How to Win Writing Contests

02 May

“This is the worst contest entry I’ve ever read, and I’ve been judging for twenty years.”

Ouch. It doesn’t sound like that author is going to win any writing contests, does it?

That’s a direct quote from the score sheet of the first writing contest I ever entered. Yet, somehow I’ve managed to place in more chapter contests than I can count and final in the Golden Heart with two different manuscripts. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about writing contests.

Before I give you the secrets to winning writing contests, I must post some disclaimers:

I’m not writing about anyone in particular here. Everything in this blog is based on patterns I’ve observed when interacting with large groups of writers. Your personal experience may differ.

A single writing contest means nothing. No one wins every contest entered. There’s always the chance you’ll get the crazy judge, and you can’t do anything about crazy. Here, I’m talking about gradually progressing over a period of time until you can regularly advance to the final round and get your manuscripts in front of editors and agents.

Here’s what you need to know to win writing contests:

Attitude is Everything.

Believe it or not, your attitude shows in your manuscript. It shows in how you string words together. It shows in your characters. It shows in how you respond to contest feedback.

Stop Showing Off. If you think you’re some kind of writing genius and your brilliance far exceeds the intellect of stupid contest judges, you will get low scores. Judges get tired of being yanked out of the story with cutesy one-liners and complicated prose. Nobody cares if you wrote your entry in iambic pentameter. They just want to be caught up in a good story.

Read the score sheet and the rules BEFORE the contest: This sounds obvious, but I’m frequently approached by outraged authors whose low scores were perfectly predictable.  If the score sheet lists required elements and you do not include them, the judge cannot give you a high score, no matter how much she loves your story.

Read the score sheet AFTER the contest: Look at the numbers. If you consistently score low on the same elements, you need to stop entering contests and take a class on that topic.  Hone your craft and the rest will fall into place.

Get all the Easy Points: You should always get a perfect score on the “Mechanics” section. Submitting an entry that is full of spelling and grammar errors shows contempt for the judges. Don’t be surprised if their comments reflect that same insulting attitude back onto your manuscript.

Show you Know the Rules Before You Break Them:  When used sparingly, fragments and odd punctuation can be used to great effect. Just be sure it’s obvious that’s what you’re doing. You’re not Jack Kerouac, and On the Road wasn’t his first novel.

Stop Making Excuses: Authors tend to come up with explanations for why they can’t get ahead. “Judges don’t like stories written in first person.” “Judges don’t like strong heroines.”  “Contests only reward mediocre writing.” Yet, I’ve seen winning entries disprove all of these theories. Don’t let myths keep you from hearing what the judges are actually saying.

Listen. Really. Listen.

There is only one difference between those who succeed at contests and those who don’t. The winners have learned how to set aside their emotions and use the judge’s feedback properly.  Sometimes it’s hard to get past the snarky comments to the lesson hidden underneath, but you have to do it if you want to learn anything from the experience.

Know when to polish, and when to start over: If your scores are typically lower than 60% of the total possible, you probably want to start over. But if you regularly score in the 80% range, you only need to polish. Don’t throw out the first chapter and rewrite it just because you didn’t final. If you do, you will always be submitting a first draft and your chances for success will plummet.

Don’t enter before you’re ready: Twice I’ve entered contests on a whim, typing up the final pages minutes before the deadline. Both times, I thought I was just entering to get feedback on an idea. Both times, I ended up in the finals, embarrassed to have a first draft in front of a final editor. Don’t do it. Only put your polished work out there. Trust me on this.

Volunteer to Judge: It’s the easiest way to learn how judges think.You’ll see your own writing differently once you’ve seen other writers making the same mistakes.

Lose the Anger. Angry, bitter writers tend to write angry, bitter characters. No one enjoys spending time with a hateful heroine. If you’re miserable because you’ve failed to succeed in the harsh world of publishing, take a year off and rediscover the joy of writing.

Attitude is everything. No, that repetition is not an error.

Love writing, love what you write, and the judges will love it too. 

So, there you have my tips on how consistently win writing contests. I would love to hear your tips, comments and suggestions.



