Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Contests: Are They Really Helpful?

By Morgan Wyatt

Your chapter or writing group has probably hosted a contest at some time to make money. The contest theme was something that most of the members felt they could identify.

Ironically when it came time to judge almost no one wanted to—or the few who were willingly did so almost grudgingly. Sometimes the judges had to be brought in from other chapters. What gives? Why the hesitation to step up to the judge’s seat? It could be because most of the club members may have experienced a toxic contest judge encounter. Their worst fears include becoming the toxic judge.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence as a participant and a judge. As a participant, I am alternately excited and terrified about the contest. Excited because contest organizers promote the contest as a breakthrough for beginning novelist, hey, that’s me. Terrified, because I’ve heard all the horror stories from my sister writers. Judges who make Marquis de Sade look like a choir boy.

One friend has decided to stay away from contests after a judge told her it was painful to read her story. Another judge commented on her critique that she wanted the characters to die because they were so horrible. Some judges even ridiculed the names of the characters. The stories go on and every writer has her own crazed contest judge story to tell. It is no secret that many writers limp away bloody from a contest; some even swearing not only never to enter a contest, but even never to write again.

The real question is why does a judge use an axe when an Exacto knife would do the job? Before becoming a judge, I was asked to attend a judging seminar. My experience as a book reviewer got me in the judge door, that and breathing. The first thing I was taught was not to critique the book as if I were a high school English teacher. Spilling red ink all over the paper denoting fragments and run on sentences just to show the writer how worthless her work is.

The submission as a whole is how a judge should look at an entry instead of nitpicking over a misplaced comma or an awkward adverb. What the persnickety judge is really doing is rewriting the story in her own voice. Sure, she thinks it reads better with her tweaks. Does nitpicking really help a writer? Most of us can use a grammar website, grammar check or a colleague to check mechanics. We don’t need the help of sadistic grammarian.

What we do need is someone who can see the whole picture—that’s the job of the judge. It is also the judge’s job to see what is done right and comment on it. When this happens, a writer can create something better than the original. Sometimes this does happen when a writer enters a contest. What usually happens is you get a panel of three judges consisting of the rabid grammarian, the wise judge, and a lackluster judge who manages to say almost nothing. Being human, most of us focus on the grammarian or maybe she is just someone who enjoys exerting power. Rather like the critique group newbie who goes overboard trying to prove that she can spot mistakes.

It is amazing that writers, who believe so much in their craft, willingly hand over their creation to an unknown person. What is more unbelievable we take the unknown judge’s word as the ultimate truth? This person who may or may not have an agenda can stop us in our writing tracks if we let her. This is where a circle of writing friends comes in handy; people willing to tell us if a story works in a non-bloodletting fashion.

It is a mystery that one judge can love a story, while another merely likes it and another hates it; however, is this so different than our own personal choices in reading material? My sister likes true crime; my other sister prefers biographies, while I am a romance junkie. Different judges like different genres and styles. My best advice is concentrate on the person who liked the story. She represents the reader you want to hook. Armed with the confidence that your submission has merit, then, look at the toxic judge’s comments to see if they have merit. Do contests help the writer on her career path? That’s debatable.

On one hand, I’ve been a finalist in a half dozen contests and haven’t been offered a contract yet. Then on the other hand, several published writers remarked that they never were contest finalists. Ironically, they found agents and editors to be an easier sale than most of the contest judges. With this in mind, I try to be a useful judge who notices what is done well, as opposed to just seeing flaws. Keep in mind, judging is always subjective. What I think is a flaw or a mistake may not even make another judge or an agent blink.

Next time, your baby comes back all bloody from a contest, keep in mind it’s all subjective. When your loved one has talked you out of tossing your computer out the window, then you might be able to reread the judges’ critiques. So do contests have value? Possibly, but not the breakout novel success the contest hinted. Rather contests test your resolve, rather like Pilates for the spirit. After countless rejections, a few long nights of curling into the fetal position with a blanket and a romance novel for solace, you emerge resilient ready to write again.


Terry Spear/Terry Lee Wilde said...

I so agree, Morgan, about your contest comments! I've gotten requests from contests, but ultimately, no, I didn't sell through a contest and ended up with Publishers Weekly's Best Book of the Year for Heart of the Wolf. It had come in 3rd place among 7 finalists once. Even after receiving numerous (non-contest) awards, I still enter some contests for a chapter that holds them for members only because we're often short entries and received the most horribly scathing comments on a mss this past year. One judge highlighted nearly my whole contest entry to point out how poorly written it was. *sigh*

Sometimes judges can give us some great pointers, other times, they can be really, really discouraging. I judge contests and teach online writing classes, and in both, I try to encourage, never to discourage. No matter how well we write, or how far we go, we can always use writing tips. Of the encouraging kind. :) Great post!

