Why it’s Okay to Lose a Contest

Any author who’s entered contests knows that they are difficult to win. The competition is more fierce than ever. For example, I just judged an ACFW competition and would have been happy to represent most of the authors whose work I reviewed. Entries get better every year. This is good news for readers while encouraging authors to fine tune their work. In the case of prestigious contests such as those sponsored by ACFW, there are no losers. I had the privilege of attending the Christy Award dinner on several occasions. Again, there are no losers in any group of Christy finalists.

There are other reasons not to be depressed if you lose a contest:

1.) Judges have subjective opinions. Their views are valuable and feedback — even if it’s just a perfect score — is worthwhile. But as with any other sentiments, it’s up to the author to decide which comments to take to heart.

2.) Not all contests are created equal. Some coordinators have a pool of more appropriate judges than others. I’ve been asked to judge contests where my credentials made sense. I’ve also been asked to rank submissions where the poor coordinator plainly reached out to me in desperation. What does this mean for authors? Consider all opinions, but don’t stress.

3.) Contest wins don’t always lead to more money. While the author’s prestige grows with each success and a sticker on a cover may help a reader gravitate to a book, an award may or may not translate into sales. If you doubt this, consider the many books, television shows, and movies that bomb despite raves from critics.

4.) Contest wins for unpublished authors don’t always lead to a book contract. Judges review submissions from the pool they receive and choose a winner. They may be looking at your entry versus three, six, or ten. Since most competitions for unpublished authors are wide open, authors with varying levels of skill may enter. By contrast, a busy editor may receive three, six, ten, or many more submissions in a single day. Literary agents rigorously vetted most of those proposals, so competition is likely to be much more stiff on an editor’s desk than in a contest. So while a contest win may urge an editor to take a closer look, that rivalry may mean your story doesn’t rise to the top of a publisher’s stack.

If you enter a contest and don’t final or win, don’t despair. At the very least, the contest gives you a chance to see where your work ranks among other current authors’. And you may gain valuable written feedback. Please note that many, if not most, works that eventually are published by a traditional publisher never win a contest for unpublished authors. Most books, including many bestsellers, never win an award.

My advice? Keep entering contests, but also keep the results in perspective.

Your turn:

Have you entered contests?

What did you learn from entering contests?

35 Responses to Why it’s Okay to Lose a Contest

  1. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson December 14, 2017 at 4:06 am #

    I have entered contests and found that the subjectivity of judges can either play in your favor or against you. I used to think of contests as being more objective before that experience. Now I realize there’s too many human elements at play for a contest to ever truly be objective. And a large portion of everyone listed as a professional in their field make mistakes more often than any of us would be comfortable admitting.

    I do wonder if the consistency in the names who win the major awards year to year is a sign of comfort and/or favoritism at play in the judges’ criteria. There are an enormous amount of fantastic writers out there writing very solid books. Do some get ignored because they’re less traditional or predictable? Or maybe because they’re less feel-good? How about because they have a less familiar writing voice? If so, is that objective, fair, or even good?

    I have no idea. But I do wonder sometimes.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 7:23 am #

      It’s possible the judges, who are often editors and agents, are using the same criteria they would to judge submissions they receive to publish and represent. From that perspective, the results probably reflect our world.

      Favorite authors are favorite authors for lots of reasons, hence that logically translates into repeated wins. I agree that many new and midlist authors are writing fantastic books. While I can’t explain the results of every contest, I can say that I represent authors in all career stages and I am proud of each one!

      • Avatar
        Brennan S. McPherson December 14, 2017 at 12:05 pm #

        That’s a great perspective! And certainly the details change depending on the contest. PS: I love how much you care for all your authors. Hope you have a blessed Christmas!

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby December 14, 2017 at 8:27 am #

      Brennan, I’ve read your speculative/fantasy novel about Noah and his family before the flood. It kept me reading past 2:00 am until my Kindle battery ran out. The spiritual content was profound. But someone who prefers sweeter, gentler reads would bring that preference into the judging. I think that poses a problem for many novels that shine God’s light into dark situations. Not being strictly traditional in topic or treatment will produce wildly varying scores. One low one can prevent winning. But don’t let that change what you write!

      • Avatar
        Brennan S. McPherson December 14, 2017 at 12:12 pm #

        That’s fantastic, Carol! SO glad you enjoyed reading FLOOD. 🙂 Also, great insight. I think you’re right. Some of my favorite authors are not “award-winning” authors despite being amazing writers. For example, Billy Coffey’s books move me deeply, and I find them to be some of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. However, people respond in wildly varying ways to his books–they bend genres and defy expectations. I don’t think that kind of writing lends itself well to contests. Maybe it’s arbitrary to play the “he’s a better writer” game. Still, I wouldn’t refuse an award if I were ever offered one. And there I go being all contradictory. . .

