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Spring and Writing Contests

It’s Spring! This is the time of year that the 2015 nominees for the RITA® and Golden Heart® contests are announced. Having been a 2013 Golden Heart nominee, I know how exciting it is to get that early morning call. Congratulations to all of the 2015 nominees. Yay!

This is the first year I have the privilege of judging the Rita contest. I was given seven books to judge. All of them were not in my genre, so it was a blast to read some books I never would’ve read otherwise. Six out of the seven were amazing books. One book, however, could have benefited from more feedback before it was published.

Which leads me to RWA-sponsored writing contests. First off, let me say everyone’s experience is different. For me, these contests were invaluable as a method to learn the craft of writing. I decided to write a book late in life and had no previous experience writing fiction, so a large quantity of feedback seemed an efficient way to learn.

There are many advantages of contests: lots of feedback, introduction to agents and editors via requests, supporting RWA chapters, and learning craft through judging yourself. The drawbacks can include the price, snarky feedback, no feedback, or inaccurate feedback. The overall lesson is: you are the person who must extract what you can use/learn from the feedback and what to ignore.

Here are the estimated percentages of the type of feedback I found helpful.

1. Professional editors: Percentage of craft I learned from these editors is about 1-5 percent. Since these were editors that worked in the business, they evaluated my ms. in the same manner as an acquisition. As a result, I learned very little except for the subjective side of editorial.

2. Classes: I took about ten online and local writing classes. Two online classes are responsible for teaching me the in-depth techniques of writing craft. I never would have been published without this training. The difficulty with classes is evaluating them and finding one that is a good fit with your needs. So I’d estimate 20-25% of my craft was learned from online classes.

3. RWA-sponsored contests. Before I was published, I received 70-75% of my knowledge of writing from contest feedback. Why? I estimated almost 70 people (published and nonpublished authors) gave me feedback. It’s this large number of judges that taught me craft. Bless their keyboards.

Here are a few examples from my contest experience.

1. One lady typed out two, single-spaced pages describing my writing style and individual critiques on how I might fix the problem areas. Clearly, I owe this lady my first-born.

2. One lady commented that, “There are no oak trees in England.” She and her husband drove all over the UK and they never saw an oak tree (unlike me, this woman is not a C-Span addict for Parliamentary debates and never saw all of that lovely oak paneling in the House of Commons). Now while her observation is wrong, her other comments were helpful.

3. Of these 70 or more judges, I received about 2 snarky responses. Since I cannot assume their motivations, I ignored them. Although, it’s a good, slap-in-the-face type of training for when your book gets harsh reviews and good training for your husband when you point out the injustice of the universe.

So if I ever had the privilege to give an award speech, I would say, “I’d like to thank all of the people who generously donated the gift of their time to judge contests.”

So what is your experience with contests?


  1. I also learned a lot from contests when I started out. Classes and workshops helped a lot too, but after a while you need specific critiques of your own work.

    1. I understand contests are on the wane. I hope not. You're right, it's valuable when you start out.

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