Wednesday, February 2, 2011

MGOC Extra Essay: Entering Writing Contests - Why? by Kaye Dacus

There’s a lot of discussion going on these days about entering writing contests—what sometimes gets lost in all the freneticism (is that a word?) of preparing an entry for a contest is the reason why one enters the contest in the first place.

I’ve mentioned before that I entered my first unpublished-author contest in 2002 (What Matters Most, my first complete manuscript into the Noble Theme contest at the first-ever ACRW conference). I hadn’t planned to enter, but then, the night before the postmarked-by deadline, I felt God urging me to enter. So I did. I was afraid that if I entered, I would get sick to my stomach, that I would regret it as soon as I handed that flat-rate envelope over to the postal worker. But I didn’t. I actually felt good about sending it. I received an Honorable Mention certificate that year . . . probably because there were only a few entries, so they decided to give us all something. :-) Because when I look back at it now, it sure wasn’t worth mentioning. But the feedback I received from the two judges was invaluable and helped me so much on certain aspects of my writing—tightening my POV, showing not telling, fully developing my characters, and making sure each scene is important to the movement of the story.

I entered two manuscripts the next year (2003): The Best Laid Plans (follow-up novel to What Matters Most) and Love Remains. Neither finaled. The feedback was a little less "honorable mention" and a little more "you can do better than this—and here’s how." Those were a little harder to take, but, after a few weeks, I really gleaned a lot from them.

In 2004, I entered the manuscript I was sure was not only going to win the contemporary romance category, but would be chosen for the Janet Kobobel Grant award for the best overall manuscript: the first draft of Stand-In Groom, then titled Happy Endings Inc. It was the strongest story idea I’d ever had, and it got me into graduate school. And my crit partners liked it. Not only did it not final, I got some pretty harsh feedback on it in addition to middling scores. I wasn’t happy. But, after a few weeks, I was able to really see the points made by the judges (especially having served as a judge myself in the contest that year) and eat humble pie and realize my manuscript wasn’t all that.

Finally, in 2006, with three full revisions on the manuscript behind me, and thesis submission and master’s graduation ahead of me, I entered the new version of Stand-In Groom into the newly named Genesis contest. After I entered it, I ended up doing another revision of the manuscript, which included cutting almost three pages from the opening chapter—the opening chapter that was, at that moment, being judged for Genesis . . . and guess what? I came in SECOND PLACE in my category.

There was a post on the Seekerville Blog about first chapters and how some writers get caught in a hamster wheel of being a professional contest entrant instead of striving to be a published writer. They spend so much time working on their first ten, fifteen, or twenty-five pages to enter into contests, but never finish a manuscript—or if the manuscript is completed, they never spend any time revising the rest of it but just keep tweaking the first part based on contest judges’ feedback. And it really made me think about why I chose to enter HEI/SIG that second time. Here’s part of the comment I left there:

"So while I did enter it twice, in two vastly different incarnations, entering it into the contest wasn’t my main focus–it was the litmus test to see if it was ready to be submitted to editors and agents."

It seems to me that one flaw, one drawback for people who are addicted to entering contests is that they’re using the contest judges’ feedback as their critique group—and as their validation as a writer. If they don’t get good feedback, if they don’t get good scores, if they don’t final, if they don’t win, if they don’t do as well in this contest as the last one, or whatever, they lose confidence in themselves as writers. Contests aren’t for personal affirmation or for summary judgment on whether or not you’re “good enough” to pursue publication. Contests are market research. Contests are great for getting anonymous feedback on your manuscript. But entering contests should not be our writing goal. Our goal in entering a contest should be to make sure that we’ve got the strongest story possible before submitting it to editors and/or agents. They’re the litmus test, not the be-all-and-end-all of becoming a writer. Two years ago, I made promise to myself that I would become ineligible to enter unpublished-author contests in 2007. And as of December 7, 2007, I am officially ineligible to enter the Genesis or any other unpublished-author contest! Make that your goal this year—to use whatever contest you choose to enter this year your springboard to becoming ineligible to enter it next year.

Finally, on another note, people will tell you that the feedback you get on your contest entries isn’t personal. I disagree. Even though as a judge, I don’t know whose manuscript I’m judging, it’s still personal for me. I know that there’s a person on the other end of that entry who’s going to read the comments I’m making, see all of the highlighting and marking I’ve done, and take it very personally (which we’ll get into more in another post). Anything having to do with someone’s writing is very personal! And even as anonymous judges, we have to keep that in mind—while still making sure that we’re giving the strongest and best feedback we can possibly give. So in the coming days, I’ll try to shed a little light on contests from my perspective as a finalist and as a judge. And my crit partners will be dropping in with words of wisdom from their experiences as contest finalists and judges as well.

Why do you enter contests? What do you hope to gain/learn? How much money do you spend in a year entering writing contests versus postage on sending out submissions to editors/agents? How much time do you spend preparing contest entries versus queries/submissions to editors/agents? Do you enter more contests than you send out queries? How has feedback from contests helped/hindered you?

("Entering Writing Contests - Why?" originally appeared in its entirety at Kaye Dacus: Humor, Hope, and Happily Ever Afters, Feb. 26, 2008.)

Kaye Dacus is also the author of The Matchmaker series.

posted by heidi.


  1. Totally agree with you, Kaye! I always question the underlying reason - having won a contest, and totally blowing others, I've seen it all. But I'm querying and submitting at the same time, and *FINISHING* the mss's too. That is the most important part about writing - even if it's not great, you ought to type THE END. That's the best reward. :-)

  2. After Heidi posted this, I went back and re-read the entire series . . . and it reminded me of why I made the decision last year (the second year I was eligible) NOT to enter my books into published-author contests. I didn't do it the first year with the right attitude, so when my master's thesis book didn't final for one major award (ACFW's Book of the Year), I had a really bad reaction (privately, of course). But then when it did final for an even bigger reward (the Christy---Christian publishing's equivalent to the RITA), I had another not-so-good (private) reaction, even though I knew I'd never win it (and I didn't).

    This year, I decided to leave contests up to others. I'm going to do what you're doing---focus on writing the best books I can. Because happy readers (and lots of them!) are the best award in the world!