Writing Contests: Panacea or Waste?


At a recent conference, a lovely writer who had finaled in a contest but wasn’t chosen as the winner asked if she could still submit a proposal to me. I told her “Yes! Of course!”

Her question brought to mind the role contests play in a writer’s career. I’m asked questions about contests at least once a month. I’ll try to answer two key questions here.

Should I Enter?

When considering whether to enter a contest, think about your career goals. Does the contest make sense for the type of book you write? A quick look at past winners may give you a clue as to the value of the particular contest for you. If you write science fiction but the winners are consistently writers of Westerns, then another contest makes more sense for you. Also, look at the prestige of the contest. Will being a finalist or even a winner be of benefit to you? Winning or being a finalist in large contests such as the ACFW Genesis contest for new authors, an ACFW Carol Award for published authors, or an RWA Rita Award gives an author credibility with publishers and the marketplace. Other contests that authors can enter on their own offer prestige. Some contests such as the The Christy Awards or The Christian Book Awards can only be entered through an author’s publisher.  Do your own research and ask your agent for guidance on which contests to enter. Consider your budget, time, and how many copies of your book you have available to devote to contests.

Will a contest win guarantee publication for a new author?

No. Granted, a contest final or win may put you near the top of an agent or editor’s slush pile. However, just because an entry gains contest recognition doesn’t mean the project is right for the current market. Eligible contest entries are judged regardless of quality. Obviously the best go to the top. But even the most outstanding writing may not be able to overcome market considerations. If you are a contest winner but can’t understand why this recognition hasn’t resulted in a contract after vigorous submitting, the best advice I can offer is to work on a different project that is closer to the type of work finding success in the current market. Keep up the fine level of writing but tweak so you can find your place in the market. When editors and agents offer advice on how to do that, take it. Contest recognition offers you a degree of name recognition in the industry. What you do with that recognition is up to you.

Your turn…

Share your contest experience. Did a win or final in a contest help you? Which contests do you recommend for both fiction and nonfiction?

And if you want another perspective on writing contests make sure to read Carolyn Howard-Johnson for further insights.






21 Responses to Writing Contests: Panacea or Waste?

  1. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan October 13, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    I’ve entered some writing contests, usually through Writers Digest. These contests are not book submissions, but for shorter works and some are writing exercises. The experiences have been great and I have learned and grown in the process. I highly recommend writing contests — as long as they do not detract from your other projects!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 13, 2011 at 6:06 am #

      Good point, Peter. Staying focused is key to success. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Avatar
    Richard Mabry October 13, 2011 at 6:13 am #

    Tamela, You raise a great question. Look at the contest–what it offers aside from the honor of winning or placing. If you’re still knocking on the door of publication, look for one where you’ll get feedback on your work. As a neophyte, I entered my novel in the Genesis contest. I was discouraged when I received the evaluations, but after I stopped pouting and put down the pint of Blue Bell ice cream I’d used to comfort myself, I realized the judges had pointed out some very pertinent areas where my writing needed work.

  3. Avatar
    gina welborn October 13, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    I love writing contests . . . and I say as an entrant, as a judge, and as a coordinator. 😀

    While not all judges are at the top of their game, every judge I’ve had has taught me something that has helped me along the path, although I am convinced *judging* contests has helped me understand craft more than being an entrant has.

    Lots of pros to entering. Few cons.

    The biggest con is becoming so focused on finaling/winning that you never finish a manuscript or revise the same one over and over and over and over and over and so on. I’m guilty of the latter, not the former.

    The biggest pro for me came after my manuscript finaled in RWA’s Golden Heart. A snazzy, beautiful, my-kind-of-gal-agent offered me representation.

  4. Avatar
    TC Avey October 13, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    I haven’t given much thought to contests, you have given me something to think about.

  5. Avatar
    Loree Huebner October 13, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    You’ve given me something to think about here.

    I liked Dr. Mabry’s honest comment about the judges pointing out areas where his writing needed work at the time. To get such a professional critique would be worth it.

    Great post.

  6. Avatar
    Lindsay Harrel October 13, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    Thanks for the post, Tamela. To be honest, I had wondered whether contests were worth entering.

    What is the best way to find out what work is having success in the current market?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 13, 2011 at 11:06 am #

      Lindsay, you pose an excellent question. In fact, you have inspired me to respond in a future blog post. Stay tuned. I’m pretty sure the answer will post next Thursday.

  7. Avatar
    Anita Mae Draper October 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    Well, since you asked…

    This year alone I’ve semi-finaled in the Genesis, finaled in 3 more contests, and would’ve finaled in 2 more if they had taken just one more placing. I only entered these contests because I wanted to get my manuscript in front of the specific final judges.

