I judge writing contests on a fairly regular basis. Sometimes for smaller, informal contests, like for a classroom, sometimes larger contests for a conference, and, obviously, the annual Havok contest.
First of all, kudos to all of you who have ever entered a contest! It is a huge thing to put your work out there to be scrutinized. Not only that, but to pay money to have people criticize your darlings and rip your words to shreds. It takes a huge amount of bravery and willingness to learn to enter a contest.
Contests are great.
I had a critique partner who refused to look over something I sent him that I planned on entering into a contest because he thought contests were a waste of time. Aside from the pettyness of imposing his own opinion on me in the form of not being willing to do something he otherwise would have done because he didn’t approve of what I was going to do with it, he was also just plain wrong.
Objectively speaking, the chances of winning a contest are really, really slim. You can spend anywhere from nothing to even as much as $100 on a contest entry fee and you’re competing with hundreds or even thousands of other people.
On top of that, contests are, by their very nature, subjective. There are elements of writing craft that are considered “good” writing, but outside of spelling and grammar and a few basic “rules,” each story will impact a judge in a different way. Personal taste plays a huge role in determining whether or not a story is worthy of winning a contest.
So, from one point of view, entering a contest IS a waste of time and money. Statistically speaking, you’re probably not going to win. So if that’s your only goal, then for you, it may not be worth it.
Don’t get me wrong–grand prizes are awesome. The grand prize for a Splickety contest (each imprint has one a year) is a $100 gift card to Amazon, publication in our magazine, and a whole boatload of free ebooks. Sometimes prizes include notoriety and honor in major writing circles, notice by agents and publishers, and anything that a contest coordinator wants to offer. Winning a grand prize is an amazing thing.
But the benefits of entering a contest go far beyond the grand prize.
Even if you don’t win, you get to have your work seen by lots of different professionals in the industry. Most contests will have a preliminary round and a final round, and most of them have multiple judges in each round, because of the aforementioned subjectivity. So, for the price of your entrance fee, you get feedback from multiple beta readers, at a minimum. And if you move on past the preliminary round, your work gets seen by agents, editors, and other professionals.
There are often rubrics designed to help the judges be as objective as possible, scoring on things like content, grammar, writing quality, and so on, and then there’s room for personal feedback.
The monetary value of this is enormous. Paying for a critique can be expensive. For example, I charge $.03 per word for short story edits and full manuscript editing, and $.02 per word for a developmental edit. On a 15-page contest entry, that’s roughly 4,000 words, which, for a developmental review would be about $80. And you get that from usually two to three different judges. More if you move on to other rounds.
So in editing value alone, you’ve already more than made up for your contest entry fee.
Moreover, it gives you a chance to learn to filter through subjectivity to figure out what you really do need to work on. Yes, judging can be subjective, but if three judges all say your grammar needs work, or you should study “show vs. tell,” or they didn’t feel connected to your characters, or they weren’t drawn in by the plot, or whatever other feedback you might get, you can be pretty sure it’s a weak area for you and you should invest in improving it.
Entering contests also gives you a chance to thicken your skin. Receiving critical feedback can be incredibly painful. You’ve spent months, even years, pouring your heart out onto the page, and hearing anyone say it isn’t good enough, even if they say it in the nicest way possible, is really, really hard. It’s not fun. And it’s totally okay to cry and tell your spouse that the judge you got is a jerk who clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about. But this is a tough business. People are critical. People are even cruel. You will get rejected more times than you can count before you ever get accepted.
And once you are accepted, and published, and getting rave reviews, you will get some one-star reviews that will reinforce every negative thing you’ve ever wondered about yourself. It will be hard and it will be painful. But you will know that this business is subjective, and you will have learned to filter out the subjectivity and apply the nuggets of truth you glean and make your next story that much better.
So enter contests. Be excited about the good feedback you receive. Cry about the negative feedback and give yourself a chance to heal from the hurt, and then take a step back and see what you can learn from it. And then enter the next contest and the next until you achieve the success you’re aiming for. And win a fabulous grand prize or two.