Here’s the Drill: Five Ways a Contest Entry Can Hone a Novel, Part 1

What are contests good for? They often cost money, and might seem like they’re taking time away from writing time. Are they really worthwhile?

Think about it this way. A writing contest is like a fire drill. It’s good practice for the moment an agent or editor says, “Send me the manuscript.” Each contest entry is honing a writer’s professional skills.

Hear are the five ways I’ve found contests help me to be a better writer:

Polishing. The first job is to edit and re-edit the entry (which consists of part or all of the first chapter, and sometimes a synopsis). A critique group can really help here. It’s difficult for writers to view their work objectively.

Formatting. Usually, manuscript samples are formatted with one-inch margins, double-spaced, in 12-point Courier or Times New Roman. Double-check before hitting “send”. Some contests ask for a synopsis to be single-spaced, others prefer double-spacing.

Following. Guidelines, that is. Just like formatting, contest planners ask for entries to be sent a specific way. Usually the writer’s name is kept off the entry, to ensure objective judging. Some submissions are sent via email, while others are requested by snail mail. Physical entries usually mean multiple copies are sent. With email entries, some organizations want the chapter and synopsis in one file. Read the instructions carefully, and get advice if they seem daunting.

Waiting. This is a good skill for all writers to develop, as the publishing process takes even more time than contest judging. During the wait, try to keep writing and learning.

Reacting. When those score sheets arrive, take a deep breath. Just like an author receiving a revision letter, writers won’t like every comment. Realize that these are opinions, but take some time to let the advice sink in. And if it’s allowed, write thank you notes to the judges. Remember that they did this for free.

Choose a contest carefully. Most contests have score sheets that give specific feedback. This is valuable information for writers trying to figure out what they’re doing right and what they need to work on. If I’m going to spend money on a contest, I’d like to know how I’m doing.

On the next three Mondays, I’ll be posting examples of what contest judges are looking for. Part 2 will focus on aspects of the story itself. Part 3 covers the synopsis, and Part 4 examines the overall features that can make or break a novel.

What has been your experience with contests? Good or bad? Let us know in the comments.


  1. Interesting Post, I have only entered a couple of contests but maybe I will reconsider.

  2. I've learned so much, and it can be so encouraging when a publishing professional gives you a compliment (even though not everything is perfect).


  3. Great points, Debbie. I'd also add that contests are a way to help set and make a deadline :-) I entered two contests recently. Not holding my breath--but hoping!

  4. You're absolutely right. Also, since some contests have a theme, they can also jumpstart a new story. My current novel started out as a contest submission.




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