Monday, October 26, 2015

Surviving Writing Contests

I started entering writing contests in April 2009 and within the past (almost) 6 years, I’ve filled out about twenty-five different contest forms. Some responses were good. Some were not. And some just hurt me like  a kick to the gut.

But like a masochist, I sent out more.

What have a learned through this process?

Becoming a published author is not for the faint of heart!

These critiques built my endurance, toughened my hide, and helped prepare me for the tougher critiques, edits, and reviews ahead. It was kind of like those Braxton Hicks contractions before labor. Either they help your body prepare for the massive pain of childbirth, or they give you a false sense of security about how little pain you are going to have :-)

Critiques are a bit of a litmus test to your writing readiness – and the more I expose myself to the instructive critique of others, the more I prepare my heart for the publishing world.

Ciphering out truth is a wonderful teaching tool.

After the initial shock and near-trauma, digging through those critiques for truthful nuggets of insight can make you a better writer. I saw patterns of bad writing habits, I’d never seen before. One critique said my heroine wasn’t likeable (gasp) – so I broke apart the character to figure out what might bring her more to ‘life’.

Those comments made me reevaulate my story – and make it STRONGER!!

Fact and Opinion are NOT the same thing

Judges are people too. They have a favorite genre they write or read, varying perspectives, and personal opinions. All of those things play a part in the critiques they give. Weeding through the comments to find what areas you might need to work on is a big deal – especially if you want to grow as a writer.

I’ve found that if more than one judge mentions the same thing, then maybe I should take a honest look at that particular piece of my story. But if only one judge makes a comment, which seems more renegade to me, then I’ll read what they have to say – measure it against the other comments and my own understandings, check with a crit partner, then make a decision from there. Some things are fact, but some things are opinion. I am the one (or my editor) who has the final say.

Purpose matters

Why do we enter contests? The answer to that question really  makes a difference on what you’ll get out of them. If it’s to win that cute little pendant…well, that’s certainly something.
If it’s to be published –  that’s a BIG goal, but in all actuality publication through contest entry is not in high percentages. But…
entering contest to get your manuscript in front of editor is still a FABULOUS idea – and gives your name exposure.

 If it’s to learn and grow as a writer- you’ll almost always achieve this goal from contests.
I want to become a better writer. Contests have helped do that in so many ways. I’ve won a few along the way, but the best part has been the process of improvement from my first comments to the ones I’m expecting at the end of this month.

Laughing at myself, or not taking myself too seriously is an important goal

Yes, we send our precious little stories out into a cruel world – but no one forces us to. My granny used to say “Advice not asked for is advice not wanted.” – but when we enter a contest, we’re basically ASKING for advice. It may not always come in the form we expect, but we can learn from many of the comments we receive (not all).

And having a good attitude about it, PLUS placing the whole situation into perspective helps. I had to do this so I wouldn’t keep getting upset about the comments. This is one small piece of your writing in one very small part of your life.  Laughing, learning, and looking ahead help manage the disappointment that negative comments can bring (plus LOADS of good chocolate – NEVER underestimate the power of very good chocolate)

What have you learned from entering contests? How have you grown as a writer?

Pepper Basham is an award-winning author who writes romance peppered with grace and humor. She currently resides in the lovely mountains of Asheville, NC where she is the mom of 5 great kids, speech-pathologist to about fifty more, lover of chocolate, jazz, and Jesus, and proud AlleyCat over at a group writing blog, The Writer’s Alley. Her debut historical romance novel, The Thorn Bearer, released in May 2015, with the second arriving in February 2016. Her first contemporary romance debuts in spring 2016. You can connect with Pepper on her website at, Facebook- or Twitter at


Michelle said...

Entering contests is great as long as you keep it all in perspective. What a great way to learn! The most helpful thing was finding common streams of content in the judges' comments and making changes on those things.

Unknown said...

Contests are a great learning tool. When I started entering contests, the ones I had to pay to enter taught me to buckle down and edit with precision. Sometimes the feedback is thrilling and other times it is a head scratcher. I once had a judge mention I used the word "said" too much. In over 7000 words, I used it twice...near the end of the story. Just goes to show the ending can be the only lasting impression to some.

Susanne Dietze said...

Great post, Pepper. Contests can be a great way to see what works in our writing and what doesn't...but it's important to know how to filter the judges' opinions, too. It's such a blessing to receive an entry back when it's obvious the judge has devoted thought and effort into trying to help the author. I'm so grateful for those judges.

That said, I've also received back entries and headed to the backyard for a good cry. I learned from that, too!

Pepper Basham said...

Totally true for me too. That's how the contests became productive more than punitive ;-)

Pepper Basham said...

Whoa, Sarah! Are you serious? But I think that may also speak to how some judges' comments must be taken with a grain of salt.

Pepper Basham said...

Backyard crying has worked for me too. And I think that's part of the process especially if the words are true! The purging and refilling our writing with good stuff isn't always easy
I know it hasn't been for me and I still have A LOT to learn!

Thanks so much for stopping by!