To contest or not to contest… Is the effort worth the reward?

A writing contest is what got me to the end of my first novel. I was in my optometrist’s waiting room (unmasked and surrounded by other patients–pre-COVID, of course) when I picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest. As I scanned the stories and articles, I came across an advertisement for a contest sponsored by the magazine called the Inspiring Voices Contest. I had no paper so I wrote the website in the inside cover of my Bible which was still in my purse.

The next Sunday I saw the website again and decided to check it out. I filled out the application and sent it in the next day. Then I began to write. Six months or so later, I submitted my work. It was another few months before I heard anything back. I was a finalist in the contest! My desire to write, which had been semi-dormant since college, burst into flame. I found ACFW (read about that here) and joined (the best thing I could have done) then proceeded to enter my manuscript in the Genesis Contest.

When I received my feedback, I realized just how much I had to learn. Before that contest, I was wallowing in illusion. I had completely misjudged my mastery of craft. Basically, I discovered how very inept I was, but I also learned from the suggestions. I began to study: attending ACFW’s conference, joining critique groups, webinars, and taking online courses.

I continued to enter contests like ACFW’s Genesis and First Impressions and others. Each bit of feedback helped me improve another aspect of craft. Eventually, I began judging such contests and learned a whole other set of skills. I enjoyed sharing what I’d learning and providing positive feedback and encouraging words to other writers.

This past February, I won my first contest. That phone call was one of the most rewarding of my life.

Great, you say, but what specifically have you learned? Is it worth the pain and heartache of having your work put to the eyes of judges looking for flaws? Yes, wholeheartedly, yes, yes, yes! I wouldn’t have improved nearly as much or as quickly without taking a chance and submitting my work for judgement.

I learned:

  • Editing skills – editing for a contest, while not identical to editing for publishing shares many important traits. 1. avoiding proofreading errors like misspellings, missed or extra punctuation, missing or extra words. 2. formatting–extra spaces or lines, headers, where to begin new chapters, scene breaks and many other things.
  • Consistent POV–my first contest entry head-hopped all over the place.
  • Including the senses–this is often a judged element, so I’ve gotten better at remembering to use them
  • Dynamite opening lines/paragraphs–You’ve got to hook ’em
  • Including motivation, goals and conflict–The judges only see a tiny portion of the total MS. If you don’t get these plot and character elements in the bit they read, well, probably no enthusiastic phone call for you. Just like you may lose a sale or a garner a bad review from a reader if these aren’t included near the beginning to entice said reader into investing valuable time into reading your words.
  • Showing the character’s competence and likeableness (is that a thing?)–The judge (and the reader) want a character they can both believe in and root for.
  • Learning that not all judges (or readers) feel the same way about your words as you do–Contests teach you that not all suggestions, comments, or criticisms should be adopted. Regardless how well-meaning or knowledgable someone is, they don’t know your work like you do, and, while many (maybe even most) of the comments and suggestions are helpful, all are not. I’ve learned to discern which to accept and explore and which to reject. Usually if the same problem is mentioned by more than one judge, it’s something I need to address.

So, is the effort worth the reward? In my estimation, always. The work you dedicate to preparing your contest entry will result in a better, more profitable manuscript. The learning you attain will help not only your current work, but also the next project, and the next, and so on. The rewards never stop.

I hope this has been helpful and encouraging to those considering entering contests in the future. I’d love to hear your experiences with contests. Reply and we can share further on this topic. Also, follow this blog or on Twitter or sign up for my newsletter to help build my numbers. Thanks for reading and blessings for showers of words and lovely winning phone calls in future.

Feature photo courtesy of jonathan-cosens on Unsplash.