscript has been edited enough. What if we missed that comma that we didn’t know we missed? What if our dialogue doesn’t sing? What if . . .? What if someone is just a better writer than me? Oop, let’s just close the computer right now and hang it up forever.
  • Vulnerable, because someone we don’t know is going to read our precious words. Oh my gosh, that’s just too much for me. What if this judge absolutely hates my story because their uncle chased them with a scary clown mask. giving them lifetime nightmares too? Oh dear. That’ll disqualify me for sure!
  • Empowering, because to think that someone we don’t know is going to possibly, hopefully validate us is just the best thing there could ever be. That’s just pure bliss right there, and tastes richer than any mint dark chocolate bar in the whole wide world.
  • Scary, because hitting that Submit button just might seal our fate to never ever send out our work again, so we might as well just keep sipping coffee and eating dark chocolate and loving, appreciating our words, as if no one else will ever like them but us.
  • Unpredictable, because once we hit that Submit button, there is no turning back. No guarantee that a judge will agree with us. No promise that a judge will believe in us or our story.

What ebb-and-flow levels of fear we’ve created, huh?

True. If you are not inclined to submit because of these fears (yes, let’s say what they are), then you won’t follow through. If that sounds harsh, please understand that I have been in that spot before.

I didn’t follow through because I sincerely thought my manuscript idea and story was not good enough. No one would like it. The judges would give my manuscript a total score 40 and tell me I needed to enhance my characterization, my theme, my dialogue. Blah. Why enter if I was going to get that kind of rejection? Not worth it!

Ohhh, but what I didn’t realize was that submitting to contests *was worth it! Don’t believe me? That’s okay. You’re not inclined to; but if you’ll stick with me to the end, I’ll share five things authors can takeaway from submitting to contests . . .

Contests 101: Five Author Takeaways

  1. Submitting is easy.
  2. Submitting is protection.
  3. Submitting is discouraging.
  4. Submitting is empowering.
  5. Submitting is predictable.

I know, I know. Oxymoron, but we’re doing a switch on the “fear” words from the five facts about submitting to contests.

  • Easy. This might sound confusing or intriguing. When we dash the fear that submitting is hard, submitting then becomes easy. Not necessarily easy in the act of hitting that Submit button, but easy in knowing that whatever happens, it’s easy to let go and trust God and the powers that be.
  • Protection. Mmm, yes. Protection. Most contests have strong guidelines for their judges (or they should! If you’re unsure, then take the power plunge and query them for judges’ guidelines or qualifications). This creates a sense of protection for the entrants because the judge knows what they’re looking for and will have your story’s best interest at heart.
  • Discouraging. This is a heavy word, but it’s truth here. You may not get a good score when the results come in. That’s life. That’s reality. That’s discouraging. However, if the judge behaved objectively (as they should), then their comments will be comforting, encouraging, and empowering. You’ll know what to do next time! Isn’t that encouraging?
  • Empowering. And sometimes you’ll get a great score on one score sheet. Yay! Go you! Or maybe you’ll receive a personalize comment from a judge who discloses their name and email address, specifically telling you to contact them when you’ve made changes. Ooo! (Now, they’re generally not supposed to, but in the faith-based market, judges are also sometimes editors, so they know a good story when they see one; and often reach out to help authors who show promise—in the hopes that the author will one day impress and agent or publishing board.) How cool is that?
  • Predictable. Hmm, this one is interesting, because it’s kinda like gambling, isn’t it? I say submitting is predictable because if you have done your due diligence and gotten good solid feedback on your manuscript before submitting . . . meaning, you have had encouragement from a trusted source (published author, skilled editor), then chances are, you’ll have great results after hitting that Submit button.

And, who knows? You might even place in the contest, like one of my author-clients did!

Above all, each judge should view your manuscript through the eyes of grace. If they don’t, then please by all means, you’re free to chuck their advice. Grace given is a valuable and precious gift.

So, my writer-friend, don’t bemoan when submitting to contests. Exercise due diligence. Find out what your manuscript needs *before you submit. Most often, this includes reaching out to a trusted and experienced editor who knows what they’re looking for and who can give you the best overall critique advice for your story—in hopes of getting great feedback on that story submission.

If you’re worried about the cost, it’s usually not much. The cost of a critique is basically the same cost as a cup of coffee—-in general terms of experience. Both prices and experiences are just right.

So . . . are YOU submitting this season? Let me know in the comments!

We’re into the submission season. There are still open contests out there!

4 thoughts on “Contests 101: 5 Author Takeaways

  1. Great post, and I can identify with the scary part. I’ve been doing it thirty-plus years but only until recently have I submitted to a contest. Why? Because it was scary for the reasons you mentioned.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Jack. Wow, thank you for writing for as long as you have. Looking forward to seeing your stories!

  2. I have to admit I’ve been submitting to contests for a lot of years. For a long time it was like letting the wind take the money right out of my hand never to see any results at all. It took many critiques, editing and re-writes before I ever finalled in a contest. Now I think of it as a learning experience. The feedback from being a finalist brings knowledge, and knowledge is learning and therefore good. Never stop learning!

    1. Absolutely!! What encouraging words! Thanks for sharing, and all the best to you in those contests!

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