        I like contests and do trust them to pick out great books. There’s just also shortcomings that I see with them that I didn’t before being involved with any. But maybe I’m just sore because I lost. 😉

  2. Avatar
    David Rawlings December 14, 2017 at 4:16 am #

    Great post Tamela. I was a Genesis finalist for ACFW in 2016. While I didn’t win, I had an ice-breaker with every agent, editor, publisher and fellow writer I spoke to. Having that ribbon around my neck at the ACFW Conference was enough to say that I had written something that had been recognized. I had some extra credibility, and proof that it wasn’t just me (and my Mom) who thought I could write. I’ve since finaled in other competitions (without winning) and have taken advantage of that extra credibility when pitching.

    Plus, I made a pact with myself when I entered that a writing competition to constantly remember that writing is a subjective business, and writing competitions are very much a microcosm of that.

    Now that I have an agent and I’m working with Steve, I can look back and see that those competition results were bricks in the wall, not the wall itself.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 7:24 am #

      Excellent points, David! Congratulations on working with Steve and being part of our agency family!

  3. Avatar
    Melissa Henderson December 14, 2017 at 5:56 am #

    Thank you for continuing to give encouragement. Writing my first Christian romance is a learning experience. I appreciate your wisdom and knowledge. Merry Christmas!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 7:25 am #

      Thank you for being a faithful blog reader and commenter! Merry Christmas to you as well!

  4. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson December 14, 2017 at 6:47 am #

    I enter contests every year and I value feedback from the judges. I found a few judges to be harsh in their critiques, but in most cases they’ve helped me rethink my writing and make improvements. I haven’t won any contests but I’ve placed in several. My most exciting was when I was a double finalist in the Daphne du Maurier. Still didn’t win, but it encourages me to keep pressing forward and keep entering contests.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 7:26 am #

      Loretta, as you know, I don’t agree with judges being harsh with writers. Contests should be a form of encouragement as well as learning. I’m glad you pointed out your experience because now other authors who’ve been treated harshly won’t feel so alone.

  5. Avatar
    Sarah Hamaker December 14, 2017 at 7:25 am #

    It’s important to keep in mind why you’re entering the contest, especially as an unpublished writer. I’ve found contests to be a great way to get feedback (both positive and critical) for little outlay on my part financially. If you’re entering only to win, you’re bound to be disappointed. If you’re entering to receive critiques and feedback from industry experts and fellow authors, you’ll probably find contests worthwhile.

    I entered one piece in Genesis three times, semi-finaled the first two times, but went no further. I did, however, gain valuable insights into what worked and what didn’t for the judges, and I know those earlier submissions made the story better. This story does have a happily ever after, as I entered that work in Genesis in 2015 and ended up winning in romantic suspense (still hoping that book will find a publishing home soon!).

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 7:27 am #

      Persistence is such a big part of developing a writing career! Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 14, 2017 at 7:43 am #

    Nope, no contests. No point – even if I won or placed high, I wouldn’t mention it in advertising, because that would feel like ungentlemanly boasting.

    But that presupposes one’s writing being competitive to begin with.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 9:39 am #

      It’s always okay to mention contests wins in proposals! That’s not the same as trying to one-up your arrogant neighbor.

  7. Avatar
    Sami A. Abrams December 14, 2017 at 7:44 am #

    I entered the ACFW Genesis contest this year, and to my shock was a finalist. Being new to the writing scene, it gave me valuable feedback and encouragement to keep moving forward. However, I did find that at each stage of the contest, there was always one judge whose scores and comments were not consistent with the others. At first, it bothered me, but now I look back and take the information professionally, not personally.
    Having my writing validated was huge for me at this early stage in my writing journey. I will definitely continue entering contest for the feedback alone.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 9:40 am #

      Another example of how subjective contests are, simply because they are judged by humans! Glad you were a finalist!

  8. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh December 14, 2017 at 8:36 am #

    Interesting how subjectivity influences outcomes to some degree. I don’t have much to contribute about writing contests, but I’ve had the experience of being critiqued for my speaking at women’s events. The one or two negative remarks tend to be the ones we camp on rather than the positive, encouraging comments. One of the speakers was devastated by two of the comments she received, and they were unkindly said. I encouraged her to look objectively at them, own what was true, and then let the rest go and move on. The same could be said for writing contests, me thinks.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 9:42 am #

      I’ve read that a person has to receive at least ten compliments to counter one negative one. At least you had engaged the naysayers enough for them to care. It’s worse when everyone is apathetic, I think.

  9. Avatar
    Carol Ashby December 14, 2017 at 8:44 am #

    Entering my first Genesis contest before I knew what was expected in current writing styles was transforming. I rewrote all three from omniscient to limited 3rd person, and I credit that with making them perform better in the market. I can’t enter the published author competitions because my sales are only about half that required for an indie to qualify, but I might if I could. The feedback alone would probably make it worthwhile.

