Notes From a Writing Contest Judge
Many authors get their start by entering writing contests – either for the experience or just because of the added push a win or placement gives to their ego. Other writers find them intimidating, unsure if they have what it takes simply because they don’t know what to expect. So who better to give us the rundown on writing contests than Anne Loveet – a published author who doubles as a writing contest judge herself?
I like to “give back” to the organizations that help me in my writing journey, and one way is to be a contest judge. This year, I’ve judged for the Golden Heart, the Daphne du Maurier contest, and our local RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter contest, the Maggies. I’ve seen the gamut from wonderful manuscripts ready to publish to a few I could barely get through.
Have questions about writing contests and judging? Here are some answers.
Why enter a writing contest?
Here are a few great reasons:
- Get feedback from more experienced writers, usually published writers.
- Have a chance at getting your manuscripts in front of the agents and editors who often serve as final judges for unpublished contests.
- Lists of winners are published in newsletters, websites, and social media which help in getting your name out there.
- If you should happen to final or win, that can give any author a huge boost of confidence.
My novel Rubies from Burma was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers competition, and though I didn’t win, the amazing feedback encouraged me to publish. The novel was named one of the best 100 Indie books of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews.
Where can I find writing contests?
Everywhere! Here are a few examples:
- If you’re a romance writer, RWA publishes a list of ongoing contests in its chapter magazine and online.
- Contests are listed in writing magazines such as Writer’s Digest, which holds a huge annual contest for all types of writing.
- Many writing newsletters list contests.
- Poets & Writers, the magazine for more literary types, lists contests for that genre.
- The Daphne du Maurier awards, from the Kiss of Death Chapter of RWA, are for mystery and romantic suspense.
- Local writers’ organizations also often have contests.
- And many more can be found just be googling “writing contests”.
When can I enter?
It really depends on the contest. Many times, writing contests open in January and February and end in May or June so the contest coordinators and judges have the summer to work. Individual contests will list their deadlines on their website and when you can expect to hear back.
What do I send?
Again, this is likely contest specific but usually they ask for about 25-50 pages and a synopsis of two or three pages. For contests for published writers, send the whole book. Some contests will not accept e-copies, but more and more are doing so. Be prepared to send out 3-5 print copies.
What does it cost?
Depends on the contest but the ones I’ve judged typically had entrance fees that varied from $25 to $75, and the published writers must bear the cost of the books and postage.
Believe me, it takes a lot of work to run a writing contest, and without the fees, there would be no contest.
What can I expect from the judging?
That also varies. Some have a list of writing skills that they judge numerically; for instance, they give points for punctuation and spelling, for whether the first sentence is a grabber, and so forth. Other contests prefer to have the judge concentrate more on the storytelling and give an overall grade for its being a good read. The Maggie contest of the Georgia Romance Writers is of the latter type, and will send back the entries with judges’ remarks.
How can I impress the judges?
- Have your manuscript be the best it can be before you send it in. Have your writing group or beta readers go over it. I have seen a number of mistakes in entries that should have been easily spotted by a knowledgeable reader (or listener). Beta readers are great!
- Be sure spelling and punctuation are correct. Machines are no substitute for human eyes. If a judge finds he/she is tempted to do a lot of copyediting in the first few lines, this leaves a bad impression, no matter how wonderful your story is.
- Double-check your names to make sure they are consistent throughout the manuscript. If writing history, make sure historical names are ones used during your time period.
- Writing paranormal doesn’t mean you can suspend the rules of storytelling. Nuff said.
- Make sure your facts are correct. The very thing you try to slip by will somehow mysteriously be judged by an expert in the field. The city you mistakenly describe may wind up in the hands of somebody who lives there. Slipshod French will end up with a judge who’s just finished the Duolingo course.
- Use a good opening sentence. Whatever you do, don’t start with a dream or with your main character waking up. You’ve likely heard these warnings before, but judges are still seeing them.
- The right place to start is when something happens, not with what comes before. Plunging through a thicket of backstory will make even the most even-tempered judge grumpy, and you don’t want a grumpy judge. They will tell you to weave the backstory in gradually. Literary writers have a little more leeway, but they count on fine writing to keep the reader’s attention.
- Don’t confuse the judge. Here’s another reason for a beta reader or writing group – they can tell you when anything you’ve written confuses them. You know what’s in your head, what you meant to say, but the judge doesn’t.
- Be sure to use all five senses. Too much time in front of a movie or TV screen can make a new writer forget that to immerse a reader in your story, you need to provide smells and sounds, textures and colors. Readers can’t see scenery and surroundings until you put them on the page. Pages of mainly dialogue will be judged accordingly.
- Different judges have different quirks. Some want more emotion, some want better sentence structure, some are mavens of good plotting. That’s why there are usually at least three judges.
- Send your entry to the right writing contests! Don’t be so eager to have somebody, anybody read your work that you send your saga featuring Native American mysticism in the desert to a romance contest.
All that being said, the writing is yours. Some judges will tell you their opinions about what constitutes good writing and a good story, and some will tell you what their editors have said to them. One size does not fit all, though. One judge will love your story just like it is, and another will mark it up with countless notes. (I speak from experience).
Of course, as the author you determine what to do with any of the feedback you get back. A good rule of thumb is to pay the closest attention to comments and issues mentioned by more than one judge. These are the remarks to take the most seriously – and that actually applies to any feedback your writing gets – whether from writing contest judges, beta readers or reviewers.
Alternatively, if a single judge wants to rearrange all your sentences while all the other judges think they’re fine, you can take those notes with a grain of salt.
Some writers get so attached to “writing rules” that the means (which is to communicate clearly) become the end (anybody who doesn’t conform to these rules is a bad writer). Writing to one person’s standards may mute your voice, and your voice is what makes your writing unique.