Posted by on May 2, 2011 in Idaho, writing


Tags: , , , ,

33 responses to “How to Win Writing Contests

  1. Janis

    May 2, 2011 at 7:16 AM


    Thanks for the handy primer on contests. Good luck on the GH!

  2. Clarissa Southwick

    May 2, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    Thank you, Janis. I hope everyone will find something useful there. Maybe my GH sisters will come by with more tips later in the day.

    • Guida

      May 8, 2011 at 12:14 PM

      I certainly found it useful as I am about to enter my fisrt contest.
      Thank you. This advice could not have come at a better time.

  3. Joy

    May 2, 2011 at 7:45 AM

    Thank you for the tips. I am new to writing and have not yet made any contest subissions. I will keep this in mind when I fially get a WIP polished enough to consider entry.

  4. Clarissa Southwick

    May 2, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    Good luck, Joy. I wish you many contest wins and a speedy path to publication. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by the Gem State Writers.

  5. Liz Lipperman

    May 2, 2011 at 8:07 AM

    Great suggestions, Clarissa. Let me start off my comment by saying I NEVER finaled in a contest. I always got one or two who loved my writing and one who absolutely hated it, which brings me to a suggestion you left out.

    Figure out what genre you write BEFORE you ever send off your chapters. I chased the romance world for more years than I care to remember until it finally dawned on me that I Ioved killing people way more than I liked having them kiss.

    So I would suggest you ask people who have read your stuff if you are uncertain like I was. My agent finally told me I was a mystery writer, and I was finally free to write what I wanted. I stil have kisses, though.

    Great blog. I’m sending winning vibes for the GH. Sorry, I won’t be there to cheer you on.

  6. Lynda

    May 2, 2011 at 8:19 AM

    Nice post. I think you nailed all the “dos” and “don’ts” for entering contests. I especially agree with the Really Listen point.
    I had quite the eye-opening experience when I entered my 2010 GH finaling manuscript in a smaller contest this past fall. It was trashed by two out of three judges. Something along the lines of “You’ve got raw talent, but take a writing class or two, honey.” Ouch!
    After a week of drinking heavily (*grin*), I had a come-to-church moment and knew those two judges were basically correct. Then I plotted my revenge – and the best revenge in this situation is to dust yourself off and get back in front of your computer. My manuscript is now stronger thanks to those two. I plan to reenter her in the GH this year.
    So, my best advice is to remember it’s all subjective. What one judge loves another one (or two) will hate. Keep dusting yourself off and sitting back down in front of your computer. We’re writers. It’s what we do.

  7. Meredith Conner

    May 2, 2011 at 9:09 AM

    Great post Clarissa! Become a contest finalist isn’t easy and these are great tips. I also think that sometimes although a contest judge may make a specific comment about a person’s writing – it is always up to the author to “sort through” what it might mean. Sometimes it is just a personal preference and doesn’t effect your story and may actually change your own voice.
    You are absolutely right – love your writing and what you write and it does come through! Thanks for the post Clarissa!

  8. Clarissa Southwick

    May 2, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    Thank you, Lynda, Liz, and Meredith for some more great tips!
    I really appreciate your sharing your experiences.

  9. Donna Cummings

    May 2, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    These are great points, Clarissa. I hadn’t entered contests for a long time, and then a couple years ago I decided it would be a good idea to enter ones that had agents or editors for final judges — ones that I couldn’t query or contact myself. Even though I won a couple of contests, I was more interested in finaling so I could hopefully get a little closer to where I wanted to be. It was also great to have judges be so complimentary, which makes up for the ones who aren’t. 🙂

  10. Donna Cummings

    May 2, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    P.S. A couple of contests would let the finalists revise before sending their final entry to the judges, and it was always tempting to want to revise the whole thing. But I managed to resist that, and keep faith in what got me to the final stage. I might tweak something that wasn’t clear, etc., but I didn’t try to do a make-over. LOL

  11. Clarissa Southwick

    May 2, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Hi Donna, Another great suggestion on the tweaking. It is really hard to know when to revise and when to leave well enough alone. One of the hardest things is figuring out which judge’s comments are valid and which ones can be ignored. It’s one of those things that comes with experience.

