Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Angst of Writing Contests

by Edie Melson @EdieMelson

We’ve just announced the finalists in the Selah award contest in conjunction with the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, so writing contests are on my mind. Over the past 24-hours I’ve done everything from congratulate to commiserate with writers who entered, and it’s made me consider how I view contests—and how I should view contests.

It’s easy for me to be unbiased when it comes to this particular contest because I’m not allowed to enter it. My co-director, DiAnn Mills and I, along with contest director, Eva Marie Everson, set the contest up that way on purpose to protect the integrity of the judging. 

Before you jump to any conclusions, NO we don’t have anything to do with the judging for this contest. We really don’t have much to do with it at all. We leave that up to the amazing Eva Marie Everson. She does an amazing job, including protecting this contest with the ferociousness of a she-wolf defending her young. And to be clear, she doesn’t do any of the judging either. She pulls in readers to give their honest opinions about the books entered. We don’t allow editors or agents or anyone else with connections to specific parts of the industry take part in the judging. 

But readers are fickle—and opinionated. What one likes, another dislikes. And that is what’s at the heart of this post. Entering a writing contest isn’t like solving a math problem for the right answer, it’s subjective and unpredictable.

Enter the Angst
Fact 1: Good books don’t always win. Sometimes they don’t even make the finalist list. 

Fact 2: What we may consider as “poor books” sometimes win and make the finalist list. 

Conclusion: Writing contests aren’t FAIR.

Now the Truth
Writing contests aren’t fair. Yep I said it—and I’ll go one step further. Very little about the publishing world is fair. It’s a subjective industry full of unpredictable people. But just because a contest isn’t fair, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. 

Let’s look at the concept of fairness. It’s something we learned about in Kindergarten and while it had purpose there, it pretty much skewed our perception of how things should be. 

Truthfully, life isn’t fair. 

So why enter a contest if it’s not going to give us a fair shot? But that’s another misconception. Contests really do give authors a pretty fair shot. We do everything we can to limit the biases and equal the playing field. But we’re part of a subjective industry, so the end results don’t always appear fair. 

To find the value in entering contests, we must look beyond just winning and losing.

Onto the Value
Value #1: Experience submitting your work without knowing the outcome. It’s good practice for submitting our work for publication. 

Value #2: Visibility. Even if we don’t win, there are judges who see our work. Many contracts have come from a judge seeing a writer’s work—whether it won or not.

Value #3: The possibility of winning. 

Acknowledging the Emotions
Entering a writing contest does engage our emotions, no matter how much we try to keep it from happening. There’s nothing wrong with getting excited when we win, or sad when we don’t. The important thing is to keep our perspective. Winning or not winning a contest won’t make or break us. Publishing is a journey. It has highs and lows, as well as easy times and difficult ones. 

Publishing is also a career and/or ministry choice for many of us. When that’s the case, we need to remain professional in all our dealings. Calling out a contest and labeling it as unfair won’t change the system, but it will make us look petty and unprofessional. Rubbing a win in the faces of others has the same negative impact on our publishing goals. 

Bottom Line
Go ahead a take a chance and enter the contests that appeal to you. Increase the odds by following the directions exactly and make sure the contest you’re entering is a good fit for the writing you’ve done. Then sit back and enjoy the ride. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t, but good will come out of the experience, no matter what. 

These are my thoughts on entering contests. I’d love to know yours. Be sure to leave a comment in the section below. 

And don’t forget to join the conversation!


Edie Melson is a woman of faith with ink-stained fingers observing life through the lens of her camera. No matter whether she’s talking to writers, entrepreneurs, or readers, her first advice is always “Find your voice, live your story.” As an author, blogger, and speaker she’s encouraged and challenged audiences across the country and around the world. Her numerous books reflect her passion to help others develop the strength of their God-given gifts and apply them to their lives. Connect with her on her website,  through FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


  1. Edie,

    I love the honest insight about contests (and the publishing world in general). Thank you.

    Get a FREE copy of the 11th Publishing Myth

  2. Great points Ms. Edie. Everything we write is not intended for everyone. My target audience is, I should think, very different from yours ma'am. Our goal should not be to please everyone, but it should share the common goal of helping them find more meaning and a closer walk. In the same way, not every judge of every writing contest will view our work in the same way. Still, I thank you and your team for giving us all an opportunity to be viewed. God's blessings.

  3. Every word you say is true, Edie. I've been on both sides of more contests than I can count. I've won and not even placed. BUT (you notice the big but) I've learned more from the losses than form the wins. As a judge, I work hard to teach, turning any negatives comments into moments of how it might be better. Then, after a few minutes (or hours) of cabinet-kicking, the contestant can go back and glean the good.

  4. Edie - Your timing, insights,and truths could not be more relevant for me. As a former frequent contest entrant in my guild, I've struggled. With winning, when I pondered way too long over why mine was chosen over another. And with losing when everything I "knew" told me that mine was better than the entries that were ranked higher. In our juried writing contests, we have 1st, 2nd, & 3rd places in each of 10 contest categories. The worst outcome for me has been having a piece chosen 2nd between only 2 entries. I've spent waaaaayy too much time pondering "how would it have stood up if there had been 3 entries - or more?" Never once considering that perhaps another judge might have chosen mine first out of a dozen entries. I'm now the Contest Chair and push members to enter as many categories as possible in order to get the most value from our bi-annual contests. I also encourage entering other contests - local and national. As an honorary member and valued speaker, your wisdom and words are cherisned by our entire membership. I'll be reading this blogpost aloud at our March meeting in preparation for our Spring Writing Contest. I'll add a few relevant examples and comments for some of our specefic categories. Your message will impact the 20+ journeys of all fortunate enough to be there. Thanks for sharing your wisdom about keeping a good perspective and focusing on the good that can come from the entire experience.
    Jay Wright; Foothills Writers Guild; Anderson, SC

  5. My favorite part of entering contests is knowing that the submission fee goes toward a scholarship for someone who might be contemplating attending a conference but perhaps can't find the funding to do so. At one of my first conferences, I received a partial scholarship for a "first-timer" at that conference, and it was instrumental in me being able to afford to go at that point in my life. I vowed then to give back to others by way of scholarships, and I've tried to do that often. Knowing that I'm blessing someone is great, and then a possible placement in the contest becomes a bonus!!