    Do the big contests for published authors give judge’s feedback, and are the judges in the first stage truly knowledgeable? I could have volunteered to judge Genesis when I knew practically nothing about what agents and publishers want.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 9:43 am #

      Since I’m not their contest coordinator, I am reluctant to speak for any contest. I recommend simply asking them!

  10. Avatar
    Joey Rudder December 14, 2017 at 8:54 am #

    Like so many others here, I entered the ACFW Genesis contest this year. I was thrilled when the call came that I was a semi-finalist but deeply discouraged when my journey ended there until I remembered what I’d told myself before entering: “No matter what happens, I’m going to win. If I don’t win in my category, I will still receive feedback that I can use to make my book stronger. So either way, I win.” 🙂

    Besides, I’m in this for the long haul. I not only want my book to be stronger, but I want to be a better writer. I believe the contest helped us “both” to grow. And for that I’m so thankful.

    Thanks for a great post, Tamela! God bless you.

  11. Avatar
    April Kidwell December 14, 2017 at 10:00 am #

    I was discouraged after entering a regional writing contest. I received some helpful comments, but on the flip side I ended up being quite confused. One judge complimented my grammar and mechanics in the points (with full points) and excellent comments. A second judge also gave a high score in grammar/mechanics. Yet the third judge gave the lowest possible score in the same category, complained that none of the guidelines were followed, and that the glaring mistakes meant it should never have been submitted. While it is possible I missed something in the guidelines, I meticulously checked and rechecked the criteria. Nor did the piece have grammar errors. It was all very strange and I’m hesitant to try again.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 10:21 am #

      Sometimes you wonder if you received the right critique. I wouldn’t stress over it at this point. Sorry that happened to you.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 10:22 am #

        Oh, and I recommend trying again! There are many good contests out there.

  12. Avatar
    CJ Myerly December 14, 2017 at 10:16 am #

    I’ve entered three contests this year, and it’s been so tough to put my work out there. It’s the first time I’ve ever done so. I semi-finaled in the Genesis contest, and finaled in the First Impressions contest. This has given me the best feedback I’ve ever received.

    I learned from those who understand the ins and outs of publishing what my strengths and weaknesses were. I haven’t been writing long, and I’m in it for the rest of my life. I had one very harsh critique which did hurt, but I think it also helps to toughen your skin. I made 2017 my year to learn more by joining the ACFW, becoming part of critique groups, taking courses, and entering contests. It’s all made such a difference! I can’t wait to learn even more in 2018.

  13. Avatar
    Joanne Reese December 14, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    I look forward to dipping my toe in when the time is right. One great thing about the publishing industry is that it provides us with a lifetime of learning. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us, Tamela.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

      Thank you, Joanne. And you are correct that it’s a good idea to wait for the right time. All best when you enter!

  14. Avatar
    Kelsey Anderson December 14, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

    I’ve had mixed results (and feelings) about contests. I entered into ACFW’s First Impressions last year, and although I wasn’t a finalist, I got really great scores along with compliments and very helpful feedback. But a few months later, I entered in a regional secular contest (in the inspirational category) with the same piece of writing I entered into First Impressions and did horrible. The feedback was more harsh than helpful, and one of the judges even used vulgar language in their feedback. Since then, I’ve been hesitant to enter into more contests.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 14, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

      It sounds like you may have inadvertently entered a contest that wasn’t a good fit for your work, despite posted guidelines. And certainly the “judge” you got wasn’t a good fit for you. I am so sorry to hear that. Perhaps I shouldn’t talk “big” since I’m not a contest coordinator, but I honestly don’t think I’d let a review with vulgarities get back to the author. As a minimum, I’d like to think I’d ask the judge to clean up the language and/or not ask that judge to participate in the future. Again, I’m so sorry. I have no idea what contest that was, but I truly feel there was no excuse in that.

      I think you would have a better experience with any of the Christian organizations. Keep at it!

  15. Avatar
    Stephanie Ray Johnson December 20, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

    Fifty two years ago when I was a precocious ten year old determined to become a famous artist, I entered the poster contest for our school library. While I have no recollection of my poster, I do remember my first place winnings. Three books which included, LAD: A DOG, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, and STUART LITTLE.
    Did that contest help me become a famous artist? Well, no. In fact this is the first time I have thought of it in fifty two years. It did, however, lift my spirits during a very difficult time in my life. My father had suddenly passed away, leaving my mother and me alone. Looking back I can see God’s hand through it all. That silly little contest encouraged me to push on, be productive in all of my talents, and most of all…to never, ever give up, which I haven’t. Now, after thirty-five years, I face another contest. A novel. It has taken many years to get here, but I still feel like that precocious ten year old.

  16. Avatar
    Jayna December 29, 2017 at 10:05 pm #

    I entered a general, secular “aspiring author” contest with no categories and clearly labled my entry “Inspirational Romance.” I won 2nd place. The “prize” was a 2 month mentorship with an author who has traditionally published 40+ books. We really clicked. It is a privilege to work with her and the entry fee was only $25.00. Well worth the price by any measure.

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