  12. Kimberly Kincaid

    May 2, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    Yes, yes, and yes! When I got my first round of contest results (about a year ago) and they consistently said that the MS needed major work, I was crushed. But after some Kleenex and chocolate, I realized that the comments were spot-on. I’d like to add here that they were gently yet firmly put– a BIG deal, since if they’d been “this manuscript is awful!”, I’d never have gone the route I did, which was to reconsider, rewrite and revise. I took classes online, did a lot of research-reading, and worked to fine-tune those skills.

    I love the advice of being a judge yourself– it makes us realize how hard it is to judge, and how subjective the process can be. One person’s 7 is another person’s 10! And it also hammers home that there’s a person at the ned of that MS– a fellow writer– who needs constructive criticism to help her on her journey (no matter how good she is!)

    Great post!

  13. Clarissa Southwick

    May 2, 2011 at 9:43 AM

    Thank you, Kimberly. I’m so thrilled to see my GH sisters posting their experiences here. I think that is the best part of entering contests, the friends you find along the way.

  14. Liz Fredericks

    May 2, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    Clarissa – You’re dead on with this blog. I got daphne comments back today on one of my submissions. I think that we (read I) tend to focus on the least bit negative comments instead of paying attention to ALL of the comments. Pay attention to what can be improved in your ms, but don’t neglect what judges like. For example, I’ve been so fixated on some errors, that until today’s little epiphany, it didn’t occur to me that I’ve a pattern of very positive comments on voice, dialogue, conflict and plot. So, instead of wallowing in despair (ok, just a little), I fix signposting, give up my rabid obsession with backstory and work on my synopsis.

    note to Liz Lipperman in an earlier comment: Thank you for the comment on the genre. That observation echoed my very astute critique partners and I think it’s finally registered.

  15. Kimberly MacCarron

    May 2, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    Sometimes you also have to take into consideration that your voice could be so strong that people either love it or hate it. That’s not a bad thing. You just have to find that agent or editor who loves it. If, however, you do keep hearing the same criticisms over and over again, you may want to change it a bit, especially for contests.
    But, I do agree that you have to listen to the feedback if the judges are all saying the same type of comments.
    Just remember not to take it so much to heart. Says the one who always takes it to heart. 🙂

  16. Roberta Lynn

    May 2, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    Great advice, Clarissa!

    Entering legit writing contests such as those sponsored by the various chapters of Romance Writers of America is a great way to improve your craft and stay motivated. This year I made a pact with myself to enter one contest per month, to keep the feedback constantly rolling in. It’s been a great experience, and I’m currently a finalist in each of the first three I’ve entered so far (fingers crossed for the fourth!).

    My advice for other frequent contest entrants: Do your research first, and spend your time and energy (not to mention, your entry fees!) wisely. Choose the best contests to suit your needs–such as those which allow the most number of pages to be submitted, those which assign 2-3 first round judges to each entry, those for which the final judges are editors/agents representing publishing houses/genres which you are specifically targeting, those which publish winners names in RWR, etc.

    Lastly, if you do final but don’t win, and decide to enter the same manuscript in a different contest, make sure that the final judge is also different!

    Good luck to all,

    Roberta Lynn

  17. Nan Dixon

    May 2, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    I think the longer I’m on the contest circuit, the better my manuscripts get – and the lower I score. I don’t know if that says something about my manuscripts or the judges.

    I am a contest junkie – but now I’m at the stage where I’m trying to get to the final judges. I do find that I tend to final in contests that throw out the lowest score.

    It really helps to have thick skin in the business. Last week I got back one of my lowest scores — ever. And it was on last year’s Golden Heart finalist. Unfortunately, I could see that that judge score everyone they judged – really low. Unfortunately – judges picks are the luck of the draw. Of course, in that same contest someone gave me an almost perfect score.

    I’ve stopped trying to write for judging – and am writing to get at the agent or editor I’m targeting.