Clarissa Southwick said...

Great blog, Morgan! I once got a 32/100 and a 100/100 on the same manuscript in the same contest. So yes, it's subjective.

I think the value of contests is that they prepare you for the reaction your story is likely to get in the real world. There will always being reviewers who love you or hate you. Not everyone is going to "get" your story.
Because my subject matter is controversial, I often receive judge rants on topics totally unrelated to my story. But that would happen in the real world too.

If you only enter one contest, you're likely to be crushed by a bad review, but if you enter a lot, pretty soon you don't even notice them anymore.
Maybe the real prize in the contest world is thicker skin.

Mona Risk said...

What a great post Morgan. I heard it all in contests, the praise and the shredding, but also many useful advice that helped a lot. There are judges that put low scores as a habit and other that automatically give top scores without carefully reading. I think the questions put for the judges help. I also judged a lot of contests and coordinated two. Believe me it takes a huge amount of work so let's not be too hard on the coordinators.

Sheila Tenold said...

Excellent blog, Morgan! I certainly identified with your statement:

My best advice is concentrate on the person who liked the story. She represents the reader you want to hook.

I like your take, along with developing a Rhino hide for the opposing camp of judges who can drag you down.

As sisters in romance writing we're supposed to support each other, not destroy a writer before she's reached her full potential.

Here's a different perspective on judges. My entry received one low score which identified several weaknesses and in the bargain improved me as a writer. This judge weighed my potential and scored me so low a fourth judge came into the picture. She knew this would happen. My entry still finaled, but I take my hat off to that first judge. She cleverly used the system to both give an excellent critique and not impede my entry. To this day I appreciate her consideration.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

You have written great words of wisdom here. I used to become the victim after receiving a contest score sheet that ripped and tore at my resolve to be a writer. I swore to my critique partner to never let a bad contest score make me cry. Now I look at my scores and use the judgment I have been gaining over the years. It is so heartening to get a perfect score from a judge who wants to read more, but then in the same contest to have to adjust to scathing judge that says they wouldn't read the story if it was the last book on earth. That's pretty judgmental in my humble opinion. We all must move on and learn to add another layer of armor. But, when a judge tells me we don't have deer in California and I am looking at six of them sitting under a tree in my backyard, it is hard to let it go....

Carolyn said...

I totally agree. I don't know why some judges think they have to impress the author they know more then them. I think the answer lies within each of these groups to select people who really know how to do a critique. Many contests offer the judge's training, but unless the judge takes a test, how do you know if they will be good? Or if they've even read the material provided?

I've had those awful judges myself during my first few years as a writer. Those comments can be brutal, and as such, I've learned to give honest, helpful feedback when I judge. I just wish others felt the same way.

Natasha Moore said...

When I judge (which is very time consuming in order to do a good job and may also be a reason why it's difficult to find available contest judges) I try to find as many good comments as criticism. Honestly, sometimes it's hard to do. Sometimes, it's easy because the entries are wonderful.

I've had some great results from contests, including one sale from am editor request from a contest. So it does happen...

Anonymous said...

Morgan, what a great post. I wish every writer who has ever thought a judge was mean on purpose or who was so hurt by comments they gave up writing could read what you wrote.

morgannawyatt said...

Thanks for dropping by and posting. You are my role model. I took a class from you and noticed you had something uplifting to say about everyone's work as you subtly guided each participant.

morgannawyatt said...

To Clarissa,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experiences. It is good to know that other people experience the judge inbalance issue. It's odd how we usually focus on the judge who hates the story. Go figure. :)


morgannawyatt said...


You are so right about contests being hard work for the coordinators. That's why I am happy to do things like the auction or membership contacts as oppsed to organizing a contest. Thanks for dropping by and all the help you have provided to get the blog up and running.


morgannawyatt said...

To Sheila,
Thanks for bringing in a new way to look at a contest critique that I never considered. I will try to remember this. Thanks for dropping by.


morgannawyatt said...


You have given me words of wisdom! I have had a varied career from minister's wife to cheesemaker...and sometimes I will get judge's negative comments on those very things as if I didn't have a clue. So it happens to everyone, oddly, this comforts me. Thanks for stopping by.


morgannawyatt said...

You are so right about "some"judges anxious to show what they know. Still, I always tell my children it cost you nothing to be nice, but a great deal to be hurtful. The good thing about the rabid comments is that they always made good writer cocktail talk. Thanks for stopping by and posting.


morgannawyatt said...

To Natasha,

Thanks for the view from the positive side of the contest. I am glad for you and am a bit inspired too. I appreciate you stopping by and posting.


morgannawyatt said...

