Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.
Among writers, I've noticed two schools of thought about writing contests.
Writing contests are extremely helpful and can be great exposure.
Writing contests are a waste of time and money because you don't know who your judges will be.
And my opinion is, "I agree."
Writing contests can be extremely helpful. They can get your manuscript in front of great writers, agents, even editors. Even if they don't do that, you can get great, unbiased feedback from published writers that will help strengthen your story.
They can also be a waste of time because sometimes (often?) big contests are desperate for first round judges and you wind up with someone who has no clue about your genre trying to tell you how to write your book.
So ... what's a writer to do?
This is purely my opinion, so don't take this as industry scripture or anything, but I feel that if you're an aspiring writer and you're ready to query agents or editors, it's a good idea to start with a writing contest. Here's why:
- Writing contests scrub your name from the pages. Which means the judges know only your words and your genre. You won't get special treatment because you're young or because you're a relative or because you're friends. All biases are removed.
- If something isn't working in your first chapters, your judges may have great advice on how to change it. Which might help you land an agent or editor. (This is what happened for me with my debut novel, Me, Just Different. I took the advice of the judges, and an agent who I'd previously queried loved the changes and wanted to represent me.)
- Contests are good practice for receiving, accepting, processing, and applying criticism. When Me, Just Different didn't do so great in the contest, it was very hard for me. But handling that criticism was an important skill for me to develop.
- With big contests, there are multiple rounds. If your entry advances to the next round, your book will be in front of an agent or editor. This means you'll at least be getting feedback from them, and you'll possibly gain representation or a contract from it. (I've seen both happen - though I've also seen manuscripts win contests and never get published. So...)
How do you know which contests to enter?
You can do a Google search for writing contests, writing contests for teens, historical romance writing contests. Whatever. You'll get approximately a zillion results.
If it were me, I would start with a writer's organization. Romance Writers of America does a contest every year for unpublished writers, as does American Christian Fiction Writers, and others as well. (If you know of others, please share in the comments below!) With writers organizations, there's usually the big contests, and then when you join you find out about contests done by regional chapters as well.
Writers Digest has a bunch of annual competitions, Scholastic has one just for teens and Amazon has one as well.
Contests cost money, so you'll want to consider that when you decide which ones and how many to enter. You'll also want to look at who the final round judges are. If it's an agent or editor you'd be interested in, then that might be a good contest for you. And I recommend only entering contests where the first round judging is done by multiple people as opposed to just one person.
And now for a word of caution.
Writing contests require a tremendous amount of volunteers. And often the people in charge of the contests are desperate for people to help get these entries read. They do their best to make sure they have good judges, but...
In The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet when Ellie is trying to decide if she should enter a writing contest or not, her mentor, Bronte, is firmly against it and she puts it this way, "There are so many people who enter that AFW" (a fake writing organization) "has to scrape the barrel for first round judges. Which means you might have some old fuddy-duddy writer who's never read a single young adult book and doesn't appreciate your lovely, young voice. Therefore they give you low marks, bad advice, and you pay forty dollars for the privilege."
There's truth in Bronte's words, and it's something a lot of first time contest entrants don't realize. (I certainly didn't realize it!) And this is why if you choose to invest money in a contest, I recommend one with multiple first round judges. Just in case.
Do you have additional thoughts on writing contests you'd like to share? Have you had good experiences? Bad experiences? Have a contest you're curious about? Leave your thoughts below!