    Has it helped my writing career?

    Industry-wise, no. I’m still without an agent and I don’t have a publishing contract although there’s been interest shown in both areas.

    Feedback-wise, yes. Most of the feedback I’ve received raised my manuscript to a higher level and I’m very thankful for the people who committed their time to judging the contests.

    However, I’m also aware that contests are subjective and that taking the well-meaning advice of too many opinions could wreak havoc with your own voice. Yes, I’ve done that by trying to improve a contest-finaling manuscript until I no longer liked the result and apparently neither did the subsequent judges.

    The negative side of contests is when you’ve done well and your peers say, now you’re going places, etc and then nothing happens. Slowly their cheers fade and they don’t speak of it and you feel like a woman who’s suffered through a miscarriage. That’s the hard part. Not the keep-writing part, but the keep-smiling part.

    Which contest would I recommend? – Whichever one gets you in front of the publishing house or agent you want to work with. If you’re unpublished and you’re entering for prestige, then the Genesis and/or Golden Heart. And that’s not even a given. Of the 83 writers in the Historical Romance category in this year’s Genesis, 13 of us semi-finaled. Of those, only 2 – perhaps 3 – have signed publishing contracts and 2 of those were the Genesis finalists. The Golden Heart should be interesting this year.

  8. Avatar
    Keli Gwyn October 15, 2011 at 6:11 am #

    I’m a huge fan of contests. I entered many in my early days and learned heaps from my generous contest judges. Three years into my journey I used that feedback to rewrite one of my earlier manuscripts. I entered it in several contests, and it did very well, garnering me requests for fulls from editors and agents, one of whom offered me representation and subsequently sold the story. My debut novel will release in July, and that wouldn’t be the case had I not entered those contests.

  9. Avatar
    Deanne Durrett October 15, 2011 at 10:19 am #

    Thanks for this blog and the comments.

    I have entered only one contest and I found the judges comments helpful with enough encouragement to pull me through their criticism. However, I was selective as I used the negatives to revise my manuscript. I sure it’s better. I am planning to enter other contests for the judges’ comments.

  10. Avatar
    Trish Perry October 15, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    I ended up signing with my agent as a result of a contest I entered. That agent would be Tamela Hancock Murray! And I can honestly say that one change in my status made all the difference in getting my publishing career off the ground. I still enter contests and have finaled and/or won in several. I like to be able to post those placements underneath my novels on my website’s books page, along with positive industry reviews.

  11. Avatar
    Janice LaQuiere October 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    As a person who entered the Pillsbury Bake-Off contest when I was 10, I have to say I like contests. I have both entered and judged writing contests. I have won the Genesis and the Dixie First Chapter. As a contestant, a contest gives me the opportunity to assess my own skill level, if I do final I get a “professional” critique and it puts my work in front of editors. As a judge, I have the opportunity to make comments that will hopefully take a writer to the “next level” in their writing.

  12. Avatar
    Virginia October 16, 2011 at 12:26 am #

    This was my first year to enter contests and I would say it was useful. The first two contests I entered, my ms had very low scores and both sets of judges mentioned the same issues. I thre out the first three chapters and I think the book is better for it! Meanwhile, I started working on a new ms.
    I finaled in three contests: The Tara, the Fab Five, and the Golden Pen. That was a huge encouragement! It let me know I was going in the right direction, which is historical. The new ms is finished and although I still don’t have an agent, it seems a lot closer than when I was typing away this time last year!
    I also learned to research the names of the final judges and see if any of my manscripts would be something they might like to see.
    I’d say it was definitely worth the risk and the cost!

  13. Avatar
    Sherri Shackelford October 16, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    I remember having experiences similar to Anita Mae’s. I was finaling in contests, but not receiving requests. For me, a new project in a totally different genre was the answer. (Of course, the answer is different for everyone!)

    I received my first sale (and discovered a wonderful agent) from a contest entry, so it CAN happen!

  14. Avatar
    MGalloway October 17, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    What about the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book contest? Would doing well in something like that interest an agent?

  15. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray October 17, 2011 at 3:00 pm #

    Wow, what great comments! Authors are right to enter contests that may put their work in front of the agents and editors they want to work with. As Trish pointed out, I have the privilege of working with her as the result of a contest. We had already met and her entry was anonymous but when I saw the first lines of her work, I said, “If this author doesn’t have an agent, I’ve got to offer representation!” I was delighted to discover that author was none other than Trish Perry. Such magic doesn’t happen often but I’m glad when it does!

  16. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray October 17, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Regarding self-published works, as Steve Laube says, “Content is king.” A contest win like this one confirms that the material is worth a serious look, but a number of factors enter into our decisions.


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