To Jill James,
Thanks for your inspiring comments. If I wasn't so optismistic and there wasn't always that third judge who loved my work, then I think I would give up. Of course, I would have to deal with my family who would slap me around for giving up.:)Thanks for stopping by and posting.


Lisa Dale said...

I entered a bunch of contests back in the day with an MS that will NEVER be pubbed (to the benefit of the world in general, romance readers in particular). And I liked getting a whole bunch of feedback, a few wins, and a bunch of finals. It really was a great experience!

And PS - you sound like a great judge.

Christine said...

I am a RWA trained judge, unpublished PRO writer who has been a member of a critique group for four years. I've been on both sides of the fence. Whenever I judge a contest, I approach the entry as if it were the entrant's first MS and/or first contest entry. I look at the whole story and I try to give constructive critique where warranted. I also try to give positive comments and notes where the story really works. If an entry needs story and structure help, I suggest the same books I have read myself as a writer.

I don't use red, all caps in my critiques. I recently received my lowest score EVER from a published in romance judge who felt compelled to rip my writing to shreds. Thankfully, I had enough experience as a contestant and a judge to try to put that commentary where it belonged: the trash. Any wisdom that I might have received from her was lost in the delivery. Frankly, I judged that contest and the guidelines stated not to use red, let alone all caps in the body of the work. I reported the judge. There is NO place for that kind of viciousness. No, I don't need handholding and I accept feedback that is presented in a positive way. I also don't mind a low score if the feedback is helpful to me.

I'm not a newbie, but had I been? Well maybe I wouldn't be writing today. As it was, I had two other published in romance judges score my entry very high (I missed finaling in that contest by 1 point) and they gave CONSTRUCTIVE feedback. You can bet I will use their critique and feedback as I revise this current WIP.

My biggest concern about contests is that they are all having trouble getting judges and the "call for judges" comes out quite regularly on the PRO and writing loops I'm on. This hardly gives me confidence in the judges I will receive for the contests. Therefore, I only enter 4 contests a year. One, of course, the GOLDEN LOTTERY. One is judged by published authors and only gives feedback, and two others for getting a general feel on whether or not the story is working (feedback, not red vampire judge blood is what I need).

Well, that's my rant. Great post. Hope I am the kind of judge that leaves the impression of being WISE and not cruel.

Jodi Lynn Copeland said...

Great post, Morgan! And so incredibly true. I imagine pre-publishe dcontests to be practice for reviewers once published. Some are going to love your work, and some are not going to love it. Take what matters the most from the feedback and know when to laugh off the irrelevant stuff or that which doesn't work with your style.

Jodi Lynn Copeland said...

One comment on the caps thing, some contests require the judges to use caps for their comments so the entrants can more easily see them. I don't love this either, but I know that it isn't always the judge's decision to use this method. In Christine's example though, clearly it was all about the evil judge.

Ami said...

Caps for me are a must, as I can't use color, highlighting, or any other much more helpful tool. It doesn't always translate to or from my computer. W/o caps, I can't find the comments that I've gotten or given. If I can't see them, I can't read them and I assume the judge didn't leave any comments.

However, I really don't read too much into comments anymore. I don't enter for the feedback at this point. BUT I know that often those I am judging ARE looking for that, so I spend a lot of time on each entry and really focus on the positive. It is possible to gently point out issues and be constructive, not awful. I try to find books or websites that might help w/ a particular thing. The key in contesting is to remember it really is subjective. It's one person's opinion of your work and if they don't have the class to present it thoughtfully and helpfully you (thankfully) have the right to delete it. (Good thing there are no judges here! Look at all those [gasp] -ly words!:))

Thank you for this post, Morgan! :)

morgannawyatt said...

Lisa Dale,

Thanks for your comments on how some contests worked out to your advantage. Congrats on that, I'm sure you deserved it.


morgannawyatt said...


Thanks for your comments on judging. I will keep all these things in mind when judging. In fact, when I critique other people's work I use post-it notes because I do not want to mess up their manuscript. They can always rip them off if they don't agree with me.:)

morgannawyatt said...

Thanks for your insight that CAPS doesn't always mean you are yelling. Since I do most of my critiques on the computer I use yellow and blue ink--no real reason, but better than red. I appreciate you dropping by.


morgannawyatt said...

To Jodi Lynn Copeland,
I liked your comparison to reviewers and judges. I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I doubt I should admit this to writers, but I have been a book reviewer for about the last seven years. Occasionally, I will pick up a book I hate. I try to pass it off to another reviewer since I'm the wrong person to review it. Too bad the contest judges don't always have the resources or time to do this. Thanks for commenting.

Joanne said...

I sometimes think I am the contest queen, as my manuscripts have won contests every year since I began writing. That's the good news. Alas, no contract yet. That's the bad news. As you mentioned, this writing business is very subjective. Thanks for the great post.