Writer's Notes

Writer’s Contests Do’s and Don’ts by Donna Schlachter

So you read about the latest contest, you snag a file from one of your computer folders, attach it, pay the entry fee, and sit back, waiting for THE CALL.

By Donna Schlachter


Mail Order Brides cover
Read Donna’s A Train Ride to Heartbreak inside!

So you read about the latest contest, you snag a file from one of your computer folders, attach it, pay the entry fee, and sit back, waiting for THE CALL. Because, after all, this is the best thing you’ve ever written—at least, that’s what your mother said three years ago when you showed it to her.
And then you get the news: you didn’t even final, let alone win. And the judges’ comment attached confirmed what you knew all along: the contest was a scam. These people just don’t get your writing style. They know nothing.
Or do they?
Writing contests are about as different as cats. Sure, all cats have claws and whiskers and they meow, but not all cats are the same. Some like to cuddle. Some like to romp. And some just don’t care whether you’re dead or alive so long as you feed them.
Writing contests are the same: some make you feel warm and fuzzy; some challenge you to do better; and some are only in it for the money.
How do we wade through the mire? Here’s a short and by no means exhaustive list of things to look for in a writing contest, as well as a list of suggestions for succeeding in contests.


Choosing a Contest:
1. What are you hoping to get out of it? Do you hope to win the grand prize, or simply get some feedback on the first 15 pages before you spend the next year writing the book?
2. If you want to win the grand prize, read the instructions that come with every contest. Sometimes cleverly disguised as Rules, these parameters tell you how to get past the gatekeeper.
3. Does this group hold more than one contest per year? If so, that might be their only business. Beware.
4. Does this contest promise publication to the winner? If so, beware. Nobody should guarantee publication because even a winner can be really badly written.
5. If the contest publishes a list of past winners, check them out. Are the authors now published? And is it with a traditional publisher or a vanity press? Many contests turn into tough sales pitches for every entrant, asking thousands of dollars for editing, cover design, book formatting, and the like.
6. Does your story really fit the genre? If you choose a category, make sure you choose wisely. Judges who read sci-fi simply won’t get your chick-lit book simply because you thought the competition might be less there.
7. Have you done more than pull out an old file and send it off? Read through, polish, edit, revise before hitting SEND. If you’ve lived more than fifteen minutes since you first wrote it, you’ve learned something about the craft of writing.
8. Do you recognize the names of any of the judges? Can you search for them online? Do they all work for the same company? Beware.
9. How does the scoring work? If there are three judges and all scores are included, you might end up with a lower score than if the lowest one is dropped and the other two averaged. Sometimes judges just don’t “get” the story, and that’s okay. Not all readers will “get” it, either. You shouldn’t be penalized because one out of three was having a bad day, or got buttonholed into judging sci-fi when they really like Amish mysteries.
10. Will you receive written feedback either in the form of judges’ comments or an evaluation sheet? This is sometimes worth more than the grand prize. Contests that seek to improve your writing are always the best place to invest your money and time.

Succeeding in a Contest
1. Read the rules.
2. Follow the rules EXACTLY. If the rules say 1/4 inch margin and quadruple spaced, do it. You don’t have to like it. They make the rules. They will judge your work based on your ability to follow instructions. Some of the judges might be editors, and they want to weed out writers who won’t do as they’re asked.
3. Choose your genre carefully. (See #6 above) Don’t expect the coordinator to read your submission and move it to the proper genre.
4. Check out the contest online first. There are several good places to check out contest scams, including:
5. Choose a contest associated with a conference you’re planning on attending. These are usually legitimate, and more likely to fit into your genre since you’re going there for a reason.
6. Choose a contest associated with a writing organization you’re already a member of. Same reasoning as #5.
7. Ask around for others’ experiences about contests they entered.
8. Consider the entry fee and whether it’s equitable for the potential win. A $15 entry fee with feedback for a $100 prize may sound high, but it’s a good deal for the feedback. A $45 entry fee where 10,000 authors entered last year is a good money-making effort with little chance of winning.
9. Consider where you are in your writing career. If you’re already published, contest opportunities are much fewer, and unless the contest is something really specific, such as Best of Arizona Military Fiction, you might be better off skipping it. If you’re pre-published, a win is a nice kudo in your bio and could attract an agent or an editor.

Whatever you decide about entering a contest or not, the real secret to success in writing is to keep reading. Keep writing. Look for ways to give back.
And if you win, invest the money back into your writing before you plan a vacation or a cruise or buy a new car. Unless, of course, your next book requires that kind of research (smile).


Schlachter DSCF1330_DonnaAbout Donna:
Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick, her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts. She is a hybrid author who has published a number of books under her pen name and under her own name. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Sisters In Crime; facilitates a local critique group, and teaches writing classes and courses. Donna is also a ghostwriter and editor of fiction and non-fiction, and judges in a number of writing contests. She loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is proud to be represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management. Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!
Other Books: Amazon: and Smashwords:

About A Train Ride to Heartbreak:

October 1895
Mary Johannson has scars on her body that can’t compare with the scars on her heart. She is alone in the world, with no family, no prospects, and no home.

John Stewart is at his wit’s end. His wife of three years died in childbirth, leaving him with a toddler and an infant, both girls. Theirs was the love of fairy tales, and while he has no illusions about finding another like her, his children need a mother.

Though separated by thousands of miles, they commit to a mail-order marriage. But on their journey to Heartbreak, they meet another and realize the life they’d planned would be a lie. Can they find their way back from the precipice and into the love of God and each other, or are they destined to keep their word and deny their heart?

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By Thonie Hevron

Mysteries to keep you reading through the night.

15 replies on “Writer’s Contests Do’s and Don’ts by Donna Schlachter”

Great advice … could have done with knowing a few more of those points a decade ago … but I think I’ve caught up now.

Great article and good overview of the book. Thank you for this information and the giveaway opportunity.

Personally, I like to close my eyes and squeeze the trigger. Several times, though, the barrel has pointed toward my foot. Yours were excellent and realistic points for those who look for recognition from savvy readers.

Welcome to Thonie's world!