  18. lynn mapp

    May 2, 2011 at 6:57 PM

    Clarissa, thank you for taking time to share this information with us. I also like a contest that has at least 3 judges.

  19. Lynn Cahoon

    May 2, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    I am so excited to find your new blog with visions of Idaho surrounding the words.

    I am an Idaho Native currently stuck in the Midwest. I’d say it rains so hard sometimes I’m stuck in the mud here…

    Good luck with GH. I’ll be there, cheering another Idaho girl on!


  20. P. L. Parker

    May 3, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    Great post – I’ve entered a few out of curiosity. I’m considering entering one for my latest manuscript. Any good ones you’d suggest?

    • Clarissa Southwick

      May 3, 2011 at 8:34 PM

      Hi P.L. I really don’t know much about contests for published authors. Perhaps one of our readers could recommend one?

  21. Donnell

    May 3, 2011 at 4:58 PM

    Clarissa, I’m running two or three days behind, but this is an excellent post. I particularly liked. Judge. You see what’s out there, what works and what doesn’t.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      May 3, 2011 at 8:43 PM

      Donnell, I’m always happy to see you. And I can’t talk about contests without mentioning the article you did at Romance University. It’s an older post, but still has tons of great information for those interested in writing contests.
      With your Daphne experience, you really are an expert, both in coordinating and competing. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  22. Carley Ash

    May 3, 2011 at 6:09 PM

    I’m just now beginning to enter contests so this is great information. Thank you Clarrissa.

  23. Maggie

    May 3, 2011 at 6:13 PM

    I’ve been a contest judge repeatedly in various RWA contests. I’ve won a writing contest with a major romance publisher and I have many published clips (including magazine and newspaper) but I try to never, ever be snarky. Snarky isn’t helpful and says more about the judge than the contestant and I’m no better or worse a writer.

    More experienced perhaps, but not better. And I hate the whole ‘rip it to shreds’ concept that some people have. I’ve mentored both teen and adult writers and there’s an art to teaching, there’s an art to constructively judging someone’s work. It’s just as easy to say, “this needs work in the area of dialogue (or plotting, or pacing etc.) than it is to say “this is the worst contest entry…” and I’m sorry those words were said to you. There was a better way to say that the manuscript needed work.

    • Clarissa Southwick

      May 3, 2011 at 8:44 PM

      Maggie, Thank you for the kind words. I hope for every shredder judge, there’s at least one who’s willing to help out.

  24. Clarissa Southwick

    May 3, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    Wow. So many great comments, I couldn’t keep up. Thank you all for participating. You’ve really given me a treasure trove of tips for winning writing contests 🙂

  25. Steph Bochenek

    May 4, 2011 at 11:47 AM

    Thank you for the great tips. I’ve entered one contest and the judges either loved it or hated it but I found I learned the most from the judge who scored the lowest. She was very clear about what she didn’t like but didn’t rip it to shreds. I’m getting ready to enter several more and will print out your tips. 🙂

  26. Sheila Polansky

    May 4, 2011 at 7:41 PM

    Great blog. I entered contests for feedback my first year in RWA because I had no crit partners and some were hesitant to include someone so ‘wet behind the ears’. I got my feelings hurt many times, but I learned a lot more. I’ve won one and finaled in a couple more. I have to admit, my first manuscript was terrible. Thanks to some awful judges and even more thanks to helpful judges, I’ve grown a thick skin. Sometimes that’s what it takes for lessons to sink in.

  27. johannaharness

    May 5, 2011 at 1:19 PM

    Wonderful, down-to-earth advice. Thanks for this.

  28. Mary Vine

    May 5, 2011 at 2:35 PM

    I had a “poor” judge in my past, too. I wish I still had her address to send her a copy of the now published book. Let us all remember to use kind words as critique partners or judges. I run miles on a little praise and I’m sure there are others out there that do, too.

  29. D'Ann

    May 5, 2011 at 6:08 PM

    Hi, Clarissa.
    Sorry for coming by so late, but just wanted to let you know this was a super post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: