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I’ve read my fellow Riskies’ posts on contests with avid interest this week. I saw Diane win the Golden Heart AND the RITA at the RWA National Conference, and felt a vicarious thrill that my Beau Monde friends have done so well.

Me, I’ve never won any contest. In fact, I’ve usually ended up somewhere below the halfway mark in anything I’ve entered.

But I still believe strongly that they are helpful for unpublished writers, no matter where you place. Let me explain drawing, as always, on my own experiences.

When I entered the Beau Monde’s Royal Ascot, I thought I would final. I really did. This, despite my entry being THE FIRST THING I HAD EVER WRITTEN. This, despite knowing nothing of the caliber of writing from my fellow contestants. Shows how naive I was. I entered, I did not even come close to finaling, and I got my first taste of rejection. And then I read through the judges’ score sheets. I went through my files recently and threw out all but one of those score sheets, so I can’t quote what they said, but the judges who didn’t like my work that much had excellent feedback as to just why they didn’t like it. I listened, I edited, and I improved my manuscript and my writing knowledge. I thought those didn’t-like-it-as-much judges were dead-on in their criticism, and it was really helpful to get. (small pointer: I judge now, and I seldom receive thank you notes. I always send thank you notes to all my judges, even from the rotten scoring ones. I think that’s a courtesy that resonates.)

And then there was the judge who loved me. I got the highest score she bestowed that year, and in addition to my score sheet, she included a separate, single-spaced sheet of paper that started with this:

OK, here’s the deal. You are going to be published one day, probably soon. I feel it in my bones.

The judge went on to detail what she saw as the problems in my manuscript–again, she was dead-on (and I STILL info-dump! Megan, will you never learn?!?). And she was right! I took all the comments, sat on them in my head for awhile (and no, that’s not a visual you want to think about too much), and edited.

And then I sold the following year.

I entered a few other contests with one subsequent story, and again got excellent feedback, even though I was a mile away from finaling.

In my case, the key to finding a benefit to contests was being humble enough to realize I didn’t know everything about my story, or everything about my writing. Even if I ultimately disagreed with what a judge wrote, I had to treat it as a legitimate criticism, and think of ways to respond.

It all made my writing better.

I entered the RITA, and once again got three judges who loved my book, and a few more who were ‘meh,’ on it, and two who really disliked it. I decided not to enter my published work in anything but the RITA since those kinds of contests wouldn’t give me the feedback I wanted (the RITA I had to enter, just in case. I knew I wouldn’t final, but I had to know for sure).

So while Janet would say she entered contests to final, and Diane got hooked on the thrill of doing really well, and Elena’s a self-proclaimed contest slut (and I would be, too, if I finaled as much as she did!), I think the opportunity for someone to read your work who doesn’t know you and give you constructive feedback is incredible. Of course you’re going to get people who fuss about your margins, or tell you your hero isn’t heroic enough. If you can separate the wheat from the chaff, your writing will improve, even if your contest finaling percentage does not.

And I am so, so grateful to that one judge. And all the judges who took the time to analyze my story and my writing, and let me know what worked, and what didn’t.